Picture of the Day: The "Perfect" Economy

A-Team leader Hannibal Smith used to quip: "I love it when a plan comes together." And it seems investors are pretty pleased by perfect alignment as well.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released its latest report on income and spending trends in America, and the picture couldn't have looked prettier. For the second time in three months, America's consumers proved frugal in moderation and rich in common sense -- earning more than they had in the previous month, and spending only a skosh more than they took in:

As I gaze upon this picture of October's near-perfect alignment between income and spending, I imagine Ben Bernanke, beaming beatifically in approval. "Ah," he sighs. "My dreams of modest-but-not-exorbitant inflation are all coming true."

Real disposable income inched up 0.3%, right along with real consumer spending. And as we head toward the Christmas selling season, consumers will have more money in their pockets to spend at stores like Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) and Target (NYSE: TGT  ) because "excluding food and energy, the PCE [personal consumption expenditures] price index was flat in October."

Oil smudges a pretty picture
But is this picture really as pretty as it seems? I mean, yes, October worked out well. Yet overall, in all four months depicted, consumers spent more than they earned. The gap between income and spending was smaller in some months than others, but in each and every month, there was still a gap.

Call me crazy, call me a Fool, but I think I've spotted what's causing that gap -- that innocuous-seeming caveat in the BEA report: Prices were flat ... "excluding food and energy."

Higher prices for food and energy may warm the heart-cockles of executives at Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , but as for the rest of us ... well, I'll let venerable economic pundit John Mauldin explain what the data foretell: "While the Fed may prefer to look at core inflation, the rest of us live in a world where we buy food and consume energy. And for those in the lower part of the income spectrum, the rising cost of food and energy is disproportionately high. It acts like a tax on disposable income, which will hurt retail sales, which is PRECISELY what we do not need."

Foolish takeaway
Bulls hail the return of the rational consumer, earning and spending in equal measure. But if bread, butter, and gasoline suck up too much of that spending, retailers of other wares will feel the pinch. Just something to think about, as you digest your Thanksgiving day turkey.

That's my take on BEA's latest facts and figures. But what do you think? Take the Foolish Rorschach test, and use the comments section below to tell your fellow Fools what you see in the chart up above.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Best Buy is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Best Buy is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Best Buy. Motley Fool Options has recommended a synthetic long position on Monsanto. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy and ExxonMobil.

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

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  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2010, at 7:59 PM, DDHv wrote:

    We tend to think of investing as stocks, etc. But even a back yard garden is a form of investing. For the past ten years or so we've been modifying our home to use less bought fuel, and raise some of our own food. Costs are down about 35%. Careful selection and DIY work has produced a good ROI. No taxes on the return, either! ;-)

    A simple trick: fans blowing summer air through the basement and into the house, with humidity removal to prevent mold, etc. Cheap cooling, and warming the dirt around a house reduces the heat bill (after a few years) by a noticeable amount also.

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