by Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives/dshort.com
The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment final number for December came in at 82.5. Today’s number is slightly below the Investing.com forecast of 83.0. Today’s level is 2.6 points below the interim high in July but 9.6 points above the December cliff-dive a year ago, which reflected Fiscal Cliff anxieties.
See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched index. I’ve highlighted recessions and included real GDP to help evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.
To put today’s report into the larger historical context since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is now only 3 percent below the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 2 percent below the geometric mean. The current index level is at the 39th percentile of the 432 monthly data points in this series.
The Michigan average since its inception is 85.1. 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 13.2 points above the average recession mindset and 5.0 points below the non-recession average.
It’s important to understand that this indicator is somewhat volatile with a 3.1 point absolute average monthly change. 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.
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).
The trend in sentiment since the Financial Crisis lows has been one of slow improvement, but we’ve certainly seen some volatility over the past two years, with the dysfunction in Washington DC as a contributing factor. Today’s sentiment level, however, is a welcome improvement and a harbinger of the holiday season.
Caveats on the Use of University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment
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.