Costco CEO Warns “A Lot of Consumers Are in Recession Right Now”

"Consumers are getting more cautious."

Image Credits: Gabe Ginsberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

One question macro-watchers have on their minds is the state of the US consumer amid increasing threats of recession.

The White House and Federal Reserve offer their perspective of a healthy consumer, but that’s in total aggregate. It fails to show the entire story of working-poor Americans suffering amid the worst inflation storm in forty years. 

What better way to get a fresh glimpse of consumer health is via CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” interview with Craig Jelinek, CEO of Costco Wholesale Corporation, on Monday, who said overall “the consumer isn’t doing bad,” but also mentioned, “a lot of people, right now, they’re in a recession because they’re just trying to survive by just buying gas and making house and rent payments.” 

Sounds confusing, right? But it’s not. With some clarification, Jelinek said wealthier households still have “discretionary income to buy goods,” which means the lower tier of consumers is perhaps tapped out. 

What’s important is the CEO of the second-largest retailer in the world said, “consumers are getting more cautious.” It’s not necessarily a sign that all consumption is about to roll over, but cracks appear in lower-tier spenders.

He pointed out that luxury spending, such as jewelry sales, is beginning to slow, and many consumers have shifted away from buying computers and televisions. 

Jelinek’s interview sheds more light on some consumers, especially lower-tier ones, who are pulling back on spending as their credit cards are maxed out, and personal savings are drained. Though, the Biden administration, White House-aligned economists, and Fed conveniently ignore the bottom tier of consumers and only concentrate on the aggregate — not allowing for the entire consumption story to be told. 

This matters because 70% of the US GDP is driven by consumption. If not all consumers are healthy, it could be an ominous sign that economic trouble is ahead. 

One particularly troubling data point is the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment survey hitting new lows. 

Then there’s America’s ‘Misery Index‘ – a broad measure of household wellbeing that combines unemployment rates with inflation rates – is back to levels not seen since the stagflationary period of one-termer Jimmy Carter. 

And the jobs number last Friday wasn’t all that great because it showed some people taking on multiple jobs — a sign the consumer isn’t strong. 

Optically, consumers appear in decent shape if one is to examine the aggregate, but that doesn’t tell the whole story as Costco’s CEO speaks about the inconvenient truth that not all consumers are healthy as some folks have begun to use micro-loans to afford gas and groceries. 

The revolution will not be televised.