Consumption and the Aggregate Expenditures Model

Read this chapter to examine consumption and its determinants within the aggregate expenditures model. Consumption is the largest component of Aggregate Demand the United States, therefore, the factors that determine consumption, also determine the success of the economy.

13.1 Determining the Level of Consumption

Current versus Permanent Income

The discussion so far has related consumption in a particular period to income in that same period. The current income hypothesis holds that consumption in any one period depends on income during that period, or current income.

Although it seems obvious that consumption should be related to disposable personal income, it is not so obvious that consumers base their consumption in any one period on the income they receive during that period. In buying a new car, for example, consumers might base their decision not only on their current income but on the income they expect to receive during the three or four years they expect to be making payments on the car. Parents who purchase a college education for their children might base their decision on their own expected lifetime income.

Indeed, it seems likely that virtually all consumption choices could be affected by expectations of income over a very long period. One reason people save is to provide funds to live on during their retirement years. Another is to build an estate they can leave to their heirs through bequests. The amount people save for their retirement or for bequests depends on the income they expect to receive for the rest of their lives. For these and other reasons, then, personal saving (and thus consumption) in any one year is influenced by permanent income. Permanent income is the average annual income people expect to receive for the rest of their lives.

People who have the same current income but different permanent incomes might reach very different saving decisions. Someone with a relatively low current income but a high permanent income (a college student planning to go to medical school, for example) might save little or nothing now, expecting to save for retirement and for bequests later. A person with the same low income but no expectation of higher income later might try to save some money now to provide for retirement or bequests later. Because a decision to save a certain amount determines how much will be available for consumption, consumption decisions can also be affected by expected lifetime income. Thus, an alternative approach to explaining consumption behavior is the permanent income hypothesis, which assumes that consumption in any period depends on permanent income. An important implication of the permanent income hypothesis is that a change in income regarded as temporary will not affect consumption much, since it will have little effect on average lifetime income; a change regarded as permanent will have an effect. The current income hypothesis, though, predicts that it does not matter whether consumers view a change in disposable personal income as permanent or temporary; they will move along the consumption function and change consumption accordingly.

The question of whether permanent or current income is a determinant of consumption arose in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush ordered a change in the withholding rate for personal income taxes. Workers have a fraction of their paychecks withheld for taxes each pay period; Mr. Bush directed that this fraction be reduced in 1992. The change in the withholding rate did not change income tax rates; by withholding less in 1992, taxpayers would either receive smaller refund checks in 1993 or owe more taxes. The change thus left taxpayers' permanent income unaffected.

President Bush's measure was designed to increase aggregate demand and close the recessionary gap created by the 1990–1991 recession. Economists who subscribed to the permanent income hypothesis predicted that the change would not have any effect on consumption. Those who subscribed to the current income hypothesis predicted that the measure would boost consumption substantially in 1992. A survey of households taken during this period suggested that households planned to spend about 43% of the temporary increase in disposable personal income produced by the withholding experiment. That is considerably less than would be predicted by the current income hypothesis, but more than the zero change predicted by the permanent income hypothesis. This result, together with related evidence, suggests that temporary changes in income can affect consumption, but that changes regarded as permanent will have a much stronger impact.

Many of the tax cuts passed during the administration of President George W. Bush are set to expire at the end of 2012. The proposal to make these tax cuts permanent is aimed toward having a stronger impact on consumption, since tax cuts regarded as permanent have larger effects than do changes regarded as temporary.