The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Concerns grow about whether consumers will spend as economy weakness spreads

Holiday spending this year is expected to increase about 4 percent, to $730 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. But the trade group warns that economic uncertainty could affect consumers' plans. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The economy is showing growing signs of weakening on multiple fronts, with manufacturing already in decline and new questions about whether consumers will continue to serve as a bulwark for growth.

The National Retail Federation warned Thursday that economic uncertainty, new tariffs and fluctuations in the stock market could derail Americans’ spending plans in the run-up to the holidays. Consumers have been a bright spot in an otherwise flagging economy, and economists say this holiday season will be another test of their resilience.

“The U.S. economy is continuing to grow, and consumer spending is still the primary engine behind that growth,” said Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation. “Nonetheless, there has clearly been a slowdown brought on by considerable uncertainty around issues including trade, interest rates, global risk factors and political rhetoric. Confidence could be eroded by continued deterioration of these and other variables.”

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The bad news has been piling up lately: U.S. manufacturing has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, while the services sector is at its weakest level in three years, according to data released by the Institute for Supply Management this week. Markets retreated Tuesday and Wednesday in a two-day plunge that wiped out more than 3 percent of the stock market. Job growth is slowing, and auto sales are contracting after seven years of brisk growth.

And although the unemployment rate remains low — at 3.7 percent — economists say it could begin to inch up if companies cut back on hiring. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose during the last week in September, according to Labor Department figures released Thursday. Monthly jobs data for September is scheduled to be released Friday morning.

“Investors will be looking for further evidence of economic weakness in the labor market, which makes [Friday’s jobs] report that much more important," said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management. "There are signs that trade-related tensions may have a broader impact on the overall economy.”

Even so, many consumers continue to feel good about their personal finances, according to the National Retail Federation’s chief economist.

The question now, he said, is whether political uncertainty will offset their “willingness and ability to spend this holiday season.” Nearly 80 percent of consumers surveyed by the group said they were concerned that tariffs could lead to price increases and affect their shopping plans.

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The Trump administration’s months-long trade war with China continues to loom over the holiday season. Although consumers have been largely shielded from earlier rounds of tariffs, retailers say they may soon have little choice but to pass on cost increases on clothing, shoes, toys and electronics. More than $110 billion worth of Chinese goods were hit with a 15 percent tariff Sept. 1. An additional $160 billion in imports, including laptops, cellphones and video game consoles, will be taxed beginning in mid-December.

Those new tariffs are expected to raise the price of toys by 17 percent, shoes by 8 percent, clothing by 5 percent, and furniture and televisions by 4 percent, according to a report by Trade Partnership Worldwide, prepared for the National Retail Federation.

“None of these retailers want to pass on any cost to consumers if they can avoid it,” Shay said on a call with reporters Thursday. “All are hoping that we’re going to find a constructive way to address these issues and resolve our trade disputes.”

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Overall, the trade group expects holiday retail sales to increase between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent from last year, to about $730 billion. Online sales are expected to increase as much as 14 percent, to $167 billion, according to the NRF.

Holiday spending grew 2.1 percent last year, markedly lower than the NRF’s original forecast of about 4.5 percent. The group attributed that “unusually small” showing to the government shutdown, stock market volatility and tariffs.

“There are probably very few precedents for this uncertain macroeconomic environment,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the NRF. “There is significant economic unease.”