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Fears for UK growth as consumer confidence slumps

In our blog What can we read into signs of easing consumer confidence? we noted the slight easing in consumer confidence that had occurred since the autumn of last year. Nonetheless, at that time, survey data from the European Commission was continuing to show consumer confidence levels still well above their long-run average. However, following the UK vote to leave the European Union consumer confidence has fallen sharply and now the headline confidence indicator has fallen below its long-term average for the first time since June 2013.

We take this opportunity to update our May blog to better understand the extent and nature of the decline in confidence. The importance of confidence changes is typically modelled by economists in their models of the macroeconomy as a demand-side shock. Falling consumer confidence would be expected to dampen an economy’s output levels since aggregate demand falls as households spend less. Consequently, a marked fall in confidence amounts to a negative demand-side shock.

The European Commission’s confidence measure is collated from questions in a monthly survey. In the UK around 2000 individuals are surveyed. Across the current 28 member states over 41 000 people are surveyed.

In the survey individuals are asked a series of 12 questions which are designed to provide information on spending and saving intentions. These questions include perceptions of financial well-being, the general economic situation, consumer prices, unemployment, saving and the undertaking of major purchases.

The responses elicit either negative or positive responses. For example, respondents may feel that over the next 12 months the financial situation of their household will improve a little or a lot, stay the same or deteriorate a little or a lot. A weighted balance of positive over negative replies can be calculated. The balance can vary from –100, when all respondents choose the most negative option, to +100, when all respondents choose the most positive option.

The European Commission’s principal consumer confidence indicator is the average of the balances of four of the twelve questions posed: the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations (with inverted sign) and savings, all over the next 12 months. These forward-looking balances are seasonally adjusted.

Sometimes other combinations of the 12 questions are averaged to produce alternative headline confidence numbers (see, for example, the newspaper articles below). These may include a mix of forward and backward-looking questions. However, in this blog we report on the European Commission’s principal confidence indicator as outlined above. The intention is that this or any other confidence indicator tracks developments in households’ spending intentions and, in turn, likely changes in the rate of growth of household consumption.

Chart 1 shows the consumer confidence indicator for the UK. The long-term average of –8.7 shows that negative responses across the four questions typically outweigh positive responses.

In July the confidence balance stood at –9.2 down from –1.2 in June. This 8 point fall is the largest monthly fall in this particular headline indicator since January 1991 when it fell 11 points. The fall also means that not only do negative responses now dominate but more so than is usual. The fall in confidence is therefore very stark indeed. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Chart 2 is important because it enables us to see what drives the European Commission’s headline confidence indicator for the UK by looking at its four component balances. The sharp decline in confidence is reflected in a deterioration in all four components. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The most notable change in the individual confidence balances is the sharp deterioration in expectations for the general economy. In July the forward-looking general economic situation balance fell to –29.9 having stood at –15.7 in June. As recently as last December it registered –1.4. This is the lowest forward-looking general economy confidence balance since October 2012, though still some way above the –50.1 reported in July 2008 when the financial crisis was unfolding.

Alongside the 14 point drop in the balance for general economy expectations, the UK experienced 8 point drops in both the balances for households’ financial expectations and the expectations of saving over the next 12 months. In other words, households expect to become financially poorer and less able to save.

The monthly survey contains other questions that can help to predict future spending patterns. For example, we might expect the responses to questions relating to perceptions around what the survey call ‘major purchases’ to give us some important insight in households’ financial well-being and spending plans. ‘Major purchases’ are taken to be items such as furniture, electrical goods and electronic devices.

Chart 3 shows the balances to both whether now is the right time to make major purchases and to whether respondents expect to spend more on major purchases in the coming 12 months compared to the past 12 months. July’s data show a marked deterioration in sentiment towards making major purchases. The balance relating to whether now is the right time to make major purchases fell by 6.5 points, the largest fall since December 2011, while the forward-looking major purchase balance fell by 4.6 points, the largest fall since January 2011. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The fall in the major purchases balances is consistent with the idea that households are feeling a sense of heightened uncertainty. The implication of this is that households will tend to be more cautious, cutting back on expenditures, including major purchases.

The magnitude of the fall in UK consumer confidence following the outcome of the EU referendum on 23 June is even more stark when compared to developments in consumer confidence across the 28 member states of the European Union and in the 19 countries that make up the Euro area.

Chart 4 shows how UK consumer confidence recovered relatively more strongly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The headline confidence indicator rose strongly from the middle of 2013 and, as we noted earlier, was consistently in positive territory during 2014 and remained so at the start of this year. The slump in consumer confidence in the UK means that the headline confidence measure has now fallen below that across the EU as well as that in the euro area. In fact, confidence in the euro area has been consistently between –7 or –9 for the past six months. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Interest now turns to whether the slump in confidence in the UK will persist or, worse still, deepen further. The implied negative impact on aggregate demand would be expected to translate into weaker growth. The concern therefore is the extent to which we can expect UK growth to weaken in the months ahead. The prospect of weaker growth is likely to influence economic policy.

The government has already talked about ‘resetting fiscal policy’ which can be taken to mean a relative loosening in its fiscal policy relative to the Government’s original plans. Similarly we might yet see a further loosening of monetary policy. While the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee held the official Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent at its July meeting, many commentators expect a cut sooner rather than later. The confidence data will be one important consideration in the Bank’s calculations.

Articles
UK sees biggest fall in consumer confidence for 26 years after Brexit vote The Guardian, Katie Allen (29/7/16)
UK consumer confidence takes biggest drop since 1990s ITV News (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence suffers biggest drop in 26 years after Brexit vote The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence slides at fastest pace in 26 years after Brexit vote Indepedent, Ben Chu (29/7/16)
Housing Outlook ’Uncertain’ as Brexit Hits Consumer Confidence Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (28/7/16)
Brexit Sees U.K. Consumer Confidence Fall Most Since 1990 Bloomberg, Charlotte Ryan (29/7/16)
Consumer confidence nosedives in Scotland in wake of Brexit vote Herald Scotland, Helen McArdle (29/7/16)

Data
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission

Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect consumer confidence.
  2. Analyse the ways in which consumer confidence might affect economic activity.
  3. Explain what you understand by a positive and a negative demand-side shock. How might changes in consumer confidence initiate demand shocks?
  4. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate? (a) Consumer confidence drives economic activity. (b) Economic activity drives consumer confidence.
  5. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer confidence indicator hope that the indicator would help to predict?
  6. Analyse the possible economic implications of the fall in consumer confidence following the EU referendum vote.
  7. What economic effects might any persistence in the fall in consumer confidence have?
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