For How Long Can Consumption Exceed Growth?

A few weeks ago, Michael Mandel had this to say in Business Week:

The rule for a prudent individual is simple: Don’t spend more than you make. For a long time, the U.S. economy obeyed that rule. As far back as the 1960s, personal spending, adjusted for inflation, has basically tracked the overall growth of the economy, as measured by gross domestic product. Sometimes consumers would get ahead of the economy for a few years, and sometimes fall behind, but never for very long.

That pattern changed in the 1990s. As of the third quarter of 2007, the 10-year growth rate for consumption was 3.6%, vs. GDP growth for the same period of 2.9%. This difference represents an enormous gap. If consumer spending had tracked the overall economy over the past decade as it has in the past, Americans today would be spending about $600 billion less a year. The extra spending has amounted to a total of about $3 trillion since 2001.

I bolded what I think is the key line. Clearly, this is not a situation that is sustainable in the long run.

(I had to meant to comment on this a few weeks ago but forgot. This morning I saw the same thing mentioned on Brad Setser’s blog which reminded me.)