So how are you feeling? Is now a good time to shop? Or, is it perhaps time to put money aside for that rainy day? Well, these types of questions capture the essence of what we might label as ‘sentiment’ or ‘confidence’. Polling organisations each month undertake surveys to try to measure sentiment amongst consumers and businesses. In doing so, they ask questions relating to, amongst other things, perceptions as to the current and future states of the economy, the labour market and finances. The responses to these individual questions are then combined to give an overall indicator which, it is then hoped, can be used to track sentiment over time. Two widely reported surveys of sentiment are the EU economic sentiment indicator and the Nationwide Building Society consumer confidence indicator.
The Nationwide’s indicator focuses solely on households. Its sentiment figure for March suggests that the gains in confidence amongst households enjoyed in the first couple of months of this year have been lost. In other words, the decline in March was significant enough not only to wipe out the effect of the typical ‘January bounce’ seen in most measures of sentiment but also the further rise that occurred in February. Nonetheless, consumer sentiment remains above the levels seen through much of 2008 and 2009 amidst the economic downturn.
The European Union’s economic sentiment index measures sentiment across both households and firms, although separate indicators are available for households and for different sectors of industry. Figures are also available for each individual EU country as well as across the EU. 2009 saw a record low score in the UK for the economic sentiment index – a series which goes back to 1985. But in March 2010 the sentiment index was, perhaps surprisingly, above its long-term average. Interestingly, this reflects further strengthening in sentiment amongst businesses, while sentiment amongst consumers fell slightly in March after recent gains.
So what should we read into these sentiment indices? Well, firstly, consider the patterns in the sentiment scores. The sentiment indices rose markedly in the second half of last year and into the beginning of this year, although sentiment amongst households may have now weakened while continuing to rise amongst firms. Now, secondly, consider these patterns alongside evidence which shows that economic sentiment indices tend to track the direction of economic growth. So last year, the rise in both the EU and Nationwide sentiment indices was indeed mirrored by improvements in the rate of economic growth with initially smaller contractions followed by positive growth in the final quarter.
One of the advantages of these sentiment measures is their timeliness. The first provisional estimate of growth in Q1 2010 is not available until the end of this month and, of course, is then subject to revision. But, if we reflect on the sentiment measures, the fact that sentiment appears no weaker across the first quarter of this year as a whole and, when measured across both households and firms, may actually be higher, indicates that the growth number for the first quarter of this year may not be too different from the 0.4% growth recorded in Q4 2009. Stay cheerful!
Consumer confidence has sharpest fall this recession The Times, Grainne Gilmore (15/4/10)
U.K. consumer confidence fell in March The Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (15/4/10)
Election drives down consumer confidence Sky News, Adam Arnold (15/4/10) )
Consumer morale suffers biggest fall since July 2008 Reuters UK (15/4/10)
Business and Consumer Surveys The Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, European Commission
Consumer Confidence Nationwide Building Society
- What factors do you think might influence sentiment or confidence amongst households?
- What factors might affect sentiment or confidence amongst businesses?
- In what ways do you think sentiment and economic activity might be connected?
- Some commentators are arguing that the general election might be impacting on consumer confidence. Why do you think this might be the case?
- If you were going to assess the economic sentiment of consumers or businesses, what sorts of questions do you think you might ask?
Most businesses have suffered over the past year or so. Profits and sales have fallen, as the UK (and global) economy suffered from a recession that’s seen UK interest rates at 0.5%, unemployment rising and public debt at unprecedented levels. Christmas trading always sees a boost in sales and that’s just what’s happened for many businesses. Shoppers have responded to the doom and gloom of the past year by spending and making up for a hard year. Phrases such as “I decided to treat myself” became common on the news as reporters travelled to shopping centres across the UK. However, shops such as M&S and Next have warned that attempts by the government to reduce the public deficit could derail the consumer recovery.
These positive stories, whilst true, are a useful tool to help boost consumer confidence and keep expectations positive for the coming months. However, there are warnings that these figures shouldn’t be taken out of context. The economy is still in trouble and public debt has reached almost 60% of GDP. With cuts in government spending and rises in taxation expected, how much confidence should be taken from these positive signs in the retail sector? Only time will tell.
