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)