Households pushed their savings rate to the highest level in more than 15 years in May as a big boost in incomes from the government's stimulus program was devoted more to bolstering nest eggs than increased spending.
The higher savings rate is healthy in the long term, economists said. But without vigorous consumer spending, the government may have to do more to revive the economy, possibly through further tax breaks and spending.
The Commerce Department said Friday that consumer spending rose 0.3 percent in May, in line with expectations. But incomes jumped 1.4 percent, the biggest gain in a year and easily outpacing the 0.3 percent increase that economists expected.
The savings rate, which was hovering near zero in early 2008, surged to 6.9 percent, the highest level since December 1993.
The income increase reflected temporary factors relating to the $787 billion economic stimulus program that President Obama pushed through Congress in February to fight the recession. That program included one-time payments to people receiving Social Security and other government pension benefits.
"Personal tax cuts and government income support have brought consumers back from the dead, but the recuperation period promises to be a long one," said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.
The big jump in the savings rate also made some Wall Street investors nervous. The Dow Jones industrial average lost about 50 points in afternoon trading. Broader indices were mixed.
The stimulus package also featured reductions in payroll tax withholding designed to get people to start spending more money and boost the economy. Those factors helped increase after-tax incomes 1.6 percent in May. However, without the special factors, after-tax incomes would have risen just 0.2 percent.
The savings rate, which is a percentage of disposable income, rose to 6.9 percent from 5.6 percent in April. Last month's savings rate was far above recent annual rates, which dipped below 1 percent from 2005 through 2007 as a booming economy and soaring home prices pushed Americans to spend most of what they earned.
Those factors have been reversed amid the longest recession since World War II. Triggered by a housing bust, the downturn has depressed home prices by the largest amounts since the Great Depression.
Still, private economists viewed the 0.3 percent rise in spending in May as encouraging after no change in April and a 0.3 percent drop in March. April had originally been reported as a drop of 0.1 percent. It was the best monthly performance since spending rose by 0.4 percent in February.
Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for about 70 percent of total economic activity. Economists are hoping that improved spending will help support a rebound in economic activity.