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Consumer confidence remains high in November, but will Congressional Grinch steal Christmas?

Richard Curtin, Director Surveys of Consumers and Survey Research CenterRichard Curtin. Image courtesy of D.C. GoingsANN ARBOR—Consumer confidence remained largely unchanged from last month at its highest level in five years, according to University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. The Surveys, conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), have been monitoring consumer attitudes and expectations for over 60 years.

But when asked to identify any recent economic news, consumers more frequently made unfavorable references to potential changes in future federal tax and spending programs as well as the inability of the political parties to reach a timely settlement. There have only been five other surveys during the past half century in which more consumers spontaneously mentioned their uncertainty about government policies, according to Curtin. Interestingly, the past occurrences were also related to taxes, spending, and the federal deficit: Clinton's deficit reduction program in 1993 and last summer's debt ceiling debate which prompted a drop in the Sentiment Index to 55.8, the fourth lowest level recorded in the long history of the surveys. While consumers remain optimistic, that optimism is contingent on the promise of no higher taxes, except on the wealthy.

"The gains in confidence ended in late November as consumers became more uncertain about when and how the fiscal cliff with be bridged," said Curtin. "While they had anticipated a last minute settlement, some consumers are beginning to doubt whether that will happen before higher tax rates take effect in January. While a resolution just before year-end could reverse any future spending declines, it would nonetheless diminish holiday spending. Moreover, consumers do not make a distinction between federal income and payroll taxes, so any settlement that excludes an extension of the payroll tax cut could reduce optimism starting in early January."

“The gains in confidence ended in late November as consumers became more uncertain about when and how the fiscal cliff with be bridged. While they had anticipated a last minute settlement, some consumers are beginning to doubt whether that will happen before higher tax rates take effect in January. While a resolution just before year-end could reverse any future spending declines, it would nonetheless diminish holiday spending. Moreover, consumers do not make a distinction between federal income and payroll taxes, so any settlement that excludes an extension of the payroll tax cut could reduce optimism starting in early January.”

Personal Finances Improve

Graph depicting the Index of Consumer SentimentMore households reported gains in their personal finances in the November survey than any other time since March of 2008. Although a slightly larger number reported worsening finances, this represents a large gain from a year ago when worsening finances were reported twice as frequently as an improving financial situation.

Employment Gains Expected

Anticipated gains in the economy meant that consumers held much more favorable job expectations. The survey recorded the most favorable outlook for the unemployment rate since 1984. Nearly one-in-three consumers expected a lower unemployment rate during the year ahead in both the October and November 2012 surveys.

Consumer Sentiment Index

SoC-2012-11-21-tableThe Sentiment Index was 82.7 in November 2012, just above 82.6 in October, and well above last November's 63.7. The Expectations Index and Current Conditions components moved in opposite directions. The Expectations Index slipped to 77.6 in November from 79.0 in October, while the Current Conditions Index rose to 90.7 in November from 88.1 in October. Both components were well above last November, with the Expectations Index posting more than twice the gain of the Current Conditions Index.

Surveys of Consumers: Thomson Reuters / University of MichiganAbout the Survey

The Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected. Interviews are conducted throughout the month by telephone. The minimum monthly change required for significance at the 95% level in the Sentiment Index is 4.8 points; for Current and Expectations Indices, the minimum is 6.0 points.

Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world's largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world's largest digital social science data archive. For more information, visit the ISR website at www.isr.umich.edu.

 

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