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As known by RealityChek regulars, I’ve repeatedly written (e.g., here) that sky-high U.S. inflation is going to remain sky high until the prices of the goods and services bought by consumers become genuinely unaffordable – and that their current towering levels make clear that we’re far from that point.

That’s why it’s so great that a team of economists from Wells Fargo bank have so clearly laid out the evidence for how much spending power remains with households – and therefore how much pricing power remains with businesses.

The two key facts entail how much in extra savings households have amassed since the CCP Virus pandemic struck in force in early 2020 and ushered in a period of both greatly reduced spending opportunities and greatly increased stimulus payments from Washington. As shown in this chart, the resulting “excess savings” zoomed up starting then and continued through mid-2021, when they peaked at about $2.5 trillion.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce and Wells Fargo Economics

They’ve come down since – but still stood at just short of $1.3 trillion as of this past summer. Moreover, don’t forget – that number doesn’t tell us the actual level of consumer savings. It tells us how far above the pre-pandemic normal it stands.

For an idea of the actual amount of cash households have to spend, check out this second graph. It shows that even factoring in inflation, Americans’ checking and savings accounts hold a total of $13.9 trillion (the dark blue line), and that this figure is way up since the beginning of the pandemic, too.

Source: Federal Reserve Board and Wells Fargo Economics

You might have read that one big reason for worrying about the sustainability of consumer spending – and as a result, one big reason for optimism that inflation will soon peak or has already topped out – is that Inflation is driving consumers to rack up more debt to purchase essentials.” Sounds like a sign of soaring desperation, right? Not if you look at the big picture.

Sure, credit card use has boomed over the last year (a high inflation year) in particular. Indeed, as shown in the third chart, it’s not only above pre-CCP Virus levels. It’s above its levels during the bubble years that preceded the Global Financial Crisis which ended in the worst economic downturn America had suffered to that point since the Great Depression of the 1930s. (The pandemic recession of 2020 was deeper than the Great Depression, but was much shorter.)

Source: Federal Reserve Board and Wells Fargo Economics

But that’s only one side of the credit card story, and not the most important side. The other side is how that “revolving” credit card and other consumer debt compares with consumers’ spend-able incomes. And as the chart below shows, although the “Household Financial Obligations Ratio” has worsened a lot recently, in absolute terms it’s not only considerably below its levels just before the CCP Virus’ arrival in force. It’s still at post-1990s lows – and by a wide margin.

Source: Federal Reserve Board and Wells Fargo Economic

As the Wells Fargo economists point out, this consumer spending power has to run out at some point, especially since households have been buying more than they earn, since their net worth (and therefore their ability to borrow robustly) is down some because both housing and stock prices have been sinking, and since the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting interest rate hikes and other tightening measures keep making such borrowing more expensive. Inflation-adjusted wages keep falling, too. 

Nevertheless, rate hikes (which only began this past March) can take up to 18-months to slow spending and the entire economy. The Fed is also reducing its balance sheet, which skyrocketed to astronomical levels as the central bank bought vast quantities of bonds during the worst of the pandemic in order to flood the economy with cheap money and keep it afloat during the worst of the CCP Virus downturn. But for what it’s worth, the consensus among economists to date is that this “quantitative tightening” isn’t severe enough depress economic activity significantly for some time, either. (See, e.g., here.)

And don’t forget – Washington keeps putting more money in consumers’ pockets directly and indirectly, most recently with an increase in Social Security payments to compensate for…high inflation, and another release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to dampen down oil prices.   

So it’s still true that, ultimately, the surest cure for high prices is high prices. But it’s just as true that everything known about consumer finances and the inflation fuel they represent says that these prices have a long way to go before those consumers start crying “Uncle!”