Consumers' out-of-control debt loads helped spark the recession, but households are rapidly getting their balance sheets back into shape.
Overall consumer borrowing could return to its long-term norms by late next year -- and that could help spark a late-2013 rebound in consumer spending, economists say.
Of course, it depends on consumers, who have been hurt by falling incomes and housing prices, being willing to spend money once they're in better fiscal shape.
The combination of falling debt loads, a rising housing market and improving job market could boost consumer spending growth to 3.5% by late next year -- double what the economy saw in this year's second quarter, said Moody's Analytics economist Scott Hoyt.
Even more modest growth of about 2.7% could push job gains back to the 200,000-plus monthly pace seen early this year, said Richard Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial.
"Things will start to look better in 2013," if Congress and the president resolve the so-called fiscal cliff without causing a recession, Moody said. "The housing market is healing, and the drag from falling state and local government spending should be moderating."
Consumers went into the recession carrying debt of nearly double the nation's gross domestic product. That's down to below 85% now and on pace to approach 75% by late next year, Moody predicts.
"The thing everybody grapples with is, 'How much (debt) is normal?'" Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff said. "There will be a long memory of this crisis. It may be the biggest question mark in terms of trying to time this recovery."
If consumer spending doesn't come back strongly, it might be because incomes are still well below where they were before the recession and that households lost about $7 trillion of home equity as housing prices plummeted. That could make them keep the brakes on spending for a while longer, Hoyt said.
On the plus side, low interest rates have pushed the ratio of consumers' monthly rent and debt payments to their income to the lowest level since 1984, American Bankers Association chief economist Jim Chessen said. That's a function of slightly lower debt and much lower rates, he said.
The Federal Reserve is still worried enough that it launched a third round of bond purchases last week, vowing to pump $40 billion a month into the economy until the 8.1% unemployment rate falls.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the move could encourage consumer spending, in part by bolstering housing values.
At the same time, members of the Fed's interest rate-setting committee raised their economic forecasts for next year.
Committee members think the economy will grow between 2.5% and 3% next year, up from earlier forecasts of 2.2% to 2.8%.
Tim Mullaney/USA Today
The Associated Press