Consumer Sentiment Holds Up Better Than Expected

Happy family in early spring.
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The coronavirus and stock market turmoil have shaken consumer confidence but not as badly as many feared.

The University of Michigan’s index of consumer sentiment fell by 5 percent to 95.9 in early March. Economists had predicted a steeper decline to 95.

For context, that is lower than the high of 101 hit in February but above where sentiment stood just last October.

Consumers remained positive about current conditions, with this part of the University of Michigan’s index sliding just 2 percent from February. The expectations gauge declined by more but even here this did not fall to dismal levels.

“Importantly, the initial response to the pandemic has not generated the type of economic panic among consumers that was present in the runup to the Great Recession,” said Richard Curtin, the chief economist for the survey. “Nonetheless, the data suggest that additional declines in confidence are still likely to occur as the spread of the virus continues to accelerate.”

Curtin added that consumers see the pandemic as a temporary event.  The forward looking component of the index looking out a year ahead fell sharply, accounting for 83 percent of the total decline in early March. But the five-year ahead component actually improved from the prior month.

Unfortunately, effective containment efforts–such as social distancing and closing of public spaces–are likely to have large negative impacts on the economy and increase the probability of a recession that could last longer than the virus itself.

“The best policy antidote would be immediate relief provided by multiple sources of cash transfers and debt forbearance,” Curtin said in a statement. “To avoid a recession, speed is more essential than targeting.”

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