(MoneyWatch) Nestled among the grisly statistics in thereleased Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Commerce was one seemingly encouraging number: Personal income soared in the final three months of 2012, rising nearly 8 percent, compared to an increase of a little over 2 percent in the third quarter.
That improvement sounds great, except for one detail: Most of the gain was due to what the U.S. Commerce Department called "a sharp acceleration in personal dividend income, an upturn in personal interest income, and an acceleration in wage and salary disbursements."
In other words, those who have enough money to be profiting from dividend and interest income did a lot better than people who live paycheck to paycheck. That points to yet more income disparity, which is not only bad for average wage earners but for the economy as a whole.
"Many companies pulled forward their quarterly dividend payments due to impending fiscal cliff fears," said economic analysis firm IHS. "The distortion on the income side of the equation has caused the saving rate to skyrocket. Spending did not increase as dramatically as income, since those households that received those nice dividend payments and bonuses (the upper income brackets) put it in the bank."
IHS's conclusion? "Disposable income is heading south in January due to the expiry of the payroll tax cut, and the payback on the quarterly dividends being pulled forward." It predicts spending will fall in tandem with consumer confidence and paychecks.
Although spending may slow, Capital Economics U.S. senior economist Paul Dales predicts that a brightening jobs picture will largely offset that decline.
"With employment still rising, we doubt that households will roll over completely," he said in a research note. "We have penciled in a 1 percent annualized rise in real consumption in the first quarter. That should help prevent the fall in GDP in the fourth quarter from being repeated."
So stand by for January's employment report, to be released Friday morning, to see if his prediction is coming true.