Consumer spending, propelled by the wildly popular Cash for Clunkers auto sales program, shot up in August by the largest amount in nearly eight years even though personal incomes continued to lag.
The Commerce Department said Thursday that consumer spending rose 1.3 percent in August, even better than the 1.1 percent gain that had been expected. Incomes, the fuel for future spending gains, continued to lag, edging up 0.2 percent in August, the same as the July increase.
The big jump in consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity, is a good indication that the economy was returning to positive growth this summer. But economists are worried that any rebound from the recession could falter if income growth does not improve.
The government had reported Wednesday that the overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, was shrinking at an annual rate of, the fourth straight quarterly decline as the nation continued to be battered by the longest recession since the 1930s.
The strong increase in spending in August, which followed a, sets the stage for a return to positive growth in the third quarter. Many economists believe the GDP grew at an annual rate as high as 3 percent to 3.5 percent in the summer and should maintain growth at that level in the final three months of this year.
However, they are worried that growth could slip to a much more sluggish pace next year as the impact of government stimulus programs lessens and households continue to be battered by rising unemployment and a variety of other problems.
The big jump in spending and much weaker gain in incomes translated into a big drop in the savings rate. Personal savings in August fell to 3 percent of after-tax incomes, down from 4 percent in July. That was still nearly double the savings rate of a year ago and economists believe the savings rate will keep trending higher as households try to repair investment savings shredded by the recession.
Inflation, as measured by a gauge tied to consumer spending, showed a 0.3 percent rise in August, but that reflected higher energy costs. Excluding food and energy, this inflation gauge edged up just 0.1 percent and is 1.3 percent higher than a year ago, well within the comfort zone for the Federal Reserve, meaning that the central bank can continue to keep a key interest rate at a record low to spur an economic rebound.