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August Consumer Confidence Surprises To The Downside!

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    August 29, 2012

    The Latest Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index was released this morning based on data collected through August 16. The 60.6 reading was below the consensus estimate of 65.7 reported byBriefing.com. This is a decline from last month’s 65.4, which is a slight downward revision from the Conference Board’s previously reported 65.9.

    Here is an excerpt from the Conference Board report.

    Says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board: “The Consumer Confidence Index is now at its lowest level since late last year (Nov. 2011, 55.2). A more pessimistic outlook was the primary reason for this month’s decline in confidence. Consumers were more apprehensive about business and employment prospects, but more optimistic about their financial prospects despite rising inflation expectations. Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was virtually unchanged, suggesting no significant pickup or deterioration in the pace of growth.”

    Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was little changed in August. Those claiming business conditions are “good” improved to 15.2 percent from 13.7 percent, while those saying business conditions are “bad” was unchanged at 34.4 percent. Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market varied. Those stating jobs are “plentiful” declined to 7.0 percent from 7.8 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged down to 40.7 percent from 41.0 percent.

    Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook deteriorated in August. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 16.5 percent from 19.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen increased to 17.7 percent from 15.1 percent. Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead decreased to 15.4 percent from 17.6 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs rose to 23.4 percent from 20.6 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, improved to 15.7 percent from 14.2 percent.   [press release]

    The Recessionary Mindset

    Let’s take a step back and put Lynn Franco’s interpretation in a larger perspective. The table here shows the average consumer confidence levels for each of the five recessions during the history of this monthly data series, which dates from June 1977. The latest number is well above the bottom of the unprecedented trough in 2008, but it is still below the 69.4 average confidence of recessionary months over three years after the end of the Great Recession (based on the official call of the National Bureau of Economic Research).

    The chart below is another attempt to evaluate the historical context for this index as a coincident indicator of the economy. Toward this end I have highlighted recessions and included GDP. The linear regression through the index data shows the long-term trend and highlights the extreme volatility of this indicator. Statisticians may assign little significance to a regression through this sort of data. But the slope clearly resembles the regression trend for real GDP shown below, and it is probably a more revealing gauge of relative confidence than the 1985 level of 100 that the Conference Board cites as a point of reference. Today’s reading of 60.6 is well below the 80.0 of the current regression level (24.3% below, to be precise).

     

     

    It is interesting that the consumer confidence pattern since the NBER declared end to the recession is similar to the 36-month pattern following the 1990-1991 recession, although the current pattern has so far been at a lower confidence level. At an even higher level, there was also a two year period following the 2001 recession where confidence lagged. A common factor in all three cases is a “jobless recovery”. To a great extent, Consumer Confidence is a proxy for unemployment problems. The rise in confidence earlier this year had been concurrent with an improvement in the monthly unemployment numbers. The subsequent decline in confidence over the past few months underscores the Conference Board’s findings of a gloomier outlook for the labor market.

    On a percentile basis, the latest reading is at the 14.6 percentile of all the monthly readings since the start of the monthly data series in June 1977 and at the 10.8 percentile of non-recessionary months.

    For an additional perspective on consumer attitudes, see my post on the most recent Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index. Here is the chart from that post.

     

     

    And finally, let’s take a look at the correlation between consumer confidence and small business sentiment, the latter by way of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index. As the chart illustrates, the two have been closely correlated since the onset of the Financial Crisis.

     

     

    The NFIB index has been less volatile than the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, but it has likewise only partially recovered since the official end to the recession in June 2009.

    It will be interesting to see if Friday’s Michigan Consumer Sentiment echoes this downside move in confidence.

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    Images: via Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    My original dshort.com website was launched in February 2005 using a domain name based on my real name, Doug Short. I’m a formerly retired first wave boomer with a Ph.D. in English from Duke. Now my website has been acquired byAdvisor Perspectives, where I have been appointed the Vice President of Research.

    My first career was a faculty position at North Carolina State University, where I achieved the rank of Full Professor in 1983. During the early ’80s I got hooked on academic uses of microcomputers for research and instruction. In 1983, I co-directed the Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities. An IBM executive who attended the conference made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.

    Thus began my new career as a Higher Education Consultant for IBM — an ambassador for Information Technology to major universities around the country. After 12 years with Big Blue, I grew tired of the constant travel and left for a series of IT management positions in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I concluded my IT career managing the group responsible for email and research databases at GlaxoSmithKline until my retirement in 2006.

    Contrary to what many visitors assume based on my last name, I’m not a bearish short seller. It’s true that some of my content has been a bit pessimistic in recent years. But I believe this is a result of economic realities and not a personal bias. For the record, my efforts to educate others about bear markets date from November 2007, as this Motley Fool article attests.
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