Consumer confidence edges upward in March

Richard Curtin. Image courtesy of D.C. Goings

Richard Curtin. Image courtesy of D.C. Goings

ANN ARBOR, Mich.--Consumer confidence edged upward as more favorable income and job trends offset rising gas prices, according to University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

The surveys, conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), have been monitoring consumer attitudes and expectations for more than 60 years.

Only among lower income households did higher gas prices marginally overwhelm increases in incomes and jobs. "More households reported an improved financial situation than anytime in the past four years and more consumers than ever before in the long history of the surveys reported hearing of improved employment conditions," Curtin said. Overall, the data indicates inflation-adjusted personal consumption expenditures can be expected to grow by 2.3 percent in 2012.

"Although consumers are not yet optimistic about future economic prospects, pessimism has recently faded at a rapid pace. Perhaps too rapidly, as expected job and income gains may be unrealistically high for the economy to meet. Typically those least affected by the downturn can create enough activity to maintain upward economic momentum. This time it will be more challenging as housing gains can be expected to remain sluggish as record numbers reported they would lose money if they sold their home to purchase another, and upper income households may hesitate in the months ahead due to uncertainties about next year’s taxes."

Personal Finances Improve

More households reported that their financial situation had improved than anytime since the March 2008 survey. When asked to explain in their own words how their finances had changed, more families cited income gains and fewer mentioned income declines than anytime in nearly four years. These recent gains did not prompt optimistic expectations as just one-in-four anticipated that their finances would improve during the year ahead, which was unchanged from a month and year ago. Expected increases in inflation held down more optimistic expectations.

Job Gains at Record Levels

The highest proportion of consumers in the history of the surveys spontaneously reported hearing about employment gains. Just 19 percent expected the jobless rate to increase in the year ahead, the lowest level in more than a decade. More households thought the economy had improved in March than anytime in the last seven years, but they still remained cautious about year-ahead prospects, with just one-in-three anticipating good economic times.

Consumer Sentiment Index


The Sentiment Index rose to 76.2 in the March 2012 survey, just ahead of the 75.3 in February, and substantially above last March’s 67.5. While the Sentiment Index has remained largely unchanged in the first three months of 2012, the average for the 1st quarter of 2012 was the highest since the 4th quarter of 2007, recovering half of its total cyclical loss. The Expectations Index fell slightly to 69.8 in March from 70.3 in February, while the Current Conditions Index rose to 86.0 in March, up from 83.0 in February.



"Although consumers are not yet optimistic about future economic prospects, pessimism has recently faded at a rapid pace," Curtin said. "Perhaps too rapidly, as expected job and income gains may be unrealistically high for the economy to meet. Typically those least affected by the downturn can create enough activity to maintain upward economic momentum. This time it will be more challenging as housing gains can be expected to remain sluggish as record numbers reported they would lose money if they sold their home to purchase another, and upper income households may hesitate in the months ahead due to uncertainties about next year’s taxes."



About the survey

The Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected. s are conducted throughout the month by telephone. The minimum monthly change required for significance at the 95% level in the Sentiment Index is 4.8 points; for Current and Expectations Indices, the minimum is 6.0 points.





Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world’s largest digital social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu.




 
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