Popular Economics Weekly
Consumers are feeling good enough to keep the US economy from sinking into recession at the moment. The consumer sentiment survey edged up to 98.4 this month from 98.2 in June, according to a preliminary reading from the University Michigan.
“Consumer sentiment remained largely unchanged in early July from June, remaining at quite favorable levels since the start of 2017,” said survey chief economist Richard Curtin. “Moreover, the variations in Sentiment Index have been remarkably small, ranging from 91.2 to 101.4 in the past 30 months. Perhaps the most interesting change in the July survey was in inflation expectations, with the year-ahead rate slightly lower and the longer term rate moving to the top of the narrow range it has traveled in the past few years.”
Actually, sentiment has been fluctuating in that range for several years, per the FRED graph, as economic growth and employment finally ramped up in 2015 after the Great Recession, boosting consumer confidence.
Curtin believes that inflation expectations affect consumer confidence, as the survey indicates consumer expectations for growth and jobs (hence confidence) rise the lower the inflation rate. Hence the Federal Reserve mandate to keep inflation low enough to enable stable growth. So today’s ultra-low inflation (and interest rates) could be encouraging consumers to spend more.
“The Consumer Expectations Index falls as inflation expectations rise, signifying that consumers view higher inflation as a threat to economic growth,” he continued. “Higher inflation was related more frequently to rising interest rates and was associated with higher unemployment expectations.”
The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic indicators (LEI) that is a good predictor of economic activity over the next six months was not so optimistic.
“The US LEI fell in June, the first decline since last December, primarily driven by weaknesses in new orders for manufacturing, housing permits, and unemployment insurance claims,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, Senior Director of Economic Research at The Conference Board. “For the first time since late 2007, the yield spread made a small negative contribution. As the US economy enters its eleventh year of expansion, the longest in US history, the LEI suggests growth is likely to remain slow in the second half of the year.”
Why? Manufacturers’ new orders, building permits in the latest housing starts survey, and the yield curve were negative. The interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury note and fed funds rate has sunk to negative -0.31 percent, from a positive +0.56 percent last December. Long term interest rates sinking below short term rates is a sign of slower growth, since investors rush to buy longer term Treasury bonds as a safe haven if there is too much economic uncertainty, as is happening at present.
A simple way to fix the inverted yield curve problem is if the Fed would lower the fed funds rate again. But is that the right thing to do when retail sales are soaring, and June payrolls totaled 224,000 new jobs? The economy is booming, in other words, so the Fed should allow higher interest rates unless other forces are at work—such as White House tweets that are artificially boost stock prices (and enrich stockholders and corporate CEOs), rather than policies that would help Main St. workers—like a higher minimum wage, and better worker protections, and strengthening health care policies, which would promote longer term economic growth.
So in fact other sectors of the economy have to be promoted, if we are to continue in this ‘goldilocks’ growth cycle (i.e., not too hot or too cold). Consumers can’t continue to party, otherwise.
Harlan Green © 2019
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