Friday, September 11, 2009

The Importance of Rising Consumer Sentiment

Normally, the various Consumer Sentiment/Confidence indicators are viewed as "soft" barometers of economic activity, as they involve largely perceptions and are heavy on psychology as opposed to "hard" evidence regarding the performance of a particular segment of the economy. As such, their true significance, and despite the prominence that sometimes the media give them, is relatively limited. As sometimes the joke goes "one cannot spend confidence".

Today's sharp rebound in the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment index for early September to 70.2 from 65.7 in August deserves a little more attention for two reasons:

a) It fits nicely in to a pattern of steadily better looking economic data in the last couple of months, suggesting that a broad number of pieces are slowly coming together to suggest that an upturn in economic activity is in the offing. To be sure, the Consumer Sentiment series is quite volatile and the early September number simply recouped some ground that the series lost in July and August, after it had reached 70.8 in June. But it does confirm that this measure of consumer attitudes has rebounded convincingly from its 55 to 60 range late last year and early 2009.

b) While it is true that one cannot spend confidence (income growth is needed for that), one can certainly spend savings. If consumers start feeling steadily more upbeat (as the solid increase in both the current conditions and expectations components of the index showed today), they may become more inclined to let the recently elevated savings rate drift lower in the next few quarters, therefore leading to a moderate pick up in spending.


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