This will be a short post, as I am still traveling. It turns out planes, trains, and automobiles are not very conducive to thinking things through.
But being on the road is great for getting the chance to get out of my bubble and to find out what real clients are thinking about. I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of clients this past week, and it has been very interesting. When you talk to people who don’t spend their days on the economy and the markets, you actually learn a lot about what is affecting those things. Consumer spending, after all, is one of the primary drivers of the economy (more than two-thirds). So, to really understand what is going on, it is helpful to talk with the actual consumers.
People are starting to worry
The main takeaway from my week talking to and with clients has been that people still feel pretty good but are getting increasingly worried. Almost all of the individuals I speak to are older and reasonably affluent, so they have no reason to be worried—but they are. Not worried enough, in many cases, to act on it. Yet I get the sense many of them are trending that way.
2020 election. Politics seems to be a major driver of this concern, especially with the election coming into focus. Based on what I am hearing, once the election really gets underway, we might see more economic disruption than expected. If you remember, the 2016 election coincided with very weak economic performance, to the point where a recession looked quite possible at year-end. The 2020 election, which is likely to be even nastier, could well be a major headwind for growth. In the face of the other signals that growth is slowing, a contentious election could end up being the final straw for the expansion.
The deficit. Beyond the election, I am also getting an increasing number of questions about the deficit. It has been a nonissue since the sequester spending cuts essentially solved the problem. But the recent tax cuts and spending bumps have driven the deficit back up, and that issue is starting to resonate with the public again. The deficit is not (yet) something that candidates have to respond to, but I think I see a surge building. The problem is that there is no longer a party that focuses on fiscal responsibility, which should make the political impact much harder to predict.
Risks on the rise
The sense of growing caution, and that headwinds are building, is of course very consistent with the consumer confidence report we discussed yesterday. It is also consistent with what I have been telling clients, which is this: everything remains fine for the moment, but the risks are rising.
They seem to feel the same way.