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posted on 29 July 2016

Final July 2016 Michigan Consumer Sentiment Worse Than Expected

by Doug Short / Jill Mislinski, Advisor Perspectives/

The University of Michigan Final Consumer Sentiment for July came in at 90.0, a 3.5 point decrease from the 93.5 June Final reading. had forecast 90.5.

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

Although confidence strengthened in late July, for the month as a whole the Sentiment Index was still below last month's level mainly due to increased concerns about economic prospects among upper income households. The Brexit vote was spontaneously mentioned by record numbers of households with incomes in the top third (23%), more than twice as frequently as among households with incomes in the bottom two-thirds (11%). Given the prompt rebound in stock prices as well as the tiny direct impact on U.S. trade, it is surprising that concerns about Brexit remained nearly as high in late July as immediately following the Brexit vote. While concerns about Brexit are likely to quickly recede, weaker prospects for the economy are likely to remain. Uncertainties surrounding global economic prospects and the presidential election will keep consumers more cautious in their expectations for future economic growth. Based on the strength in personal finances and low interest rates, real consumer spending is now expected to rise by 2.6% through mid 2017

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 5.4 percent above the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 6.0 percent above the geometric mean. The current index level is at the 54th percentile of the 463 monthly data points in this series.

The Michigan average since its inception is 85.4. During non-recessionary years the average is 87.6. The average during the five recessions is 69.3. So the latest sentiment number puts us 20.7 points above the average recession mindset and 2.4 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 3.5 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.The survey findings since December 2015 saw gradual decline followed by a bounceback later in the year, 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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