|Consumer Confidence - Level||103.0||100.5 to 104.0||95.2||101.3||101.4|
Consumer confidence has fallen back noticeably this month, down more than 6 points to a much lower-than-expected 95.2. This compares very poorly with the Econoday consensus for 103.0 and is even far below the Econoday low estimate of 100.5. The weakness, ominously, is the result of falling assessments of the jobs market, both the current jobs market and expectations for the future jobs market. The second quarter, which is expected to be much stronger than the weather-depressed first quarter, isn't likely to get off to a fast start, at least as far as this report goes.
The most striking weakness in April is the assessment of future conditions with the expectations component down 8.5 points to 87.5 for the weakest reading going all the way back to September. And the most striking weakness among the sub-components is employment, where fewer see more jobs opening up 6 months from now and more see fewer jobs available. This spills over into income where fewer see an increase ahead and more see a decrease.
But also weak is the present situation component which is down more than 2-1/2 points to 106.8 for its weakest reading since December. Here the most closely watched sub-component is the jobs-hard-to-get reading which is up nearly 1 full percentage point to 26.4 percent. This reading will hold back expectations at least to some degree for a big bounce back in the April employment report from a very weak March.
Inflation expectations are down sharply this month, 4 tenths lower to 4.8 percent which is one of the lowest readings of the recovery. Gas prices have been edging higher but are still low, the latter no doubt a major factor behind the latest reading.
Buying plans are mixed with automobile and vacation plans down but not home plans which are up. But home buying won't be a featured activity for consumers if their expectations for employment are weak. Today's report, showing weakness in the jobs assessment and in inflation expectations, won't be pulling forward expectations for the Federal Reserve's first rate hike.
Market Consensus Before Announcement
The Conference Board's consumer confidence index jumped to 101.3 in March from an upwardly revised 98.8 in February. March's reading is close to January's 7-1/2 year high of 103.8. March's gain was centered entirely in the expectations component which was up 6.0 points to 96.0. This is the best reading for this component since February 2011 and reflects expected gains in income and the jobs market. A negative, however, was the present situation component which fell 3.0 points to 109.1. Weakness here reflects a slight rise in the jobs-hard-to-get reading, which is a marginally negative indication for Friday's March employment report, and also a rise in those describing current business conditions as bad. Still, those describing conditions as bad, at 19.4 percent, are well outnumbered by those describing conditions as good, at 26.7 percent.
The Conference Board compiles a survey of consumer attitudes on the economy. The headline Consumer Confidence Index is based on consumers' perceptions of current business and employment conditions, as well as their expectations for six months hence regarding business conditions, employment, and income. Three thousand households across the country are surveyed each month.
The Conference Board changed its polling company in 2010. The current polling company is Nielsen Co. with the former being TNS Inc. The switchover reference month for the new data is November 2010. Because of the change in the polling service (even though the questions in the questionnaire are the same) the data are not completely consistent and November 2010 should be considered a break in the series. In general, while the level of consumer confidence is associated with consumer spending, the two do not move in tandem each and every month.
The pattern in consumer attitudes can be a key influence on stock and bond markets. Consumer spending drives two-thirds of the economy and if the consumer is not confident, the consumer will not be willing to pull out the big bucks. Confidence impacts consumer spending which affects economic growth. For stocks, strong economic growth translates to healthy corporate profits and higher stock prices. For bonds, the focus is whether economic growth goes overboard and leads to inflation. Ideally, the economy walks that fine line between strong growth and excessive (inflationary) growth. This balance was achieved through much of the nineties. For this reason alone, investors in the stock and bond markets enjoyed huge gains during the bull market of the 1990s. Consumer confidence did shift down in tandem with the equity market between 2000 and 2002 and then recovered in 2003 and 2004. In 2008 and 2009, the credit crunch and past recession led confidence downward with consumer spending contracting in tandem. More recently during the economic recovery, consumer confidence has edged back up but has been outpaced by improvement in spending.
Since consumer spending accounts for such a large portion of the economy, the markets are always eager to know what consumers are up to and how they might behave in the near future. The more confident consumers are about the economy and their own personal finances, the more likely they are to spend. It's easy to see how this index of consumer attitudes gives insight to the direction of the economy. Just note that changes in consumer confidence and retail sales don't move in tandem month by month.