Consumer Confidence Holds Steady In Recent Months

Consumer confidence has remained largely unchanged over the past few months, reports the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in its latest Survey of Consumers. February’s Index of Consumer Sentiment reading of 91.7 was down a modest 0.3 percent from January, and 0.4 percent up from three months ago.

The institute credits the stability to gains in personal finances—due to very low inflation rates and modest increases in wages—offsetting weaker conditions in the economy. The  weakness stems from slowing exports, manufacturing and oil production, and volatile financial markets. While consumer confidence is down 6.5 percent from its January 2015 peak, the institute attributes that to a somewhat slower pace of economic growth and its data points toward real consumer spending gains of 2.7 percent in 2016.

“The Federal Reserve seeks a helping hand to lower real interest rates from an old foe: inflationary psychology,” says Richard Curtin, the Survey of Consumers’ chief economist. “Higher inflation expectations can accelerate perceived declines in real interest rates and stimulate spending. The risk associated with this strategy is the Fed’s ability to “fine-tune” the resulting inflationary psychology, limiting expectations to their two-percent target. The more likely result is that consumers will reduce rather than increase spending due to lower inflation-adjusted incomes. This reaction is hardly new to consumers, as the erosion of incomes due to price increases had repeatedly ended spending booms during the inflationary era of the 1970s.”

In February, 47 percent of households reported an improved financial situation, up from 40 percent in January. In the year ahead, households expect, on average, increases in income of 1.9 percent, a rate of increase tying with January 2015 as the highest the institute has observed since September 2008. Overall, consumers have a more positive outlook of their financial prospects for the year ahead than any other time since October 2006.

Paradoxically, consumers have dim expectations for the economy in the year ahead, which the institute credits to unfavorable economic developments dominating the news heard by consumers in the recent survey, with more frequent mentions of job losses rather than gains. While the economy is still expected to improve, consumers’ most common complaint was that a slowdown in growth rates will hamper the pace of job growth in the year ahead.

The institute’s Survey of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the U.S. an equal probability of being selected. Interviews are conducted throughout the month by telephone.

filed under industry-news | march-2016
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