Online powers Shop Direct sales Financial Times, Esther Bintliff (6/1/10)
Poundland, House of Fraser and Co-op see sales rise BBC News (11/1/10)
Links of London see buoyant festive sales Telegraph, James Hall (5/1/10)
John Lewis reports bumper Christmas trading Retail Week, Jennifer Creevy (5/1/10)
New Look expects to build on strong Christmas London Evening Standard (7/1/10)
Christmas trade booming in City Star News Group, Alex de Vos (7/1/10)
Record trading for Cash Generator Manchester Evening News (7/1/10)
Sainsbury’s hails ‘strong’ Christmas trading BBC News (7/1/10)
Cautious M&S reports strong Christmas trade Times Online, Marcus Leroux and Robert Lindsay (6/1/10)
Asda reports ‘solid’ Christmas trading Guardian (6/1/10)
- Why are expectations important for the future of the British economy? Are the expectations rational or adaptive or a combination of the two?
- Are high Christmas sales really a sign that the economy is recovering? Discuss both sides of the argument. Will high sales now have an adverse effect on future trade in the UK?
- How will expected cuts in government spending affect sales in the retail sector?
- Tax rises are a possibility. How will this affect consumers and sales in the coming year? Think about the circular flow of income.
- If interest rates are increased in the coming months, trace through the likely effects in the goods market.
A key determinant of the length of any phase of the business cycle is consumer confidence. If people have gloomy expectations and confidence of a recovery is low, then a recession that should have lasted 6 months ends up lasting for years. Companies don’t see an end to the recession and keep holding off on investment plans and the public don’t want to go out and start spending, because there’s no guarantee that the economy is on its way back up. The more you worry about your finances, the less likely you are to go out and start spending, even though that could be the stimulus that a shrinking economy needs.
According to the British Retail Consortium, consumer confidence in the UK is on its way back up and currently stands at an 18-month high – which doesn’t actually say much given the past 18-months!! Despite this, job worries still remain and this has been highlighted significantly in the past week, when Britain’s youngest person ever was made redundant: a 13-year old paper boy. Whilst consumer confidence is argued to be returning to the UK, consumer confidence has been going in the opposite direction in the USA, with further fears of job losses. US confidence had been improving but unexpectedly fell in October. Is that what the UK has to look forward to?
So, why is consumer confidence so important? How does it affect the length of recovery and what is expected to happen over the next few months? Read the articles below to find out more.
US consumer confidence takes hit BBC News (27/10/09)
Consumer confidence hits 18-month high The Independent, David Prosser (1/11/09)
Consumer confidence on the rise BBC News (2/11/09)
Confidence boost hints that worst of recession now over The Scotsman, Peter Ranscombe (2/11/09)
US Michigan Sentiment fell to 70.6 this month Bloomberg, Courtney Schlisserman (30/10/09)
Euro-zone Consumer confidence improves The Wall Street Journal, Ilona Billington and Roman Kessler (30/10/09)
Retailers set for a merry Christmas DIYWeek (2/11/09)
Job fears still remain despite biggest increase in consumer confidence in 18 months, says British Retail Consortium Liverpool Echo, Neil Hodgson (2/11/09)
Business and consumer surveys in each of the EU countries and in the EU as a whole can be found at:
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission
- In what ways does consumer confidence affect economic growth?
- Are there likely to be any adverse consequences of consumer confidence returning to the market?
- What are some of the reasons for the unexpected fall in consumer confidence in the USA? Do you think a similar thing is likely to happen in the UK?
- Expectations are crucial in economics. What is the difference between adaptive and rational expectations? How do they affect adjustment to the short- and long-run equilibrium?
- Can anything be done to improve confidence or is it simply a case of leaving things as they are … and waiting?
