Tuesday, 31 July 2012

July Consumer Confidence: Mood Improves Slightly

The Latest Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index was released this morning based on data collected through July 19. The 65.9 reading was above consensus estimate of 61.0 reported byBriefing.com. This is an increase from last month's 62.7, which is a tiny upward revision from the Conference Board's previously reported 62.0.

Here is an excerpt from the Conference Board report.
Says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board: "Despite this month's improvement in confidence, the overall Index remains at historically low levels. Consumers' attitude regarding current conditions was little changed in July, but their short-term expectations, which had declined last month, bounced back. However, while consumers expressed greater optimism about short-term business and employment prospects, they have grown more pessimistic about their earnings. Given the current economic environment — in particular the weak labor market — consumer confidence is not likely to gain any significant momentum in the coming months."

Consumers' appraisal of current conditions eased in July. Those claiming business conditions are "good" declined to 13.8 percent from 14.2 percent, while those saying business conditions are "bad" decreased to 34.2 percent from 35.9 percent. Consumers' assessment of the labor market was also mixed. Those stating jobs are “hard to get" declined to 40.8 percent from 41.2 percent, while those claiming jobs are "plentiful" decreased to 7.8 percent from 8.3 percent.

On the other hand, consumers were generally more optimistic about the short-term outlook in July. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months rose to 18.9 percent from 16.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen decreased to 14.6 percent from 15.8 percent. Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also more upbeat in July. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead increased to 17.6 percent from 14.8 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs edged down to 20.3 percent from 20.8 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, declined to 14.2 percent from 15.3 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 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 65.9 is well below the 80.3 of the current regression level (17.9% 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 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 21.1 percentile of all the monthly readings since the start of the monthly data series in June 1977 and at the 15.9 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, although the two have diverged of late.


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.

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