Consumer Sentiment Wobbles

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index Preliminary report for April came in at 75.7, down from the 76.2 March final report. Today’s number was below the Briefing.com’s consensus forecast of 76.1 but a tad above Briefing.com’s less optimistic 75.5.

See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched index. Because the sentiment index has trended upward since its inception in 1978, I’ve added a linear regression to help understand the pattern of reversion to the trend. I’ve also highlighted recessions and included real GDP to help evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.

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To put today’s report into the larger historical context since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is about 11% below the average reading (arithmetic mean), 10% below the geometric mean, and 11% below the regression line on the chart above. The current index level is at the 26.7 percentile of the 412 monthly data points in this series.

The Michigan average since its inception is 85.4. During non-recessionary years the average is 88.1. The average during the five recessions is 69.3. So the March final sentiment number of 75.7 keeps us above the recession average but well below the average for non-recessionary periods.

The indicator can be somewhat volatile. For a visual sense of the volatility here is a chart with the monthly data and a three-month moving average.

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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 are remarkably similar to the Michigan Index.

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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).

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The trend in sentiment since the Financial Crisis lows had been one of slow improvement, but it topped out in February of last year at 77.5 and plunged to an interim low of 55.7 in August. The steady rise since the August trough is encouraging. However, in the larger historical context, as a quick look at the first chart above illustrates, the April preliminary number from the Michigan survey remains at a level more commonly associated with recessions.

Doug Short Ph.d is the author of dshort.com.