The Conference Board's March Consumer Confidence number came in at 70.2 this morning. As has been the case for the last four years, hope for a better tomorrow is holding the number up. It certainly wasn't the real estate market, which has been shown to be weak once again.
A healthy consumer confidence number is 90 or above. This number has not been this high at any point since the "recovery" began in mid-2009. It has instead ranged between a deep recession level in the 40s and a milder recession level in the 70s. What has caused repeated rises and falls in the number are changes in the expectations sub-component. How people view current conditions has remained dismally low.
This is how it works. Consumers are bombarded with stories from the news media about how the economy is heading up and then they are asked if they think the economy will be better in six months. Not surprisingly, many answer yes and this causes overall consumer confidence to rise. As the months go on and they don't see any real improvement they become more pessimistic and they don't think things will be better in six months and then the number falls. This scenario has played out multiple times in the last three years.
Expectations for a better future zoomed to 88.4 in February, but fell back somewhat to 83.0 in March. The Present Situation Index, however, was a very poor 46.4 in February, but rose to 51.0 in March. While these numbers are not good, they are much better than some Present Situation numbers during the "recovery" year of 2011. Those were at depression levels. The worst number last year however wasn't the Present Situation one, but the Jobs Are Plentiful reading. This was statistically indistinguishable from zero at one point. Since negative numbers are not possible in the report, the reading has not gotten worse.
There have been two running news stories since the beginning of 2012 that have buoyed the consumer confidence numbers - an improving employment situation and a recovering housing market. Both of these may prove to be illusory. The hype about the real estate recovery is already starting to unravel.
U.S. home prices dropped for the fifth month in a row in January according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index. They are now down 34.4% from their highs in July 2006. The National Association of Realtors has reported that existing home sales slipped 0.9% in February to an annual rate of 4.59 million units. As for pending contracts, a whopping 33% were canceled last month. While many have pointed out that home sales were much better in February 2012 than they were in February 2011, they usually neglect to mention that most of the U.S. was snowed in last February and this February was one of the warmest on record. The real recovery seems to have been one in the weather.
The sharp differences in weather from year to year can impact any economic statistic that is seasonally adjusted. The employment numbers are in this category. They may have been juiced up by a warmer winter as well. If so, U.S. consumers will start to become less hopeful about the future as they have before and the confidence numbers will start drifting down later this year.
This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.