household income and the substitution effect

Yesterday, the Census Bureau released its 2013 annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States.

It showed that median household income in the US was an estimated $51,959 last year, up $180 (whoa, baby!) from the median in 2012.  The 2013 figure is still about 8% lower than the pre-recession level and 8.7% below the all-time peak in household earnings in 1999.

Not a pretty picture, but it brings home how long the period of structural change the US is experiencing has been going on.  Personally (meaning I think so but I wouldn’t bet the farm on being correct), I think it’s no accident that the current wage stagnation began with the emergence of the internet as a major economic force.

In economic theory, and also in practice, people can increase their economic well-being in one of two ways:

(1) they can earn more income, or

(2) they can “upgrade” the basket of goods and services they consume by substituting lower-cost equivalents for the stuff they have typically purchased in the past.

The Census Bureau figures show that door #1 has been closed, on average, for a long period of time.  Therefore, to the degree that people want a higher standard of living, they have had to become adept at strategy #2.

In my experience, during economic expansions people typically try to keep up appearances and hesitate to substitute lower-priced items.   It’s only during recessions that it becomes acceptable to, say, substitute a Hyundai for your Lexus or store brand staples for national brands.

investment significance

It seems to me that in the US stock market, we’ve only begun to see the substitution effect expressed in stock prices in earnest during  the past year (for example, teen retailers, soda and food companies)..  I think there’s lots more to come.  It’s probably easier to identify potential losers than winners.  Just look for high gross and operating margins.  Such companies have the most to lose from price competition; they also may have created “price umbrellas” that allow rivals to undercut them.


The Census Bureau report has two other figures that caught my eye.

–The 5% of American households headed by 15-24 year-olds saw their incomes jump by 10.5% last year to $34,311.  A proxy for Millennials?

–The median income for over 65 year-olds is $35,611.  That’s up by 3.7%, year on year.  But it’s also less than two-thirds of the $57,538 median for 55 – 64 year-olds.  The future for Baby Boom purchasing power?



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