WASHINGTON - Hopes are rising that consumers will drive stronger growth in 2014 after they stepped up spending at the end of last year in the United States and Europe.
The outlook for spending is brightening even though growth is weakening in some large emerging economies and slowing the sales of consumer product giants such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble.
Several trends are boosting consumer spending in developed countries: Inflation is low, enabling shoppers to stretch their dollars, euros and yen. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and other central banks are keeping interest rates super-low. Those low rates have made it easier for borrowers to afford higher-cost items such as cars and appliances.
Global retail sales growth jumped to a 5.4 percent annual pace in the three months through November, according to economists at JPMorgan Chase. And global auto sales reached an all-time high in December, the bank said.
"It was a year of big improvement in consumer spending after two years of very weak growth," said David Hensley, a global economist at JPMorgan Chase. "Businesses were pleasantly surprised by the increase in consumption."
Even in Europe, where growth remains slow after the region emerged from its longest-ever recession last year, consumers appear willing to spend more. Retail sales spiked 1.4 percent in November, the biggest increase in 12 years.
In the United States, Morgan Stanley economists forecast that consumer spending rose in the final three months of the year at its fastest pace in three years.
Consumer spending in Japan could jump by as much as 7 percent in the first quarter of 2014, JPMorgan calculates. Much of that gain might reflect greater spending ahead of an April increase in a national sales tax, from 5 percent to 8 percent. Sales will likely fall back after that, making it harder to determine broader trends.
With more consumers willing to open their wallets, businesses will also likely start spending more on machinery, computers and other equipment, Hensley said, providing an additional spark to growth.
The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday that it expects world growth to reach 3.7 percent this year, up from 3 percent last year. That's little changed from its October forecast.
The good news in developed countries is partially offset by slower growth in many large emerging economies. Brazil, India and Turkey have been raising interest rates to battle high inflation. Both high rates and rising prices are weighing on consumer spending in those countries.
For big global consumer product companies such as Unilever, growth in the U.S. and Europe hasn't been improving strongly enough to offset slowdowns elsewhere. The company, which makes Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Dove soap, and Lipton tea, said sales fell 3 percent last year to 49.8 billion euros ($67.5 billion). Profit rose 9 percent.
"The growth that you see in the United States and some people get excited about is not enough to make a difference" to Unilever, Chief Executive Paul Polman told analysts.
Ali Dibadj, an analyst at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, said Unilever's results reflect a broader slowdown in growth for consumer products that will likely continue in 2014.
Consumer-product companies have invested heavily in emerging markets as growth in developed markets slowed. But this year, growth will likely pick up in developed markets and slow in emerging countries. The sales slowdown will likely force more cost cuts, Dibadj said.
Mae Anderson and Toby Sterling of the AP contributed to this report.
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