Consumer Sentiment Hits a Multi-Decade Low

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index final preliminary for October came in at 57.5, an unexpected decline from the 59.4 September final report. This level is most commonly associated with deep recessions and is the lowest level since June 1980, over 31 years ago. The consensus expectation and its own forecast was for 60.0.

See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched index. Because the sentiment index has trended upward since its inception in 1978, I’ve added a linear regression to help understand the pattern of reversion to the trend. I’ve also highlighted recessions and included real GDP to help evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.

To put today’s report into the larger historical context since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is about 33% below the average reading (arithmetic mean), 32% below the geometric mean, and 16.8% below the regression line on the chart above. The current index level is at the 1.9 percentile of the 406 monthly data points in this series.

The Michigan average over since its inception is 85.7. During non-recessionary years the average is 88.3. The average during the five recessions is 69.3.

For the sake of comparison here is a chart of the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index (monthly update here). The Conference Board Index is the more volatile of the two, but the general pattern and trend are remarkably similar to the Michigan Index.

And finally, the prevailing mood of the Michigan survey is also similar to the mood of small business owners, as captured by the NFIB Business Optimism Index (monthly update here).

Consumer and small business sentiment remains at levels associated with other recent recessions. The trend in sentiment since the Financial Crisis lows has been one of slow improvement. The October preliminary number from the Michigan survey is consistent with deep recessions.

Doug Short Ph.d is the author of