US: Consumer Sentiment

Fri May 15 09:00:00 CDT 2015

Consensus Consensus Range Actual Previous
Sentiment Index - Level 95.8 93.5 to 98.0 88.6 95.9

Consumer confidence had been holding, as the FOMC assured us just a couple of weeks ago, at high levels, but perhaps less so now with the consumer sentiment index at 88.6 which is nearly 5 points below Econoday's low-side forecast. Both components show weakness with current conditions down 7.2 points to 99.8 and expectations down 7.3 points to 81.5. These are the lowest readings since October and November of last year.

At the same time that confidence is going down, inflation expectations, reflecting rising gasoline prices, are going up. Expectations 1-year out are up 3 tenths to 2.9 percent while expectations 5-years out are up 2 tenths to 2.8 percent. Despite the turn higher, however, these are still low levels.

The drop in current conditions hints at softness in this month's jobs market while the drop in expectations is a downgrade for the outlook on jobs. The hawks at the Fed have been anticipating, perhaps over anticipating, that strong consumer confidence levels would eventually translate to gains for retail sales. Retail sales have been flat along and now consumer confidence, based at least on today's consumer sentiment report, is moving backwards.

Market Consensus Before Announcement
Consumer sentiment has been signaling strength in consumer spending that, for the most part, has yet to appear. Most of consumer sentiment readings are near 9-year highs. One detail to note is inflation expectations which fell suddenly in April despite that month's rise in gasoline prices. Further declines in expectations could renew deflation talk.

The University of Michigan's Consumer Survey Center questions 500 households each month on their financial conditions and attitudes about the economy. Consumer sentiment is directly related to the strength of consumer spending. Consumer confidence and consumer sentiment are two ways of talking about consumer attitudes. Among economic reports, consumer sentiment refers to the Michigan survey while consumer confidence refers to The Conference Board's survey. Preliminary estimates for a month are released at mid-month. Final estimates for a month are released near the end of the month.

The pattern in consumer attitudes and spending is often the foremost influence on stock and bond markets. 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. More recently, the credit crunch and surge in gasoline prices led confidence downward in 2007. Despite a drop in gasoline prices, 2008 saw sentiment near record lows due to recession, a precipitous fall in stock prices, and fragile credit markets. However, consumer sentiment helped to confirm the easing of recession during 2009 as this index slowly rose from earlier lows. One should be aware that this report is released to private subscribers several minutes prior to release to the media. This may account for occasional market activity just prior to public release.

Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, so the markets are always dying 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. With this in mind, 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.