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Economy Of The Century

New government numbers show consumers are spending like there's no tomorrow, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason reports, behavior that's driving the United States' economy toward a record expansion.

Two reports released Tuesday show that the nation's economy continues to barrel ahead, thus far without triggering inflation, economists said. So far this year, consumer prices have gone up at an annual rate of 2.7 percent. That's higher than 1998, but still very low.

And retail sales in November soared 0.9 percent, giving merchants a strong start to the holiday season. At the same time, consumer prices edged up just 0.1 percent.

On the downside, the strong U.S. economy is sucking in imports more rapidly than struggling foreign economies are buying American products. As a result, the U.S. trade deficit has hit a record high for the third-straight quarter.

But for shoppers this Christmas, the economics are simple. "It's a supply and demand issue," says shopper John Torabene. "The kids demand it. Your store is supplying it. So you have to come out and get it."

You might call it the "come and get it" economy. The merry mood has overrun most shopping malls. "I just think it's hectic," notes one woman shopper. "Everywhere I go, there's kind of a rush to buy."

She's right. Retail sales at traditional stores are expected to jump 6 percent over last year -- that's $180 billion. According to Marty Singer, manager of J&R Computer/Music World in New York, "Business is great. We've seen a dramatic increase."

Lower prices for DVD players and computers have the Christmas bells ringing at Singer's shop, and online sales are soaring too. Amazon.com report their holiday numbers are already up 150 percent.

Why do many Americans have their wallets wide open? "I have some investments in the stock market and it's doing well," explains one woman.

So, on the eve of a new millennium, it seems as if there's little to worry about. Retailing consultant Wendy Liebmann thinks people are spending big because "Inflation is low; unemployment is low. People are feeling very confident that if they even lose their job, there'll be another one around the corner."

And for retailers, the best may be yet to come. Last year, Americans did nearly half of their holiday shopping in the last 10 days before Christmas.