Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Consumer Sentiment in U.S. Slumps to Lowest Level in a Year

  • University of Michigan gauge has biggest setback since 2012
  • Share hearing news of stock market woes highest in seven years

Consumer sentiment declined in September to the lowest level in a year as Americans anticipated a weaker economy in the face of a global slowdown and turbulent financial markets.

The University of Michigan’s preliminary index dropped to 85.7 from an August reading of 91.9, the largest one-month decline since the end of 2012. Households were less upbeat than a few months earlier about future growth in employment and wages, while 73 percent of respondents reported hearing of negative economic developments.

Some 17 percent of respondents mentioned unfavorable news about equity markets in September, the highest share since the height of the last financial crisis in October 2008. At the same time, sustained improvement in the labor market and cheaper gasoline will help shore up attitudes, which will garner the attention of U.S. central bankers as they consider raising interest rates as soon as next week.

“You’ve seen some fairly alarming news headlines over the last few weeks, and you would expect that to be reflected in consumers’ sentiment,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics NA Ltd. Still, expectations are “consistent with consumption growth of about 3 percent, which suggests a fairly healthy attitude toward buying.”

The median forecast in the Bloomberg survey of 67 economists called for a drop to 91.1. Forecasts ranged from 85 to 95.5. The 6.2 point monthly decline was the most since December 2012, when the government debated raising taxes and cutting spending to reduce the budget deficit.

Late August

While confidence dropped, the decrease in the first two weeks of September wasn’t as great as in the immediate aftermath of the plunge in stocks at the end of last month. The final August survey included an additional 64 consumers to gauge the reaction to market events, and the gauge for that group was 9.1 points lower than for those polled earlier.

“All in all, this is a very positive outlook,” Richard Curtin, director of the Michigan Survey of Consumers, said on a Bloomberg conference call. “Consumers have handled the news of the stock-market declines and its continued volatility quite well and they’re ready to put this behind them and continue on their spending path.”

Buying Plans

Attitudes in September toward purchases of automobiles and other big-ticket items remained strong, especially among higher-income households, the report showed.

The sentiment survey’s current conditions index, which measures Americans’ assessment of their personal finances, decreased to an 11-month low of 100.3 from a 105.1 reading in August. The measure of expectations six months from now fell to 76.4, the weakest in a year, from 83.4.

Americans projected an inflation rate of 2.9 percent in the next year, up from 2.8 percent in August. They thought prices to rise 2.8 percent over the next five to 10 years, compared with 2.7 percent the previous month.

“While the current strength in consumer spending is still likely to persist, the more lasting impact of recent events may be a heightened attentiveness to potential negative developments,” Curtin said in a statement.

Fed Meeting

He held out the possibility that households would view an interest-rate increase next week by the Federal Reserve as adding to recent negative developments in global capital markets.

“If economic growth proceeds as widely anticipated, the small delay of a rate hike to October or December will not matter,” Curtin said. “A September rate hike, however, may add some unnecessary risks to an otherwise positive outlook.”

Another sentiment measure reflected the impact of the recent market correction. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort index stalled last week as weaker perceptions about the buying climate offset more sanguine views of household balance sheets.

With the turmoil in global markets, consumers will need to see continued strength in employment in order to stay positive on the economy. They may take some comfort in the August payrolls figures, which showed the jobless rate fell to a seven-year low and is now in the range that Fed officials consider full employment.

Meanwhile average hourly pay increased 2.2 percent last month from a year earlier, tracking within the same lackluster band that’s characterized the entire expansion since mid-2009. Fed officials will consider the jobs data as they debate whether the economy and financial markets are strong enough to withstand higher interest rates.

Disposable Income

Falling energy prices should give households more disposable income to spend some place other than the gas station, offering relief from the stagnant wages. The average price of a regular gallon of gasoline fell to $2.37 on Sept. 9, the lowest level since Feb. 25.

Stabilization in the stock market may also help buoy confidence among the households that hold such assets. Market instability as measured by the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index has moderated but remains elevated since China devalued the yuan on Aug. 11.

The S&P 500 index lost 6.3 percent in August, the worst month for the stocks gauge since May 2012. So far for September, it’s down 1 percent through Thursday.

That has companies such as Williams-Sonoma Inc. keeping an eye on how the turbulence might affect their business.

“It goes without saying that a significant and sustained pullback in the stock market could lead to a reduction in consumer confidence and impact the discretionary spending landscape,” Chief Executive Officer Laura Alber said on an Aug. 26 conference call, adding that she was still confident in the company’s ability to gain market share. “We’re watching the markets along with everyone else.”