It’s all about perception.
While several indicators show that Americans’ finances remain in good shape nearly two years into the pandemic, many folks aren’t feeling secure.
Americans are more worried about missing a debt payment in the next three months than at any time in the last 17 months, according to the New York Fed’s October Survey of Consumer Expectations, while more respondents said they are worse off compared with a year ago.
Consumer expectations for personal finances and business conditions also deteriorated in October, according to the University of Michigan’s Survey of Consumers, with both measures dropping by double-digits in the last six months.
“It does matter how people feel and it will have an effect on their behavior,” Claudia Sahm, a senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute and former Federal Reserve economist, told Yahoo Money. “What is in their bank account has more of an effect, but how they feel is important.”
‘That doesn't correspond to what people are seeing’
Rising inflation may be one reason consumers are less bullish about their finances, Dean Baker, chief economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Yahoo Money.
Consumer prices soared 6.2% in October year over year, clocking in the fastest annual rise in consumer inflation since 1990, according to the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI). The one-year median inflation expectations reached 5.7%, a new series high, according to the New York Fed data.
“People are hearing that things are getting really bad,” Baker said. “That doesn't correspond to what people are seeing. People are seeing job opportunities as they’ve never seen — at least large segments of the workforce — and they're seeing pay increases. Why would they think they're more likely to miss a debt payment?”
Americans said there was an 11.2% chance they would miss a minimum debt payment in the next three months, the New York Fed survey found, the highest expectation rate since May 2020. The largest increase came from households making below $50,000, while that expectation dropped for households making between $50,000 and $100,000 and those making above $100,000.
But those expectations have yet to bear out. Delinquencies have declined since the beginning of the pandemic and remain low, according to the New York Federal Reserve’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit. As of late September, 2.7% of outstanding debt was in some stage of delinquency, a 2 percentage point drop from pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter of 2019.
‘Probably never been better’
Job openings also have remained elevated after reaching a record high of 11.1 million in July, with many postings coming from sectors like leisure and hospitality and retail trade that were hit hard by the pandemic. Additionally, workers in the bottom 25% of earners saw wages grow by 4.9% in September year over year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, while higher earners saw an increase of less than 4%.
“For this group making under $50,000 — at least those who are in the labor market — it's probably never been better,” Baker said. “How often it’s been that someone who's looking to work in a restaurant or retail store has their choice of jobs and can even get better-paying jobs in manufacturing or trucking?”
Still, the recent and looming expiration of government relief may be dampening people’s outlooks. The last stimulus payment was sent out in the spring and the enhanced unemployment programs expired in September. Offsetting those headwinds are the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit payments parents are getting — a measure that may be extended beyond this year.
“The relief meant the most for low-income households,” Sahm said. “But they were more dependent on that relief, the relief is ending as well as the eviction moratoriums and mortgage forbearance.”