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By Shobhana Chandra and Rich Miller
WASHINGTON – Consumers and businesses are treating higher payroll taxes and federal spending cuts as just a speed bump for a U.S. economy poised to accelerate later this year.
Americans are saving less and spending more for purchases such as new automobiles, as household net worth climbs with rising home values and stock indexes surging to record highs. Companies are ramping up hiring, adding 246,000 to private payrolls in February. They’re also expanding investment and rebuilding inventories as they put profits accumulated during the recovery to work.
“A lot of things are going the right way,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, whose private employment forecast was closest to the February gain among economists surveyed by Bloomberg. “The labor market is picking up momentum. Businesses are seeing demand. More people working means more people will be spending money. To a certain extent, this neutralizes the effects” of higher taxes.
Growth will pick up in the second half of the year as the fallout from the budget cuts dissipates, paving the way for even stronger spending by businesses and consumers, projections from Barclays Plc and JPMorgan Chase & Co. show. Gross domestic product will rise at a 2 percent annual average pace in the latter six months of 2013 after a 1.5 percent rate in the first two quarters, said Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.
“The economy is at a point where it can handle the fiscal tightening without screeching to a halt,” said New York-based Maki, who is also a former Federal Reserve board economist. “We’ll see some slowing, certainly, but the economy is not as fragile as it was.”
Even as Congress is forcing Brent Phipps’s employer, the U.S. government, to reduce spending by $85 billion this fiscal year, the 25-year-old paralegal is still going shopping.
Browsing through an aisle of neon green, pink and transparent plastic storage containers at a Target Corp. store in Washington, Phipps, who works for the Justice Department, said the payroll tax increase hasn’t altered his spending habits.
“I didn’t really pay any attention to it,” he said. “I can’t say I had any particular, ‘oh no, I’m not going to do X, Y and Z thing.’”
Americans are opening their wallets for bigger-ticket purchases too. General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. predict automobile sales, on pace for the best year since 2007, will remain resilient. Cars and light trucks sold at a 15.3 million annual rate in February after 15.2 million a month earlier, according to Ward’s Automotive Group.
“Consumers appear to be taking higher payroll taxes in stride, at least when it comes to replacing older vehicles,” Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales operations for Detroit-based GM, said on a March 1 conference call.
Norris Home Furnishings, a Fort Myers, Florida-based furniture retailer with three stores, exceeded its goal for 15 percent sales gains in January and February from a year earlier, company owner Larry Norris said. Rising home prices in the region have improved consumer attitudes even in the face of higher taxes, the 70-year-old business owner said.
“People are a lot more cautious with their money than they were at one time, but they are still spending,” he said. “Consumer attitudes are improving, no question.”