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Missing From Action

Hey. Where you guys been?

So far, the only missing ingredient to perhaps the greatest economy the US has ever seen has been all you folks out there.

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You haven't necessarily skimped, but, c'mon - this is the land of the free, home of the crave. We are world champs when it comes to wanting what we see and buying what we want.

But despite an economy pushing its seventh year of growth - with nary a flicker of a recession in sight - you consumers have held back.

What's up with that? You've got jobs, even raises. You've got security. You've refinanced your mortgages for big savings. My goodness, you've got stock-market profits galore.

And past experience tells us you should now be pounding the pavement in search of new stuff - speed boats, sports cars, cruise vacations, new wardrobes.

As you can see from Guy Halverson's story to the right, analysts do expect consumers to warm up their plastic this year, which has added some fire to retail stocks. But they don't expect the shopping to be as white hot as the economy.

You all have just turned too smart.

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We seem to be changing from a nation of raucous spenders to one of at least semi serious savers.

Proof? Well, ignore the fact that US citizens continue to pull low rank among the world's savers. Focus instead on the fact that US citizens have moved into the major leagues among world investors.

Almost half the households in the US own stocks. Granted, most of that is in mutual funds, but the signs point to serious and informed investing. The investing trend has accelerated over the past 15 years, and so has the intelligence of the approach of individual investors. They seem to manage that investment well; when the market dips, they buy, and they have profited time and time again.

People have become smarter about money. They have learned to plan and save for the big things - retirement, homes, college - and that savvy seems to carry over to spending habits.

But this reluctance to rampage through the malls has real consequences on a variety of fronts outside the home.

It puts a squeeze on company profits. Wages, a huge cost, keep trending higher. The latest employment report, noted on Page B2, shows average wages up to $12.60 an hour, more than expected.

But because consumers have scrimped on their credit cards, companies can't pass higher costs along as higher prices. Comforting news for consumers: lower prices mean lower inflation, which means continued low interest rates. Uncertain news, ironically, for the same investors who have become such cranial consumers. A pinch on profits brings a squeeze on stock prices.

And that lends Wall Street a split personality, which played out last week.

On one hand: a laser-like focus by professional investors on profits. When they look shaky, as on Wednesday. the market crumples, as it did Thursday.

On the other: consumers - with fortified pocketbooks and, perhaps, ready to splurge. They might shore up Wall Street, as they did on Friday. Some good old fashioned impulsive buying would speed the pulse of the economy considerably.

So, do you listen to your investor self, which says "Get out there and spend so the market will bounce?" Or your consumer self, which has learned (ironically, from you investor self) to be uncharacteristically cautious?

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