Atif Mian & Amir Sufi

Spending on new vehicles has been a bright spot for the U.S. retail sector. March sales estimates come out on Tuesday, and most expect a strong recovery after sales were depressed by the bitterly cold months of January and February.
 But a closer look at the data on new auto purchases reveals some potential worries. Nothing is conclusive at this point, but there is a chance we are seeing another debt-fueled spending spree that will prove unsustainable. We are going to take a closer look at some micro data in the next couple of weeks, but thought we would outline the case based on the aggregate data.
 New auto purchases have driven the consumer spending recovery to a large degree. The chart below shows the spending recovery for new auto sales and for all other retail spending. We index both series to be 100 in 2009, so the percentage change from any year to 2009 can be seen by taking the value for that year and subtracting 100.