Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Watch These Gauges to Track the Comeback of American Consumers

Fed's sentiment reference a sign policy makers are looking for spending rebound

The Federal Reserve's latest statement contained an unusual hint about their optimism for better economic growth this year.

"Consumer sentiment remains high," the statement said, breaking from the usual drone about recent economic trends.

Sentiment — despite its impressive levels of late — is often too fickle an indicator for central bankers to put much stock in, and its correlation to spending isn't perfect, so the context of the Fed's reference is important. Real disposable incomes rose 6.2 percent in the first quarter, the most in more than two years. Yet so far, consumers are banking much of their cash. 

Fed policy makers' reference to upbeat sentiment suggests their view is that  "consumption is going to rebound," said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Plc. Put another way, all these high animal spirits are going to pay out in the form of shopping sprees.

Here are three indicators to watch for the consumer comeback.

1. Personal spending

Personal consumption expenditures as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis has under-performed so far this year, causing some to question whether the windfall from lower prices at the pump was stashed away for good.

The saving rate, or the share of disposable income that the consumer socks away, stands at 5.3 percent as of March. While down from February's 5.7 percent, which was the highest in more than two years, it was the third-best rate since the end of 2012.

The BEA's figure on consumption provides a more complete picture of the purchases that make up about 70 percent of the economy, since it captures spending on services in addition to retail sales. After adjusting for inflation, which generates the figures used to calculate gross domestic product, household spending increased 0.3 percent in March after little change in the prior month. That brought the year-over-year rate down to 2.7 percent from readings of 3.4 percent and 3 percent in January and February, respectively.

"I think Fed officials were disappointed with the pace of consumer spending in the first quarter,'' said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse in New York.  "In order to feel confident'' that it is time to raise interest rates,  "they would have to see a rebound sometime soon.''

2. Autos

Vehicle sales in April had a tough time keeping up with the near-breakneck clip of the prior month, industry data showed Friday. Consumers purchased cars and trucks at a 16.46 million annualized rate last month, in line with the average for all of 2014, which was the best performance in eight years. Sales slowed a bit in weather-battered January and February before climbing to a 17.05 million annualized rate in March that was the third-best since 2006.

Auto sales have been a rare reliable bright spot in consumer spending. Fed officials will probably remain comfortable with this industry's data as long as purchases hold above the 16 million rate of annual purchases that the U.S. has seen over the past year.

3. Homes

Property sales have been a mixed bag so far in 2015, with new-home purchases plummeting unexpectedly in March and sales of previously owned homes showing a spirited rebound after two depressing readings to start the year.

While tighter credit conditions after the last recession and limited inventories have held some potential buyers back, recent mortgage purchase applications hint at a solid spring rebound for the industry.

Americans' filings with lenders have shown a robust post-winter jump, with the index holding at 205.4 in the week ended April 2, the highest since June 2013. The Mortgage Bankers Association gauge, which dates to 1990, has averaged 193.8 in this expansion. It reached an all-time high 529.3 in 2005 during the housing bubble.

Economists at Goldman Sachs are projecting "gradual improvement in the housing market" this year, with total (new and existing) home sales rising to 5.51 million from 5.36 million in 2014, according to an April 6 research note.

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