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Consumer spending growth tails off in December

Lana Nguyen, right, holds up a shirt while helping friend Chris Ghiathi, left, shop in an H&M store in Atlanta in December. Consumer spending growth slowed in December relative to November, a trend expected to continue because of an increase in Social Security taxes this year.

Associated Press

Lana Nguyen, right, holds up a shirt while helping friend Chris Ghiathi, left, shop in an H&M store in Atlanta in December. Consumer spending growth slowed in December relative to November, a trend expected to continue because of an increase in Social Security taxes this year.

WASHINGTON — U.S. consumers increased their spending in December at a slower pace, while their incomes grew by the largest amount in eight years, largely because companies rushed to pay dividends before income taxes increased on high earners.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that consumer spending rose 0.2 percent last month, slightly slower than November's 0.4 percent increase.

Income jumped 2.6 percent in December from November, the biggest gain since December 2004. The main driver of the increase was dividend payments, which companies accelerated to beat the January rise in income tax rates.

Wages and salaries grew 0.6 percent.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, is expected to slow this year because consumers are receiving less take-home pay starting this month because of an increase in Social Security taxes.

Analysts predict the January report will show slower income growth because most bonuses and dividends were paid out in December.

The increase in payroll taxes has already hurt consumer confidence this month. And consumers will have less money to spend at a precarious time.

The economy unexpectedly shrank in the October-December quarter at an annual rate of 0.1 percent, the government said Wednesday. The contraction was largely driven by a steep cut in defense spending.

Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, predicts the economy will begin growing again in the January-March quarter. He notes that modest hiring will keep consumers spending enough to keep the economy afloat. He predicts consumer spending will grow at a lackluster 1 percent rate in the first quarter, down from a 2.2 percent rise in consumer spending in the October-December quarter.

The December increase in income and slower growth in spending pushed the saving rate to 6.5 percent of after-tax income. That's up from 4.1 percent in November and the highest savings rate since May 2009.

For all of 2012, incomes rose 3.5 percent. That's the weakest increase since 2009, the final year of the Great Recession.

Still, consumers saw little increase in prices last year. A gauge of inflation preferred by the Federal Reserve was flat in December and up just 1.3 percent in 2012. That's well below the Fed's 2 percent inflation target.

The rise in Social Security taxes will leave a person earning $50,000 a year with about $1,000 less in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers will have up to $4,500 less.

Some analysts have estimated that the roughly $120 billion in higher Social Security taxes could subtract up to 0.7 percentage point from growth this year.

Jobless claims rise

The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose sharply last week but remained at a level consistent with moderate hiring. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits leapt 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase comes after applications plummeted in the previous two weeks to five-year lows. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up to 352,000, just above a four-year low. Today, the government is scheduled to issue its January jobs report. Analysts forecast it will show employers added 155,000 jobs, the same as in December. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 7.8 percent.

Consumer spending growth tails off in December 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 8:27pm]

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