DPC “Grant’s Tomb. Rubber-neck auto on Riverside Drive, New York” 1911
Hey! Who said economics can’t be fun?! How is it not absolutely brilliant that in the face of a collapsing shale oil industry – or at least, for the moment, of its financing model -, and the worst week for the Dow since 2011, the Thomson Reuters/UofMichigan consumer sentiment index shows American consumers are more optimistic than they’ve been in 8 years, and that “more consumers volunteered good news than bad news than in any month since 1984”? 1984! How does one trump that as a contrarian signal? And that I don’t mean to sound funny: that is serious.
Of course it says something too about US media and their incessant messages about how well everything is going and how we’ve passed that corner the recovery was always just around, and what a boon the falling oil prices will be to spending over the holidays, and even if sales instead fell over Thanksgiving; surely that’s only because people were saving up their newly found extravaganza for the Christmas season. And obviously the Fed-sponsored distortions of all asset prices on the planet, homes, stocks, you name it, have a lot to do with stoking that optimism as well.
But the feat stands on its own two feet just as much. Americans are not just behind the curve, they positively confirm a top has been reached. If ever you needed a sign, here it is: “Their expectations run quite counter to recent price data.” That’s from Jason Lange for Reuters, but before he gets around to that, check out what some of the experts he cites have to say:
Pessimism and doubt have dominated how Americans see the economy for many years. Now, in a hopeful sign for the economic outlook, confidence is suddenly perking up. Expectations for a better job market helped power the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment to a near eight-year high in December, according to data released on Friday.
U.S. consumers also saw sharp drops in gasoline prices as a shot in the arm, and the survey added heft to strong November retail sales data that has showed Americans getting into the holiday shopping season with gusto. “Surging expectations signal very strong consumption over the next few months,” said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
While improvements in sentiment haven’t always translated into similar spending growth, consumers at the very least are feeling the warmth of several months of robust hiring, including 321,000 new jobs created in November. When asked in the survey about recent economic developments, more consumers volunteered good news than bad news than in any month since 1984, said the poll’s director, Richard Curtin.
Moreover, half of all consumers expected the economy to avoid a recession over the next five years, the most favorable reading in a decade, Curtin said. The data bolsters the view that the U.S. economy is turning a corner and that worker wages could begin to rise more quickly, laying the groundwork for the Federal Reserve to begin hiking its benchmark interest rate to keep inflation from eventually rising above the Fed’s 2% target.
Overall, the sentiment index rose to a higher-than-expected 93.8, mirroring levels seen in boom years like 1996 and 2004. Many investors see the Fed raising rates in mid-2015, and policymakers will likely debate at a meeting next week whether to keep a pledge that borrowing costs will stay at rock bottom for a “considerable time.” Consumers see faster inflation ahead. Over the next year, they expect a 2.9% increase in prices, up from 2.8% in November, according to the sentiment survey.
Their expectations run quite counter to recent price data. The Labor Department said separately its producer price index dropped 0.2% last month, brought lower by falling gasoline prices. Prices were soft even excluding the drag from gasoline. U.S. stocks briefly cut losses after the buoyant sentiment data but stayed lower on the day as investors fretted about declining oil prices and what that said about global demand.
About those recent data, the New York Times says:
Inflation has been below 2% for most of the last two years, and falling gas prices could drive it even lower. Partly because of cheaper gas, the Consumer Price Index was unchanged in October from the previous month. Compared with 12 months earlier, consumer prices were up just 1.7%.
I think maybe I should just leave it at this. The American consumer has spoken, and (s)he’s called a top. Whether that’s just the top in consumer sentiment or also one in the stock markets, let’s see, but I lean towards thinking both is a realistic option, because of the way energy credit fell to pieces in no time. It looks like a harbinger for a – much – wider segment of the economy, and it feels like something’s profoundly broken.