If you want to know where this economy really is headed, you might ask yourself, your friends, your neighbors and your co-workers.
They are the ones who make up this great consumer segment of American economic society, a segment that accounts for two-thirds of the nation's gross national product, more than government and business combined.You, and your friends, neighbors and co-workers, are the inspiration and the source of information for all those consumer surveys you read about, and which lately have been telling you that consumer confidence is rising.
Why take their word for it? Why not rely on your own information sources? Are you earning more than you were six months ago? Do you expect to be earning more six months from now? Is your credit account growing or shrinking?
For reasons not fully understood, some consumer surveys now show confidence rising at the very time statistics seem to document a deterioration of the consumer economy: layoffs, shorter work weeks, low savings, big debts.
Such factors aren't merely indicators of existing conditions, but foretell as well how things are likely to be six months from now. It takes time for a rising trend of unemployment to lose momentum and then reverse itself.
Something's wrong somewhere, but where? And if you want to get to the bottom of it, you might have to rely on your own survey, your own instincts.
The split between expectation and reality extends throughout the consumer marketplace, and is especially evident this spring.
Car dealers, for example, hoped to benefit from better weather. The weather is better, but car sales aren't. Housing sales have risen, but not as much as the temperature. And the retail sales picture remains gray.
Investors who bid up stock prices in anticipation of higher corporate earnings have been shocked at the real earnings from IBM, Eastman Kodak and Disney. Economists who forecast a brief recession have now extended it.
The explanation for the dichotomy remains elusive.
Some fault could lie in the methodology of consumer surveyors. Some could be a consequence of only dim memories of the last recession. Maybe some confidence is an expression of faith in the Federal Reserve or the Bush administration.
Confidence, it is said, consists of not just an ability to spend but a willingness to do so. If you believe the researchers, the willingness is there. If you believe the numbers, however, you might conclude that the ability isn't.
Two recent news items suggest the reasons why:
1. Consumers just haven't got the fuel to drive the economy.
2. Already burdened, consumers are going to get an even heavier load.