The pronounced weakness in personal consumption expenditures (PCE) for services has been an unusual feature of the 2007-09 recession and the slow recovery from it. Even in 2010:Q4, when real PCE increased at a relatively robust 4.1 percent annual rate, real PCE on services rose at only a 1.4 percent rate. This weakness has been especially evident in “discretionary” services (to be defined below), which fell more in the recent recession than in previous recessions and since have rebounded more sluggishly. In this post, I suggest that the continued sluggishness in these expenditures lends a note of caution regarding the sustainability of recent PCE strength. Because consumption accounts for about 70 percent of output, this in turn raises some concern about the future strength of the recovery.
Commodity prices have risen considerably since August 2010, raising concerns that higher commodity prices could reduce households’ discretionary income and slow the recovery. For example, as former Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Donald Kohn said in the Wall Street Journal last fall:
“… the surge in international commodity prices. If that persists it could hurt Americans’ disposable income, especially as it is reflected in higher gas and energy prices.”