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posted on 25 September 2015

Final September 2015 Michigan Consumer Sentiment Up Slightly from Preliminary Reading

by Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives/

The University of Michigan Final Consumer Sentiment for September came in at 87.2, an increase from the 85.7 Preliminary. had forecast 86.7 for the September Final.

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

The decline in optimism continued to narrow in late September as consumers increasingly concluded that the stock market declines had more to do with international conditions than the domestic economy. While the September Sentiment Index was at the lowest level in eleven months, it was still higher than in any prior month since May 2007. To be sure, a raft of recent events have been viewed as negative economic indicators by consumers, including falling commodity prices, weakened Chinese and other economies as well as continued stresses on European countries. Although most believe the domestic economy is still largely insulated, they have lowered the pace of job and wage growth that they now anticipate. The true significance of these findings is not the diminished economic prospects, but that consumers now believe that global economic trends can directly influence their own job and wage prospects as well as indirectly via financial markets. While now small, the influence of the global economy is certain to rise in the future and prompt widespread adjustments by consumers and policy makers.

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 2.2 percent above the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 3 percent above the geometric mean. The current index level is at the 47th percentile of the 453 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 17.9 points above the average recession mindset and 0.3 points below 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 4.7 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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