WASHINGTON - Americans are spending a little more this summer, but hardly enough to rejuvenate the weakening economy.
What is needed is a bigger boost in salaries and more jobs. Economists don't see either coming this year, which is why the economy is likely to limp along.
Still, modest gains in spending were a welcome sign after a string of economic reports last week raised fears of the country slipping back into a recession.
"The consumer hasn't taken the economy back into recession," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. "The consumer is still moving forward but they are doing it at a very modest pace."
Consumer spending rose 0.4 percent in July, with much of the strength coming from increased demand for autos, the Commerce
Department reported Monday. It was the best showing since March, but it followed three lackluster months when spending was essentially flat.
Americans did earn a little more in July after seeing their incomes unchanged in June. Still, the 0.2 percent increase was mostly the result of small wage and salary gains that fell far below increases seen in more robust economic recoveries, economists said. And some of the gains came from a jump in Social Security payments.
Without job growth, consumers are not expected to spend much more. But the economy is growing too slowly to support sustained hiring, and companies are waiting to see more demand from consumers. That has left the economy stuck in limbo.
Paul Dales at Capital Economics said the economy is likely to remain in a slow-growth rut for several years. He said economic growth is likely to average around 2 percent for the rest of this year and through all of 2011 and 2012 as well. That's far below the rates needed to drive the 9.5 percent unemployment rate lower.
It takes stronger growth - around 5 percent for a full year - to drive down the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point.
"This is a pretty weak recovery coming out of a recession that was deeper and more painful that most downturns," Mr. Dales said. "That means the unemployment rate is likely to remain stuck around 9.5 percent this year and it won't fall below 9 percent for a number of years."
One area that has grown since the recession is the personal savings rate. While it slowed to 5.9 percent of after-tax income in July, it is still nearly three times higher than it was before the recession. Economists had long worried about low savings in the United States. But now they fear households have become too frugal and that is holding back consumer spending.