Consumer Sentiment Edges Up but Inflation Fears Send Buying Attitudes to 40-year Low

By Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'
September 20, 2021 Updated: September 20, 2021

U.S. consumer sentiment ticked up slightly in September but remained mired at near decade lows, while worries about inflation drove buying attitudes for household durables to a low reached only once before—in 1980—according to a University of Michigan survey.

The university’s consumer sentiment index edged up to a reading of 71 in September, a slight uptick from August’s 70.3, which was the lowest level since 2011.

“The steep August falloff in consumer sentiment ended in early September, but the small gain still meant that consumers expected the least favorable economic prospects in more than a decade,” Richard Curtin, the survey director, said in a statement.

The 13 percent slide from July to August was one the sharpest in percentage terms in the past 50 years, exceeded only by an 18.1 percent drop in 2008 and a 19.4 percent fall in April 2020, when pandemic-related concerns and business lockdowns sent unemployment surging and consumer confidence plummeting.

While the overall consumer confidence measure recorded a slight improvement in September, two gauges saw further declines. Buying attitudes for household durables fell to a low not seen in around 40 years, while long-term economic prospects fell to a decade low.

“The decline in assessments of buying conditions for homes, vehicles, and household durables left all three near all-time record lows,” Curtin said, noting that the drops were “due to spontaneous references to high prices.”

Inflation has emerged as a key concern amid the economic recovery, rising faster than wages and eroding the buying power of Americans. While Federal Reserve officials have maintained that inflation is temporary and that the pace of price hikes will taper off, they’ve acknowledged the risk that upward price pressures may be more persistent. The Fed’s policy-setting body is set to meet this week to consider pulling back on some of the stimulus measures that have helped the economy recover but have also added to inflationary pressures.

Consumer inflation stood at 5.3 percent in the 12 months through August, 0.1 percentage point lower than the July and June figure, which was the highest 12-month spike since 2008, according to the most recent consumer price index report from the Labor Department. Still, the over-the-month pace of inflation ticked down to 0.3 percent in August from 0.5 percent in July and 0.9 percent in June, suggesting that peak inflation may have passed.

But a measure of business input costs, known as the producer price index (pdf), jumped by 8.3 percent over the year in August, the largest 12-month increase on record, reinforcing broader concerns about inflation as higher production costs tend to filter down to consumers.

Curtin assessed that a possible response to rising prices on the part of consumers who believe inflation is transitory is to pull back on purchases in the short term. Consumer spending is a key driver of the U.S. economy, accounting for around two-thirds of its gross domestic product.

“Postponing purchases is seen as a viable strategy. This implies a slowdown of spending in the months ahead and a more robust rebound later in 2022,” he wrote.

If consumers believe inflation will be sticky, that could pressure wages, potentially even leading to the kind of wage-price spiral that bedeviled the economy in the 1970s.

“The main alternative is that inflation will not be transient but will rise further due to an unprecedented expansion in fiscal and monetary policies. The resulting rise in inflationary psychology will lessen resistance to rising prices and stiffen demands for increased wage gains,” Curtin wrote.

For that outcome to materialize, there would have to be a significant rise in long-term consumer inflation expectations, he noted.

A recent survey by the New York Fed shows that inflation expectations over a three-year horizon rose in August to a median 4.0 percent, a record high.

Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'