Consumer sentiment: Turning ‘Bah Humbug’ into ‘Happy Holidays’

November 25, 2020
Written By:
Bernie DeGroat

Consumer sentiment fell in November due to a sharp decline in economic prospects, according to the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

Richard Curtin

Richard Curtin

The decline was due to the current and expected resurgence in the COVID-19 virus as well as shifts in expectations following the outcome of the presidential election, said U-M economist Richard Curtin, director of the surveys.

If coronavirus infections and deaths rise as anticipated in the months ahead, further declines in optimism are likely, he said. Half of all consumers expected conditions in the economy would still be unfavorable in 2021, including slightly higher inflation and unemployment rates.

The optimism generated by the anticipated approval of several COVID-19 vaccines may be overwhelmed by heightened concerns about vaccination priorities, especially given the expected increases in coronavirus deaths over the next several months, Curtin said.

Widespread closures are likely to exact a heavy toll on the economy and cause severe hardships for some households.
Richard Curtin

“The resurgence of COVID infections and deaths in the months ahead is likely to promote more firm closures and stay-at-home orders in addition to mandatory wearing of face masks and social distancing,” he said. “Widespread closures are likely to exact a heavy toll on the economy and cause severe hardships for some households.

“A delay in federal aid until next year would permit great harm and permanent damage to occur for many households, firms and local governments. Immediate action by the current administration and Congress is urgently needed to secure the continuation of the economic recovery and to ensure the welfare of all households.”

Personal finances continue to weaken

Consumers’ judgments about their financial situation have remained near the lows recorded seven months ago, with net increases in household incomes only slightly higher in frequency than net declines (31% vs. 28%), the smallest margin of gains since June and July.

Expected median income gains in the year ahead have already declined to 1.6% in November, down from 2.0% last month, and further declines are likely with the resurgence of COVID-19 inflections and firm closures. Households with incomes in the top third expected larger gains (2.5%) as did younger workers (3.3%), but even among these households, income expectations have recently declined.

Prospects for consumption

Job and income declines due to the COVID-19 resurgence will diminish holiday purchases among lower-income households, especially without any renewed federal benefits, Curtin said. Even higher-income households who have larger savings balances that could support more robust spending must also deal with rising COVID-19 risks.

The exception, he said, will be the outfitting and refurnishing of homes to accommodate multiple new home-based tasks, including uses as classrooms, offices and centers for family recreation and exercise.

Consumer Sentiment Index

The Consumer Sentiment Index was 76.9 in November, down from 81.8 in October and well below last November’s 96.8. The entire decline was due to the Expectations Index, down to 70.5 in November, from last month’s 79.2 and last year’s 87.3. The Current Conditions Index rose to 87.0 in November, from last month’s 85.9 but still below last year’s 111.6.

About the surveys

The Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected. Interviews are conducted throughout the month by telephone. The minimum monthly change required for significance at the 95% level in the Sentiment Index is 4.8 points; for the Current and Expectations Index, the minimum is 6 points.

Surveys of Consumers
U-M Institute for Social Research