Consumer confidence dropped sharply as the bull market ended abruptly and Americans began to grasp the magnitude of the social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, released Tuesday, fell to 120 from 132.6 in February. The index tracking Americans’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions also dropped, from 169.3 to 167.7; and the index based on short-term expectations for income, business and the job market fell even more dramatically, from 108.1 last month to 88.2 in March.
Were it not for the coronavirus, confidence likely would have continued rising, following the upward momentum it sustained in February. In that month, consumer spending rose by 0.2 percent and incomes rose by 0.6 percent, while the stock market notched record highs.
“I think the equity market doing what it was doing in January and February would have been a big boost to consumer confidence just through the wealth effect,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.
“The Present Situation Index remained relatively strong, reflective of an economy that was on solid footing, and prior to the recent surge in unemployment claims,” said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “The intensification of COVID-19 and extreme volatility in the financial markets have increased uncertainty about the outlook for the economy and jobs.”
As steep as this falloff has been, the timing of the survey came just before the situation America faces today had fully unfolded, leading economists to predict that the worst is still to come.
“The survey captures only the start of the lockdown, which we expect soon to cover almost the whole country,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “This is another number certain to drop further.”
“The consumer confidence survey was just before we got the really massive layoffs,” said Dan North, chief economist for North America at Euler Hermes. “Next month, it’s going to plummet.”
This will further hurt consumer spending — which was already dragged down by social distancing mandates that prompted the closures of everything from restaurants and salons to sporting arenas and theme parks.
“Consumer spending is going to fall off dramatically next month."
“A dual demand and supply shock you’re seeing with the coronavirus is such a unique issue that it’s going to have a pretty big impact on consumer confidence,” Samana said.
“Consumer confidence over the long term correlates reasonably well with consumer spending,” North said. “Consumer spending is going to fall off dramatically next month,” he predicted.
Other metrics indicate that this is already taking place. Visa said in a regulatory filing on Monday that domestic spending had “sharply declined week on week with a meaningful deterioration in volume and transaction trends in the second half of March." The company said its U.S. payments volume was down 4 percent for the month, with a drop of 7 percent for March.
Consumer sentiment measured by the University of Michigan also plunged in its latest reading, published on Friday, with the benchmark index of consumer sentiment dropping nearly 12 percent on a month-to-month basis.
“The Sentiment Index can be expected to decline in the months ahead,” said Surveys of Consumers chief economist Richard Curtin, noting that this was the fourth-largest monthly drop in nearly half a century. Curtin noted the sharp downward trajectory it has taken over the past two months. “Stabilizing confidence at month's end level will be difficult, given surging unemployment and falling household incomes,” he said.
The Conference Board’s Franco drew a similar conclusion, saying, “March’s decline in confidence is more in line with a severe contraction — rather than a temporary shock — and further declines are sure to follow.”