WASHINGTON - Through the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump has had one very reliable ally: an excellent economy. Now, as the presidential campaign approaches, there are growing questions about what the economic landscape may look like in November 2020.
By some measures, the nation’s economic outlook is positively sunny, but on the horizon, there also seem to be gathering clouds.
From a positive point of view, you can start with the historically low unemployment rate.
That January figure, 4 percent, matches roughly where the number has been since January 2018. In that time, unemployment has been bouncing between 4.1 and 3.7 percent. That’s a solid stretch of low numbers.
The last time the unemployment number was in that ballpark? Late 2000, when the rate rang in at 3.9 percent. Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to the late 1960s.
When people have jobs and they know jobs are available they tend to feel good about their current economic situation and the times ahead. And poll data from Gallup show that is the case today too.
A January Gallup survey found that 69 percent of Americans believe they will be better off financially next year than they are currently.
The last time the “better off next year” number was that high was back in May 2002, when 69 percent of Americans had the same positive feelings about the year ahead. And the figure has been higher only once, in March of 1998 when it peaked at 71 percent.
Low unemployment. Good feelings. Those are things that matter to voters on Election Day.
But Election Day is still 21 months off and if there are economic concerns at the White House, they likely center on the future. The U.S. economy is cyclical. And though the nation is still in the midst of a remarkable economic expansion – it’s been some 116 months since the last recession ended in 2009 – there are warning flags in some of the latest data.
This week the New York branch of the Federal Reserve Bank announced that about 7 million Americans were delinquent by 90 days or more on their auto loans. That number was a record high, and the rate of auto loan delinquencies was the highest it has been since 2010, just as the Great Recession ended.
Some analysts worry about the increase because car payments are usually a top priority for consumers. In most communities cars are essential for getting to and from work and around town. Skipping a payment or two is not something consumers tend to do casually.
The spike in delinquencies may signal a cooling off in automobile manufacturing if consumers are less able to afford new cars and more used cars become available. Remember, the vote out of automobile manufacturing states was crucial for President Trump in 2016.
And beyond automobiles, there is the broader increase in revolving debt (usually credit card debt) that Americans are carrying.
As of December 2018, Americans held a total $1.044 trillion in unpaid revolving debt. That’s a record and it was up $20 billion from the end of 2017. Overall the number has been rising pretty consistently since 2013, but it crossed the $1 trillion mark in September 2017 and has not since dropped below.
The number may be meaningful because the last time the amount of unpaid revolving debt sat over that $1 trillion line was in January of 2009 when people drew heavily on credit during the recession. After that, there was a retrenching among consumers who paid down their credit card debts to about $830 billion in 2011. That trend seems to have reversed.
Of course, there are more people in the United States today, so there are more people with credit cards and adjusted for inflation the 2019 figure is still below the 2009 number. But the steady increase is worth noting – as is the slow but steady increase in credit card delinquencies over the past few years.
These figures carry special weight because they center on consumer spending, the force that drives the U.S. economy, making up 68 percent of all economic activity. If consumers have less to spend at the mall or online that’s likely to have an impact on the broader economy, potentially a big impact.
There may already be some signs in that regard. This week the Census released data showing retail sales declined 1.2 percent from November to December, the largest drop in more than nine years.
Does that mean the economy is headed south? That’s a big leap. Some analysts are skeptical of the sales figures drop and there’s still a lot of good economic news out there. But after 116 months of growth, the numbers show some warning signs emerging.
And when the 2020 presidential race arrives, the story around the economy could look and feel very different than it does today.