Towards the end of each month the European Commission for Economic and Financial Affairs publishes its economic sentiment index for each EU country, including the UK, along with average scores for the EU and for the countries using the euro. September’s release showed sentiment in the UK amongst consumers and businesses to have weakened more than in any other EU country. The index fell from a score of 102.3 to 100.2, where 100 represents an equal number of optimistic and pessimistic responses.
In itself the score seems to suggest that there remains some degree of economic confidence here in the UK. So should we be concerned? Well, the direction of the sentiment index is very likely to be of some concern and something that policy-makers will be keeping a keen eye on. Furthemore, the direction of sentiment in the UK is contrary, perhaps surprisingly so you might think, to that in most EU countries. The EU-average score, for instance, rose from 103.1 to 103.4, its highest since March 2008. From this we can infer not only that more people in the survey are optimistic than pessimistic but also that sentiment is becoming more positive (slightly). In Germany the economic sentiment index rose between August and September from 111.2 to 113.2, its highest since February 1991, with sentiment rising across consumers and all sectors of business.
If we delve a little deeper into the UK sentiment figures we see that the weakening of economic confidence is greatest amongst retailers. To a large extent this reflects an erosion of the significant increase in sentiment reported by retailers in the summer months. It also appears to reflect something of a lagged response to the waning sentiment amongst consumers. The figures for consumer confidence showed a ‘bounce’ in confidence during the spring, but September’s consumer confidence level was the lowest since June 2009 when the economy was still in recession.
One of the tasks facing policy-makers and economists is to try to predict what these economic sentiment figures might mean for economic activity. In particular, to what extent do these figures have significance for the future decisions made by households and businesses? Surprisingly, relatively little column space is given to measures of confidence and to the EU’s Economic Sentiment Index in particular.
It’s probably fair to say too that, as economists, we are a long way from fully understanding the role that confidence plays in affecting individual behaviour or indeed the variables that impact on confidence. It was once suggested to me (Dean), for instance, that changes in UK consumer confidence might be closely related to changes in housing wealth. Further, we economists struggle to understand what these survey measures of economic confidence are actually capturing, since the surveys comprise a multitude of questions, which, in the case of consumers for instance, ask them to compare their current financial situation with that in the past as well as to predict how it will evolve over the coming months.
Despite our imperfect understanding of the role played by confidence and how we can measure it, there is considerable interest amongst policy-makers, economic think-tanks and economic forecasters. For example, earlier this week a statement following an IMF Mission to the UK indentified ‘sizeable’ downside risks to the UK economy’s recovery, including what it termed ‘the continued fragility of confidence’. Could the release just a few days later from the EU reporting a decline in economic sentiment in the UK be timely?
Eurozone optimism nears three-year high Financial Times, Ralph Atkins and David Oakley (29/9/10)
EU economic, business indicators improve again The Sofia Echo (29/9/10)
Eurozone Sept. economic sentiment strongest since 2008 RTT News (29/9/10)
EU September economic morale unexpectedly improves MarketNews.com (29/9/10)
- Do you think economic sentiment or economic confidence is a worthwhile concept for economists and policy-makers to analyse?
- Draw up a series of factors that you think might affect the economic sentiment amongst consumers. Are there any factors that might be peculiar to the UK? Then repeat the exercise for businesses.
- Why do you think there is a ‘fragility of confidence’ in the UK? What might explain the stronger confidence levels in other EU countries, such as Germany?