Consumer confidence: fluff or thrill

by Rebecca Wilder

Thrill. The Conference Board reported that the August consumer confidence index (CCI) jumped 14% in August to 54.06. In contrast, the August University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment index (CSI) fell; but the two generally trend together, and the CSI is subject to revisions reported tomorrow.

Confidence can be swayed by current political agenda or asset prices, but nevertheless, it is a coincident measure of the business cycle. And broken down into its two components – the present economic situation index and expectations index – the August report was quite positive (as positive as can be coming off of record lows).

The expectations index surged almost 16% in August to 73.48, its highest level since December 2007 and 2.7% over its previous high in May 2009. The current conditions index grew around 7%, but is hovering at low levels with no strong sign of improvement.

Clearly, the expectations index is making much more headway than the present situation index. And this is why that information is important: historically, the expectations index, rather than the current conditions index, is a good indicator of consumer spending growth.

The chart illustrates annual personal consumer spending growth and the two components of the CCI, with associated simple correlation coefficients. The correlation between the overall CCI and annual PCE spending growth spanning June 1977- June 2009 is 0.63. However, the biggest weight is coming off of the expectations component of the CCI, correlation = 0.69, rather than the present situation component of the CCI, correlation = 0.45.

On the other hand, the present-situation component of the CCI is a decent indicator of current labor market conditions.

The chart illustrates annual employment growth (measured by the nonfarm payroll), and the two components of the CCI. The simple correlation between the overall CCI and employment growth is 0.59 (noticeably smaller than the PCE correlation), which according to its correlation, is more heavily weighted by the present situation component of the CCI.

Based on this simple analysis, the CCI reading is consistent with an oncoming surge in spending growth over the next six months. Even in the recovery after the 1991 recession, when the expectations index improved quickly while spending growth was sluggish to rise, spending growth jumped from essentially 0% annual growth to almost 3.6% in just four months – after the surge in expectations index and before the bottom in the current conditions index.

Yes, there are plenty of credit-related issues why this might not happen. And there is an obvious economic link between employment, income, and spending. However, for those indicators that are critical to recovery, i.e., consumer spending (housing and inventories are important, too – see the second chart on this post), the expectations index is certainly a positive signal for spending events to come.

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