It is perhaps timely given the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit to revisit and update our blog Desperately seeking confidence written back in January. Consumer and business confidence reflects the sentiment, emotion, or anxiety of consumers and businesses. Confidence surveys therefore try to capture these feelings of optimism or pessimism. They may then provide us with timely information for the short-term prospects for private-sector spending. For example, declining levels of confidence might be expected to play a part in weakening the growth of consumption and investment spending.
Attempts are made to measure confidence through the use of surveys. 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.)
Confidence measures rebounded across all sectors during the 2010s, with positive balances being recorded consistently from 2013 to 2016 in services, retail and industry. Subsequently, confidence indicators became more erratic though often remaining at above-average levels. However, confidence indicators have eased across the board in recent months. In some cases the easing has been stark. For example, the confidence balance in the service sector, which contributes about 80 per cent of the economy’s national income, fell from +10.9 in February 2018 to -16.2 in February 2019, though recovering slightly to -9.2 in March 2019.
Chart 2 shows how the recent easing of consumer confidence has seen the confidence balance fall below its long-term (median) average of -7. In March 2019 the balance stood at -11.7 the lowest figure since November 2013. To put the easing into further perspective, the consumer confidence balance had been as high as +8.2 in September 2015. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
Changes in confidence are used frequently as an example of a demand shock. In reality changes in consumer confidence are often likely to be an amplifier of shocks rather than the source. For example, the collapse in aggregate demand in 2007/8 that followed the ‘credit crunch’, the severe tightening of credit conditions and financial distress of many sectors of the economy is likely to have been amplified by the collapse in consumer confidence. The weakening of confidence since 2016 is perhaps a purer example of a ‘confidence shock’. Nonetheless, falls in confidence, whether they amplify existing shocks or are the source of shocks, are often a signal of greater economic uncertainty.
Greater uncertainty is likely to go and hand in hand with lower confidence and is likely to reflect greater uncertainty about future income streams. The result is that people and businesses become more prudent. In the context of households this implies a greater willingness to engage in self-insurance through increased saving. This is known as buffer stock or precautionary saving. Alternatively, people may reducing levels of borrowing. In uncertain times prudence can dominate our impatience that encourages us to spend.
Chart 3 plots the paths of the UK household-sector saving ratio and consumer confidence. The saving ratio approximates the proportion of disposable income saved by the household sector. What we might expect to see, if greater uncertainty induces buffer-stock saving, is for falls in confidence to lead to a rise in the saving ratio. Conversely, less uncertainty as proxied by a rise in confidence would lead to a fall in the saving ratio. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The chart provides some evidence of this. The early 1990s and late 2000s coincided with both waning confidence and a rising saving ratio, whilst the rising confidence seen in the late 1990s coincided with a fall in the saving ratio. However, the easing of confidence since 2016 has coincided with a period where the saving ratio has been historically low. In the first quarter of 2017 the saving ratio was just 3.3 per cent. Although the saving ratio has ticked up a little, in the final quarter of 2018 it remained historically low at just 4.9 per cent. Hence, the available data on the saving ratio does not provide clear evidence of the more cautious behaviour we might expect with waning confidence.
Consider now patterns in the consumer confidence balance alongside the annual rate of growth of consumer credit (net of repayments) to individuals by banks and building societies. Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services.
Data on consumer credit is more timely than that for the saving ratio. Therefore, Chart 4 shows the relationship between consumer confidence and consumer credit into 2019. We observe a reasonably close association consumer credit growth and consumer confidence. Certainty, the recent easing in confidence is mirrored by an easing in the annual growth of net consumer credit. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The year-to-year growth in net consumer credit has eased considerably since the peak of 10.9 per cent in November 2016. In February 2019 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit had fallen back to 6.3 per cent, its lowest rate since September 2014. As we noted in our recent blog Riding the consumer credit cycle (again) it is hard to look much past the effect of Brexit in acting as a lid on the growth in consumer credit. Therefore, while the recent falls in consumer confidence have yet to markedly affect the saving ratio they may instead be driving the slowdown in consumer credit. The effect will be to weaken the growth of consumer spending.
- U.K. Consumers, Businesses Downbeat as Brexit Turmoil Mounts
- UK consumers hold their nerve in Brexit storm: GfK
- UK retail sales fall most in 17 months as Brexit nears – CBI
- UK consumers slow pace of borrowing growth, mortgages fall as Brexit nears
- Service sector shock sparks downturn fears
Bloomberg, Lucy Meakin (29/3/19)
BBC News (3/4/19)
- Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect both consumer and business confidence. How similar are both these lists?
- Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives confidence?
- What macroeconomic indicators would those compiling the consumer and business confidence indicators expect each indicator to predict?
- What is meant by the concept of ‘prudence’ in the context of spending? What factors might determine the level of prudence
- How might prudence be expected to affect spending behaviour?
- How might we distinguish between confidence ‘shocks’ and confidence as a ‘propagator’ of shocks?
- What is meant by buffer stock or precautionary saving? Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect levels of buffer stock saving.
- If economic uncertainty is perceived to have increased how could this affect the consumption, saving and borrowing decisions of people?