Desperately seeking confidence

Consumer and business confidence reflect the sentiment, emotion, or anxiety of consumers and businesses. Confidence surveys therefore try to capture these feelings of optimism or pessimism. They aim to shed light on spending intentions and hence the short-term prospects for private-sector spending. For example, a fall in confidence would be expected to lead to a fall in consumption and investment spending. This is particularly relevant in the UK with the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit. We briefly summarise here current patterns in confidence.

Through the use of surveys attempts are made to measure confidence. One long-standing survey is that conducted for the European Commission. Each month consumers and firms across the European Union are asked a series of questions, the answers to which are used to compile indicators of consumer and business confidence. For instance, consumers are asked about how they expect their financial position to change. They are offered various options such as ‘get a lot better, ‘get a lot worse’ and balances are then calculated on the basis of positive and negative replies.

The chart plots confidence in the UK for consumers and different sectors of business since the mid 1990s. The chart captures the volatility of confidence. This volatility is generally greater amongst businesses than consumers, and especially so in the construction sector. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The chart nicely captures the collapse in confidence during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. The significant tightening of credit conditions contributed to a significant dampening of aggregate demand which was further propagated (amplified) by the collapse in confidence. Consequently, the economy slid in to recession with national output contracting by 6.3 per cent during the 5 consecutive quarters during which output fell.

To this point, the current weakening of confidence is not of the same magnitude as that of the late 2000s. In January 2009 consumer confidence had fallen to an historic low of -35. Nonetheless, the December 2018 figure for consumer confidence was -9, the lowest figure since July 2016 the month following the EU referendum, and markedly lower than the +8 seen as recently as 2014. The long-term (median) average for the consumer confidence balance is -6.

The weakening in consumer confidence is mirrored by a weakening in confidence in the retail and service sectors. The confidence balances in December 2018 in these two sector both stood at -8 which compares to their longer-term averages of around +5. In contrast, confidence in industry and construction has so far held fairly steady with confidence levels in December 2018 at +8 in industry and at 0 in construction compared to their long-term averages of -4 and -10 respectively.

It will be interesting to see how confidence has been affected by recent events. The glut of stories suggesting that trading conditions were especially difficult for retailers over the Christmas and New Year period is consistent with the weakening confidence already observed amongst consumers and retailers. However, it is unlikely that recent events will have done anything other than to exacerbate the trend for a weakening of confidence of domestic consumers and retailers. Hence, the likelihood is an intensification of caution and prudence.

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Questions

  1. Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect both consumer and business confidence. How similar are both these lists?
  2. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives confidence?
  3. What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer and business confidence indicators expect each indicator to predict?
  4. What is meant by the concept of ‘prudence’ in the context of spending? What factors might determine the level of prudence
  5. How might prudence be expected to affect spending behaviour?
  6. How might we distinguish between confidence shocks’ and confidence as a ‘propagator’ of shocks?