Consumer sentiment declined in early January to its lowest level since Trump was elected, reported the December U. of Michigan sentiment survey. It’s down for a number of reasons—too many reasons, and economists are consequently beginning to predict GDP growth will be reduced to the 2 percent annual growth average that has prevailed since the end of the Great Recession.
“The decline was primarily focused on prospects for the domestic economy, with the year-ahead outlook for the national economy judged the worst since mid-2014. The loss was due to a host of issues including the partial government shutdown, the impact of tariffs, instabilities in financial markets, the global slowdown, and the lack of clarity about monetary policies. Aside from the direct economic impact from these various issues on the economy, the indirect effect meant that half of all consumers believed that these events would have a negative impact on Trump’s ability to focus on economic growth.”
How serious are the present crises? It depends on their duration. The shutdown is easiest to solve, if the parties can unite in agreement on what exactly constitutes a border ‘wall’—would a digital wall suffice, along with better-funded courts and more Border agents?
“While the January falloff in optimism is certainly consistent with a slowdown in the pace of growth,” said U of Michigan chief economist Richard Curtin, “it does not yet indicate the start of a sustained downturn in economic activity. It is the strength in personal finances that will continue to support consumption expenditures at favorable levels in 2019. Nonetheless, consumers now sense a need to buttress their precautionary savings, which is typically done by reducing their discretionary spending. Evolving job and wage prospects, which were slightly weaker in early January, are critical to extending the current expansion.”
Consumer confidence is based on other factors, as well, such as the job market. The other confidence index, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index showed lower future job expectations.
“Consumer Confidence decreased in December, following a moderate decline in November,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Expectations regarding job prospects and business conditions weakened, but still suggest that the economy will continue expanding at a solid pace in the short-term. While consumers are ending 2018 on a strong note, back-to-back declines in Expectations are reflective of an increasing concern that the pace of economic growth will begin moderating in the first half of 2019.”
As has been mentioned by many commentators and economists, the Trump administration isn’t equipped or staffed to handle multiple crises, much less a serious single one. Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk was the latest warning of what might happen with an administration that didn’t want the federal government to function well, and appointed administration officials—mainly lobbyists of industries that it regulated—whose mandate was to make sure it increased the profits of their industries rather than the welfare of the American public. That meant it would have a difficult time handling any major crisis, such as the ongoing government shutdown.
So it’s easy to see why consumers are feeling queasy and want to save more of their rising incomes, rather than spend them. Other factors that might be scaring consumers are the ongoing tariff wars, and the IMF prediction of slower worldwide growth.
Maybe doing nothing, other than re-opening the federal government for business, is the better choice for maintaining healthy growth. A revised NAFTA agreement has yet to be ratified by the Senate to take effect. And a “lack of clarity about monetary policies” probably means the Federal Reserve will stop raising short term rates for a while, which will hearten the financial markets, as well.
Harlan Green © 2019
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