The Latest Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index was released this morning based on data collected through March 14. The 59.7 reading was well below the consensus estimate of 66.9 reported by Briefing.com. Today's number is a return to the weak level in January after an improvement last month. In context of this indicator's history, the consumer remains in a recessionary funk.
Here is an excerpt from the Conference Board report.
Says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board: "Consumer Confidence fell sharply in March, following February's uptick. This month's retreat was driven primarily by a sharp decline in expectations, although consumers were also more pessimistic in their assessment of current conditions. The loss of confidence, particularly expectations, mirrors the losses experienced this past December and January. The recent sequester has created uncertainty regarding the economic outlook and as a result, consumers are less confident."
Consumers' appraisal of current conditions declined in March. Those saying business conditions are "good" decreased to 16.0 percent from 17.6 percent, while those stating business conditions are "bad" increased to 29.3 percent from 28.2 percent. Consumers' assessment of the labor market was mixed. Those claiming jobs are "plentiful" decreased to 9.4 percent from 10.1 percent, but those claiming jobs are "hard to get" edged down to 36.2 percent from 36.9 percent.
Consumers are once again pessimistic about the short-term outlook. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased to 14.4 percent from 18.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions to worsen increased to 18.3 percent from 16.6 percent.
Consumers' outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead declined to 12.3 percent from 16.1 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs increased to 26.6 percent from 22.1 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase fell to 13.7 percent from 15.8 percent, while those expecting a decrease edged down to 18.0 percent from 19.3 percent. [press release]
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 reflects a recessionary mindset. It is virtually nearly 10 points below the average confidence of recessionary months.
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 a far 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 59.7 is 24.2% below the current regression level of 78.8.
On a percentile basis, the latest reading is at the 13.9 percentile of all the monthly readings since the start of the monthly data series in June 1977 and at the 10.4 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.