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The Level and Composition of Consumption Over the Business Cycle: The Role of "Quasi-Fixed" Expenditures.

October 2005

Kerwin Kofi Charles and University of Michigan and NBER; Melvin Stephens Jr. Carnegie Mellon University and NBER.

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We study how the level and composition of household expenditures changes over the business cycle for households at different positions in the income distribution. Using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we find that transitory, state-specific increases in unemployment causes lower income groups to lower their total expenditure outlays, contrary to the prediction of the textbook account of consumption behavior. In addition, in bad economic times these groups raise the share of their total outlays devoted to relative fixed outlays like home or car payments. These adjustments are primarily concentrated among reductions in outlays devoted to entertainment and personal care expenditures. We find no similar effects for households at higher positions in the income distribution. It is difficult to attribute these differences across households to differences in credit constraints, both because the specific results for credit holdings are imprecisely estimated and because income losses experienced by higher SES households are so small that there is, for them, little need to adjust consumption.