August Consumer Sentiment Index Plunges on Recession Fears

August 16, 2019 by Paul Ausick

The final University of Michigan preliminary Consumer Sentiment Index for August fell month over month from 98.4 to 92.1. Economists polled by Bloomberg were expecting a preliminary August reading of 97.5, and the 92.1 score was even well below the bottom end of the expected range.

The final index reading in August of last year was 96.2, and there is little reason to expect the final reading for this month to move closer to that figure. The most recent economic news has continued to show weakness in manufacturing growth, trade and GDP growth, while U.S. equities markets bounce lower as uncertainty sends investors to safe havens like U.S. Treasuries and gold.

The survey’s chief economist, Richard Curtin, commented, “The main takeaway for consumers from the first cut in interest rates in a decade was to increase apprehensions about a possible recession.” Curtin is referring to the Federal Reserve’s July decision to reduce its federal funds rate by a quarter-point.

Curtin continued, “Consumers concluded, following the Fed’s lead, that they may need to reduce spending in anticipation of a potential recession.” That could push the United States nearer to recession because consumer spending has been one of the high points of the economy this year, as Curtin acknowledges:

Perhaps the most important remaining pillar of strength for consumer spending is favorable job and income prospects, although the August survey indicated some concerns about the future pace of income and job gains. It is likely that consumers will reduce their pace of spending while keeping the economy out of recession at least through mid 2020.

The consumer expectations subindex fell by 9.1% month over month, from 90.5 to 82.3, and the current conditions subindex decreased from 110.7 to 107.4 (−3%).

Year over year, the current conditions subindex dropped by 2.6% and the consumer expectations subindex fell by 5.5%.

Commenting on the month-over-month disparity between the two subindexes, Curtin said, “Consumer sentiment declined in early August to its lowest level since the start of the year. … Although the Expectations Index recorded more than twice the decline in August as the Current Conditions Index (-8.2 versus -3.3), the Current Conditions Index fell to its lowest level since late 2016.”