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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 29, 2006

Gas bills have us closing wallets

By Anne D'Innocenzio
Associated Press

NEW YORK Robert Wright would like to take his family out to dinner. But he has to budget for higher gasoline bills instead.

"Unfortunately, it's not that I'm willing to pay it, it's that I have to pay it," said Wright, a police officer who was at the Westfarms Mall in West Hartford, Conn., earlier this week.

Americans like Wright have had to make adjustments in their spending to cope with higher energy costs. And it appears the economy is finally starting to show the effects of their financial juggling.

The Commerce Department said yesterday that economic growth slowed dramatically during the second quarter as Americans spent less. The shift came as something of a surprise after the Conference Board earlier in the week reported an unexpected rise in consumer confidence.

Clearly, consumers are faced with the reality that high energy costs won't go away any time soon, with oil prices remaining stubbornly high at near $74 a barrel, in part because of worries that the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon could draw in other countries.

Higher energy prices were reflected in the Commerce Department's latest snapshot on the gross domestic product, which showed that the economy's growth from April through June was less than half that of the prior three months as consumers tightened their wallets and spending on home building plunged. The GDP's 2.5 percent annual growth rate was the slowest since 1.8 percent in the final quarter of 2006, when the economy was suffering from the fallout of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Consumers have issues beyond energy prices. A big source of cash home equity lending is drying up as higher interest rates and the leveling off of housing prices have made such financing less attractive.

"We're definitely at a crossroads," said Zoltan Pozsar, economist at Moody's www.economy.com. "If (oil) prices don't moderate in 2007, we will see a much larger impact" on consumer spending.

Gregory Miller, chief economist at SunTrust Banks Inc. agreed, noting, "For the past two years, consumers have figured out a way to accommodate and sustain their living standards. This past quarter, cracks are showing up."

Analysts said a steady job market and wage growth have helped prop up consumer confidence. But they also noted that despite its strong showing, the Conference Board's consumer confidence index had some worrisome components.