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Consumer Data Sends Chilling Warning About Stock Market Fragility

Laura Hoy
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:53 PM
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  • Consumer sentiment data shows people are still worried about the future of the U.S. economy.
  • For the government’s spending to be worthwhile, consumer spending needs to return.
  • The stock market will be turning to the return of consumer spending as states start to reopen.

As the stock market pines for U.S. states to reopen their economies, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment survey shows consumers may not be quite ready to return to life as normal. Instead, they’re becoming more concerned about the state of the economy with every passing week.

Between March and April, consumer sentiment fell by 19.4% overall.

consumer sentiment
Consumer sentiment data showed people are more concerned about the present than they are about the future. | Source: University of Michigan

There was some good news, though. The data showed that although consumers are worried about the future, it’s the present that’s causing the most concern. The index of consumer expectations, which measures consumers’ view of the future, declined 12%. The index of current economic conditions fell 28.4%.

It’s certainly not good news that expectations about the future are declining, but some hope can be gleaned from the fact that they’re falling at a much slower rate than the overall index.

Data Shows Consumers are Fragile

consumer spending
For the government’s spending to be worthwhile, consumer spending needs to return. | Source: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP

That’s a big deal for the U.S. stock market, which has been rallying on hopes that the nation can resume business as normal by the end of the summer. But for the economy to reopen, consumers have to be willing to get out there and spend. Worries about the future could prompt saving over shopping. 

Richard Curtin, the chief economist working on the survey, warned that consumer sentiment hinges on a successful reopening among U.S. states. 

Consumers’ reactions to relaxing restrictions will be critical, either putting further pressure on states to reopen their economies, or exerting added pressure to extend the restrictions even if it has negative consequences for economic prospects.

He warned that even one state reopening too early would be far more painful in the long-run than an overly cautious approach. 

The necessity to reimpose restrictions could cause a deeper and more lasting pessimism across all consumers, even those in states that did not relax their restrictions.

His observations are backed up by the data— the 7-day moving average for the index shows wild swings in consumer sentiment. Between April 11 and April 15, consumer sentiment rose sharply. From April 16 to the 21st, it erased those gains. 

consumer sentiment
The wild swings in consumer sentiment suggest consumers are fragile – and the stock market will be too. | Source: University of Michigan 

The volatile sentiment data aligns with the week that Donald Trump started rolling out reopening guidelines. State lawmakers expressed agreement or dissent, and the debate over whether reopening would case a second wave raged. 

The vicious back-and-forth between lawmakers has an impact on consumers. Will they be too afraid to return to life as normal in the absence of lockdown restrictions?

consumer behavior
Chinese consumers have been cautious despite easing lockdown measures. | Source: UBS 

That’s been the case in China. Consumers remain wary, especially after the government was forced to reinstate lockdown measures . 

What This Means for the Stock Market

Consumers are the lynchpin of the stock market’s current rally. Right now, businesses are forcibly closed, but if consumers don’t return once they’ve reopened, we’ll have a larger problem on our hands.

Whether or not the government’s stimulus spending was worth it is entirely dependent on whether or not consumers go back out and start buying. | Source: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

The government has thrown unprecedented amounts of money at the U.S. economy  to keep it afloat amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

All told, the U.S. government has spent about $6 trillion  to keep the economy from tanking. Uncle Sam has paid the equivalent of $38,000 per working citizen  over the course of a month. That’s 12% more than the median annual income in the U.S.  

That massive fiscal stimulus has acted as a backstop as Wall Street banks on a return to normalcy. The stock market has been taking its cues from the rise and fall of coronavirus cases, but investors’ focus is starting to shift. With all that money floating around, everyone is betting on a spending frenzy once the economy gets going again.

Whether or not that frenzy happens is entirely dependent on consumer sentiment. If people believe that their future is secure, they’ll go out and buy stuff. If not, that additional $38,000 won’t make its way back into the real economy. 

And the stock market will react accordingly.

Disclaimer: This article represents the author’s opinion and should not be considered investment or trading advice from CCN.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.