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posted on 14 August 2015

Preliminary August 2015 Michigan Consumer Sentiment Almost Unchanged from Last Month

by Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives/

The University of Michigan Preliminary Consumer Sentiment for August came in at 92.9, a very slight decrease from the 93.1 June final reading. had forecast 93.5 for the July Preliminary. The Index is at its highest nine month average since 2004.

Surveys of Consumers chief economist, Richard Curtin makes the following comments:

Consumer confidence was virtually unchanged in early August from the July reading, marking its highest nine month average since 2004. Renewed strength in personal finances largely offset slight declines in prospects for the national economy and buying conditions. The declines in prospects for the economy probably reflect the expected increases in interest rates, while the eventual but small impacts from falling commodity prices, the devaluation of the renminbi, and a weaker global economy have yet to occur (other than from declines in oil prices). The most important offset to these concerns is that consumption expenditures can be expected to expand at an annual rate of 3.0% in 2015 and 2016, prompting continuing net gains in jobs and incomes.

See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched indicator. Recessions and real GDP are included to help us evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.

Click to View

To put today's report into the larger historical context since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is now 9 percent above the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 10 percent above the geometric mean. The current index level is at the 69th percentile of the 452 monthly data points in this series.

The Michigan average since its inception is 85.3. During non-recessionary years the average is 87.5. The average during the five recessions is 69.3. So the latest sentiment number puts us 23.6 points above the average recession mindset and 5.4 points above the non-recession average.

Note that this indicator is somewhat volatile, with a 3.1 point absolute average monthly change. The latest data point was a 0.2 point change from the previous month. For a visual sense of the volatility, here is a chart with the monthly data and a three-month moving average.

For the sake of comparison here is a chart of the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index (monthly update here). The Conference Board Index is the more volatile of the two, but the broad pattern and general trends have been remarkably similar to the Michigan Index.

Click to View

And finally, the prevailing mood of the Michigan survey is also similar to the mood of small business owners, as captured by the NFIB Business Optimism Index (monthly update here).

Click to View

The general trend in the Michigan Sentiment Index since the Financial Crisis lows has been one of slow improvement. But the survey findings since December have been relatively range bound with January remaining the interim peak.

Caveats on the Use of University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment

This survey is quantitatively derived from a fairly complex questionnaire (sample here) via a monthly telephone survey. According to Bloomberg:

This release is frequently released early. It can come out as early as 9:55am EST. The official release time is 10:00. Base year 1966=100. A survey of consumer attitudes concerning both the present situation as well as expectations regarding economic conditions conducted by the University of Michigan. For the preliminary release approximately three hundred consumers are surveyed while five hundred are interviewed for the final figure. The level of consumer sentiment is related to the strength of consumer spending. Please note that this report is released twice per month. The first is a preliminary figure while the second is the final (revised) figure.

This is a survey, a quantification of opinion rather than facts and data. The question - does sentiment lead or truly correlate to any economic activity? Since 1990, there seems to be a loose general correlation to real household income growth.

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