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The Consumer Is Strong -- But For How Long? One Investment Veteran Asks

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Do investors need to take a harder and finer look at consumers? 

Data reported Wednesday showed consumer spend for September fell 0.3%, against economists' expectations of a 0.3% increase. For much of 2019 consumer outlays have been strong; in August the growth rate was 0.6%.

Manufacturing activity has been declining, and the U.S.-China trade war still remains unresolved, leading many Wall Street bulls to point to the consumer, who represents more than 70% of U.S. GDP, as the economy's saving grace. If consumers falter, the economy and stock prices may as well. 

But TheStreet's breaking-news reporter Tony Owusu said "consumer sentiment seems to be anxious and that's not good heading into the holiday season. The Trump administration can help things by lifting some tariffs and maybe lowering prices a little bit." 

Independent institutional investment strategist Chris Macke noted that one data point does not make a trend, but if investors want a better handle on what the next few months of consumer spend might look like, "watch consumer confidence." 

Macke then made an important distinction: 

"It's one thing to have consumer capacity -- strong balance sheets, good job growth -- but then you've got to have the confidence. And if you want to understand what's going to happen to confidence around consumers, watch equity market volatility and employment growth headlines. Consumer are very sensitive to the headlines."

He added that positive employment headlines will keep confidence high, while negative headlines could drive sentiment down enough to dent in consumer spend.  

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