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posted on 26 February 2016

Final February 2016 Michigan Consumer Sentiment Better Than Forecast

by Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives/

The University of Michigan Final Consumer Sentiment for February came in at 91.7, a 1.0 point increase from the 90.7 February Preliminary reading. had forecast an even 91.0.

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

Consumer confidence nearly recovered the entire small loss it recorded at mid month, with the Sentiment Index finishing February just 0.3 Index-points below January. Although consumers are not as optimistic as at the start of last year, the Sentiment Index is just 6.5% below the cyclical peak of 98.1 set in January 2015. Such a small decline is hardly consistent with the onset of a downturn in consumer spending. By way of contrast, in January 2007, the Sentiment Index reached a cyclical peak of 96.9 and then declined by 27% to 70.8 in the February 2008 survey. At that time, the sharp drop came with the early warning that "declines of this magnitude have always been associated with subsequent recessions." Needless to say, the current decline of just 6.5% hardly merits a recession warning, although it does indicate a somewhat slower expansion in consumer expenditures-to 2.7% in 2016, down from 3.1% in 2015. Most of the decline from last year's peak has been in how consumers view year-ahead prospects for the economy, while the outlook for their personal financial situation has improved to its best level in ten years. Rather modest wage gains as well as very low inflation have meant that consumers expect increases in their real incomes during the year ahead. Consumers' most important concern involves how much the slowdown in GDP growth will affect employment growth. At present, consumers anticipate only a slight negative impact on jobs.

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.

Michigan Consumer Sentiment

To put today's report into the larger historical context since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is 7.4 percent above the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 8.7 percent above the geometric mean. The current index level is at the 63rd percentile of the 458 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 22.4 points above the average recession mindset and 4.2 points above the non-recession average.

Note that this indicator is somewhat volatile, with a 3.0 point absolute average monthly change. The latest data point was a 0.3 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.

3-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.

Consumer Confidence

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).

NFIB Optimism

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 2015 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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