Web Stories Thursday, May 23

A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here. You can listen to an audio version of the newsletter by clicking the same link.

America’s relentless spending has kept the economy motoring. But it’s starting to worry some observers.

Chicago Federal Reserve President Austan Goolsbee said Friday that while consumer debt levels aren’t yet “especially” high, the Fed is concerned about the rate of consumer delinquencies, or missed or late payments on expenses such as auto loans, credit card bills and rent.

“If the delinquency rate of consumer loans starts rising, that is often a leading indicator for, ‘things are about to get worse,’” he said at a moderated panel hosted by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.

Americans are already struggling to keep up with their credit card payments. Credit card debt rose $143 billion during the fourth quarter of 2023 from the year before, according to data from the New York Fed. The rate at which credit cards and auto loans are transitioning into delinquency continued to top pre-pandemic levels. Delinquency transition rates rose for all debt types excluding student loans.

“The pickup in credit card debt and delinquencies is consistent with the idea that consumers — particularly those [within] the bottom of the income and wealth distributions — are running out of surplus savings and turning back to credit to finance their spending,” wrote Evercore ISI in a Monday note.

Strong consumer spending has buoyed the US economy through the Fed’s aggressive hiking cycle that has brought interest rates to a 23-year high. Economists say a strong economy, a solid job market and growth in household income has helped support consumers and makes a mass retrenchment in spending this year unlikely.

But that doesn’t mean consumers are infallible. Lower-income Americans have been hit harder than their higher-income counterparts, turning to eating at home, searching for deals and dialing back their spending to ease the pain of persistent inflation and high rates.

Economists say that Fed officials look closely at Americans’ ability to make their payments. If consumer spending were to weaken considerably, that would be a blow to the economy, which has managed to weather sky-high rates without tipping into a recession. A marked slowdown in spending could, in turn, further complicate the Fed’s thinking on where interest rates go next.

Corporate earnings this week have underscored this mixed picture of American consumers: They’re resilient, but they’re tightening their purse strings. Spending is expected to moderate at least somewhat, despite holding up well.

“The lower-income consumer in the US is stretched, is strategizing a lot to make their budgets get to the end of the month,” said PepsiCo Chief Executive Ramon Laguarta in the company’s earnings call on Tuesday.

Investors will get their next look at the consumer’s health on Thursday morning, when the Commerce Department releases its first estimate of first-quarter gross domestic product. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the US economy.

The Atlanta Fed projects that GDP grew at a 2.7% clip during the first three months of 2024, which would mark a slightly cooler but still solid rate.

Trump Media & Technology Group is asking Congress to investigate its suspicions that illegal activity is driving down its share price, reports my colleague Matt Egan.

In a letter disclosed Wednesday, Devin Nunes, CEO of Truth Social owner Trump Media (DJT), alerted the GOP Chairmen of the House Ways and Means, Judiciary, Financial Services and Oversight Committees to the “urgent matter” of “potential manipulation” of the company’s share price.

“We assess there are strong indications of unlawful manipulation of DJT stock,” Nunes wrote in the letter.

Nunes, himself a former Republican congressman from California, pointed to how Trump Media has been among the most expensive stocks to borrow. Traders who wish to short a stock, or bet the value will go down, must borrow shares elsewhere first.

Nunes suggested there are signs of “naked” short selling, which involves someone selling shares they don’t own or have not borrowed.

“This is particularly troubling given that ‘naked’ short selling often entails sophisticated market participants profiting at the expense of retail investors,” the Trump Media CEO wrote.

Read more here.

Switzerland says UBS may need more cash. The bank is fuming

A year after the failure of Credit Suisse, the Swiss government says UBS may have to find as much as $27 billion to absorb potential losses and protect taxpayers from ever having to bail out a major bank, reports my colleague Hanna Ziady.

Now, the giant Swiss lender is hitting back, saying its finances are robust and warning that the proposal could harm Switzerland’s standing as a global financial center.

Speaking at the bank’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, UBS chairman Colm Kelleher said he was “seriously concerned” about current discussions that could force the bank to hold much more cash and other liquid assets. “Additional capital is the wrong remedy,” he said.

“There can be no regulatory solution for a broken business model,” he continued, referring to Credit Suisse. UBS bought its stricken rival last March in a government-orchestrated rescue aimed at preventing a global financial crisis.

The deal has proved controversial in Switzerland, which is now home to a bank with assets almost double the size of its annual economic output.

Read more here.

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