August 2012 Conference Board Consumer Confidence at 9 Month Low

Written by Doug Short and Steven Hansen

The August 2012 Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index declined to levels not seen since November 2011 – and now stands at 60.6 from a downwardly revised 65.4 for July. The market expected this index to come in between 65.7 and 66.5 (versus the 60.6).

This index remains in territory associated with past recessions – however, it remains high relative to the average values seen since the end of the 2007-09 recession. Note that this data is considered preliminary, and the cutoff for these results was 16 August 2012.

Here is an excerpt from the Conference Board report.

Says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board: “The Consumer Confidence Index is now at its lowest level since late last year (Nov. 2011, 55.2). A more pessimistic outlook was the primary reason for this month’s decline in confidence. Consumers were more apprehensive about business and employment prospects, but more optimistic about their financial prospects despite rising inflation expectations. Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was virtually unchanged, suggesting no significant pickup or deterioration in the pace of growth.”

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was little changed in August. Those claiming business conditions are “good” improved to 15.2 percent from 13.7 percent, while those saying business conditions are “bad” was unchanged at 34.4 percent. Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market varied. Those stating jobs are “plentiful” declined to 7.0 percent from 7.8 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged down to 40.7 percent from 41.0 percent.

Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook deteriorated in August. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 16.5 percent from 19.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen increased to 17.7 percent from 15.1 percent. Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead decreased to 15.4 percent from 17.6 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs rose to 23.4 percent from 20.6 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, improved to 15.7 percent from 14.2 percent.

The Recessionary Mindset

Let’s take a step back and put Lynn Franco’s interpretation in a larger perspective. The table here shows the average consumer confidence levels for each of the five recessions during the history of this monthly data series, which dates from June 1977. The latest number is well above the bottom of the unprecedented trough in 2008, but it is still below the 69.4 average confidence of recessionary months over three years after the end of the Great Recession (based on the official call of the National Bureau of Economic Research).

The chart below is another attempt to evaluate the historical context for this index as a coincident indicator of the economy. Toward this end I have highlighted recessions and included GDP. The linear regression through the index data shows the long-term trend and highlights the extreme volatility of this indicator. Statisticians may assign little significance to a regression through this sort of data. But the slope clearly resembles the regression trend for real GDP shown below, and it is probably a more revealing gauge of relative confidence than the 1985 level of 100 that the Conference Board cites as a point of reference. Today’s reading of 60.6 is well below the 80.0 of the current regression level (24.3% below, to be precise).

It is interesting that the consumer confidence pattern since the NBER declared end to the recession is similar to the 36-month pattern following the 1990-1991 recession, although the current pattern has so far been at a lower confidence level. At an even higher level, there was also a two year period following the 2001 recession where confidence lagged. A common factor in all three cases is a “jobless recovery”. To a great extent, Consumer Confidence is a proxy for unemployment problems. The rise in confidence earlier this year had been concurrent with an improvement in the monthly unemployment numbers. The subsequent decline in confidence over the past few months underscores the Conference Board’s findings of a gloomier outlook for the labor market.

On a percentile basis, the latest reading is at the 14.6 percentile of all the monthly readings since the start of the monthly data series in June 1977 and at the 10.8 percentile of non-recessionary months.

For an additional perspective on consumer attitudes, see my post on the most recent Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index. Here is the chart from that post.

And finally, let’s take a look at the correlation between consumer confidence and small business sentiment, the latter by way of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index. As the chart illustrates, the two have been closely correlated since the onset of the Financial Crisis.

The NFIB index has been less volatile than the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, but it has likewise only partially recovered since the official end to the recession in June 2009.

It will be interesting to see if Friday’s Michigan Consumer Sentiment echoes this downside move in confidence.

Caveats in Using the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index

According to Bloomberg, the following caveat is provided when reviewing this series:

The underlying series for ”planned purchases” (autos, homes, and major appliances) and ”vacation intentions” showed larger increases in November 2010 levels, primarily due to sample design differences. These level shifts will be treated as breaks, and there will be no historial revisions. Neither series is included in or has any impact on the Consumer Confidence Index.The switch to the Census X-12 seasonal adjustment program produced only minor differences for both levels and month-to-month changes. As a result, The Conference Board did not find it necessary to undertake a full historical revision of the CCI time series based on the seasonal adjustment method. The restated data for November 2010, December 2010 and January 2011 (preliminary data) are based on the prior seasonal adjustment method. This index is an average of responses to the following questions: 1. Respondents appraisal of current business conditions. 2. Respondents expectations regarding business conditions six months hence. 3. Respondents appraisal of the current employment conditions. 4. Respondents expectations regarding employment conditions six months hence. 5. Respondents expectations regarding their total family income six months hence. For each of the 5 questions, there are three response options: Postive, Negative and Neutral. The response proportions to each question are seasonally adjusted. For each of the five question (above), the POSITIVE figure is divided by the sum of the POSITIVE and NEGATIVE to yield a proportion, which we call the ‘RELATIVE’ value. For each question, the average RELATIVE for the calendar year 1985 is then used as a benchmark to yield the INDEX value for that question. From 1967 to mid 1977 the CCI was bi-monthly.

This is a survey based on a probability-design random sample – conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. Surveys are a quantification of opinion rather than facts and data.

Observers of consumer sentiment polls should be aware they are imperfect quantifications of opinion. The question arises whether they are a rear view window or a forward looking indicator – or possibly a little of each. There is little question, however, that poor consumer sentiment corresponds to poor economic performance. Econintersect believes that consumer sentiment is mostly a coincident or lagging economic indicator.

Related Posts:

All Posts on Consumer Confidence

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