Both business and consumer confidence are affected by the state of the economy. A recession, or even a slowdown in the economy, will make people worried for their jobs and future incomes and hence cut back on spending and either save more or reduce their debts. Similarly firms are likely to cut back on investment if they are pessimistic about the future. But both consumer demand and investment are components of aggregate demand. A cut in aggregate demand will drive the economy further into recession and cause even greater pessimism. In other words, there is a feedback loop. Recession causes pessimism and hence a fall in aggregate demand, which, in turn, worsens the recession.
A similar process of feedback occurs in times of optimism. If the economy recovers, or is thought to be about to do so, the resulting optimism will cause people and firms to spend more. This rise in aggregate demand will help the process of recovery (see Accelerating the recession and Animal Spirits).
The following article by Robert Shiller, co-author of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, looks at the swing from pessimism to optimism over the past few months.
An Echo Chamber of Boom and Bust: Robert Schiller New York Times (29/8/09)
Efficient Market Hypothesis: True “Villain” of the Financial Crisis? The Market Oracle (26/8/09)
Monthly confidence indicators for the EU can be found at:
Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series European Commission Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. (Each of the ‘en’ cells links to a zipped Excel file.)
- Explain why “confidence has rebounded so quickly in so many places” in recent weeks.
- Is Robert Shiller’s explanation of feedback loops consistent with the accelerator theory?
- In what circumstances do business and consumer psychology result in destabilising speculation and what causes turning points in the process? Why may such turning points be difficult to predict?
- Examine the monthly Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) for the UK from the ‘Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series’ link above. You will need to refer to the final column in the Excel ESI Monthly worksheet (Column GV). Chart the movements in this indicator over the past three years. Also chart the quarterly growth in UK GDP over the same time period. You can find data from Economic and Labour Market Review (ONS), Data tables, Table 1.01, Column YBEZ. Is ESI a leading or a lagging indicator of GDP?
- What implications does Shiller’s analysis have for the management of the economy?
- Why may stock market movements not be a ‘random walk’?
The global economy has been in a recession since December 2007, but have we now passed the worst of it? Whilst companies are still going bankrupt, unemployment is still rising, the housing market is still looking pretty gloomy and government debt surely can’t go up anymore, there are indications that we’ve reached the bottom of the recession. There are murmurs that the economy may start to recover towards of the end of the year.
But, of course, economics wouldn’t be economics if there wasn’t considerable disagreement. Many still believe that the worst is yet to come. According to the OECD, the recession is ‘near the bottom’. Yet, output in the UK is still set to decline by 4.3% in 2009, and by 2010 the budget deficit is predicted to have grown to 14%. Unemployment is at its highest since November 1996, but US consumer confidence is said to be rising and the pound is climbing. Read these articles and make up your mind about the state of the UK and global economy!!
Business and Consumer Surveys (After following link, click on chart) European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs (29/6/09)
Pound climbs against euro as King sees signs recession easing Bloomberg, Lukanyo Mnyanda, Gavin Finch (20/6/09)
Bank says banking crisis easing BBC News (25/6/09)
First signs of optimism returning to some parts of financial services CBI PRess Release (29/6/09)
Darling and King agreed on tentative recovery Guardian, Ashley Seager (17/6/09)
Sharp contration for UK economy BBC News (30/6/09)
Housing market knocked by price falls Moneywise (22/6/09)
OECD says recession ‘near bottom’ BBC News, Steve Schifferes (24/6/09)
US Federal Reserve says recession is ‘easing’ Telegraph, James Quinn (24/6/09)
Public borrowing at record levels BBC News (18/6/09)
Leading index suggests recession easing UPI.com (18/6/09)
US consumer confidence up in June BBC News (26/6/09)
Blow for housing market as prices fall The Independent, David Prosser (22/6/09)
Most UK businesses freeze pay as recession bites, CBI says Telegraph, Peter Taylor (23/6/09)
- What are the typical characteristics of a recession? Do the current statistics of the four main macroeconomic objectives fit in with what economic theory tells us?
- Which policies would governments normally implement to get a economy into the expansionary/recovery phase of the business cycle and how do they work?
- Why is consumer confidence so key to economic recovery?
- What type of banking regulation is needed to prevent a similar crisis happening again?
- Movements in the housing market are often seen as indicators of the state of the economy. Why is this?