Consumer confidence falls for third straight month, as trade war continues

However, experts say there are "no indications consumers will curtail their holiday spending.”
Image: FILE PHOTO: Shoppers carry bags of purchased merchandise at the King of Prussia Mall, United States' largest retail shopping space, in King of Prussia
Shoppers at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania, the largest retail shopping space in the U.S., on Dec. 8, 2018.Mark Makela / Reuters file

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By Martha C. White

Consumer confidence slipped this month, surprising economists who expected it to tick higher. Instead, The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell for the third consecutive month, from an upwardly revised figure of 126.3 in September to 125.9 in October.

Although analysts say Americans still have a rosy outlook about their current situation and are unlikely to pull back from holiday spending as a result, they caution that there is little margin for error this late in the economic cycle.

“I’m not sure how much comfort consumers have yet taken from a trade truce,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at employment software company iCIMS.

The Conference Board’s present situation index rose from 170.6 to 172.3, while the expectations index fell from 96.8 to 94.9. The group’s director of economic indicators Lynn Franco characterized the reading on the benchmark index as “relatively flat,” adding, “There are no indications that consumers will curtail their holiday spending.”

Wright compared the consumer outlook to the Federal Reserve’s evolving policy stance. “The consumer is doing a mid-cycle adjustment, too,” he said.

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Other metrics of consumer optimism also show a tenuous state of balance. With a reading of 95.5, the most recent index of consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan came in roughly in line with the annual average, but the figure was 3.1 percent lower than a year ago, and the index of consumer expectations has dropped by 5.7 percent from a year ago.

“The multiple sources of uncertainty will keep consumers focused on potential threats to their prevailing optimism, with the most critical being threats that could significantly diminish their job and income prospects,” said the Surveys of Consumers’ chief economist, Richard Curtin.

As recently as a year ago, The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index hit an 18-year high of 137.9. Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the gradual diminishing of optimism suggests that worries about trade have crept into the consumer psyche. “Over the past year-and-a-half, though, the index has drifted down, perhaps because the trade war has made people uneasy even as layoffs have hit new lows,” he said.

“My inclination is to think that the trade war is just making people uneasy, not necessarily in specific ‘my job is at risk’ or ‘prices are going to jump’ way, but more the idea that people understand at a gut level that crimping trade flows and getting into an apparently endless fight with one of your biggest trading partners can’t be a good thing,” he said.

With the trade war leading to a pullback in business investment and job growth slowing, consumer spending remains the key driver of domestic economic activity. Any sign indicating that could be in jeopardy would be likely to spook Wall Street, despite stocks touching record highs in recent days.

In the most recent CNBC Fed Survey of fund managers, economists and strategists, respondents gave a 34 percent probability that the U.S. will slide into recession in the next year. This year, they predict economic growth will only reach 1.75 percent. Experts say even if shoppers in store aisles are feeling good about their bank accounts, if worry grows in the corner offices and boardrooms of corporate America, that could indicate trouble ahead.

“What we do kind of worry about is, there’s a relationship between the consumer confidence and CEO confidence,” said Alon Ozer, chief investment officer of Omnia Family Wealth. “CEO confidence tends to lead consumer confidence — and that one hasn’t been going great.”

The Conference Board found that CEO confidence fell to the lowest level in a decade earlier this month. Franco attributed the plunge to tariffs and trade disputes, along with slower growth, causing “a heightened degree of uncertainty.”

“That’s what concerns me about consumer confidence — that it’s going to start following the CEO confidence,” Ozer said.