Blame it on the taxman. After U.S. consumer spending slowed early this year, observers were quick to note that the Internal Revenue Service had been unusually late in mailing out tax refunds and that final tax payments in April by people with liabilities were up significantly over 1994 (BW--June 5).

Now, however, the taxman has coughed up. Economists at Salomon Brothers Inc. observe that a record $8.8 billion worth of personal refunds were issued on the final Friday of May--enough to push the monthly tally 50% above 1994. Since many folks don't wait for their expected checks to start shopping, Solly's experts doubt if the refund surge will boost retail sales much. But they're keeping their fingers crossed.

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