The US consumer has for many years confounded the experts, usually by carrying on spending through a number of economic squalls.

This time, the severity of the recession and the evaporation of credit is hitting home, as signalled by a rising savings rate.

Retail sales for March were much weaker than forecast, falling 1.1 per cent, rather than rising the predicted 0.3 per cent. Excluding cars, retail sales fell 0.9 per cent, rather than a forecast unchanged reading.

Spending on discretionary items such as furniture, clothing, restaurants and, particularly, electronics slumped, with only food and health experiencing a rise over the month.

It makes for grim reading, and although upward revisions to spending in February and January offset some of the sting, consumers are still retrenching.

A sliver of good news? After sales collapsed at an annual rate of 25.5 per cent during the fourth quarter of last year, the drop in sales over the first quarter runs at an annualised rate of minus 4.9 per cent, according to Capital Economics.

As the consumer enters spring, it is clear that rising unemployment, falling home prices and tighter credit standards are altering spending decisions. While the worst may be over, a weak start to second-quarter sales beckons, given the disappointing lead set by the March numbers.

Much depends on the employment picture. The tone set by weekly jobless claims will bear close scrutiny from investors betting that the worst is over and that stocks hit their lows last month.

Job insecurity trumps the positive forces of low energy prices, the recent reduction in taxes as part of the stimulus package, and the pick up in mortgage refinancing, whereby lower home-loan payments leave consumers with more cash in their wallets.

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