Persistent Price Pressures Erode Consumer Confidence

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The latest consumer confidence readings paint a picture of an increasingly pessimistic American consumer, battered by stubborn inflation and growing concerns over the economic outlook. The plunge in sentiment comes at a pivotal time for the Federal Reserve as it grapples with getting price rises under control without sending the economy into a recession.

The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell to 97 in April, down sharply from 103.1 in March and marking the lowest level since the souring moods of summer 2022. The dismal April print missed economist estimates of 104 as elevated price pressures, especially for essentials like food and gasoline, weighed heavily on household psyches.

Perhaps more worrying for the economic outlook, consumers also grew markedly more downbeat about the trajectory for business conditions, job availability, and income prospects over the next six months. The expectations index plummeted to levels not seen since last July, with the survey’s written responses making clear that persistent inflation is taking a major toll.

“Elevated price levels, especially for food and gas, dominated consumers’ concerns, with politics and global conflicts as distant runners-up,” according to the Conference Board’s analysis. Consumers earning under $50,000 a year have remained relatively steady in their confidence, while middle- and higher-income households have seen sharper declines.

The gloomy outlook on the economy’s path comes as recent data has offered a mixed bag. Inflation has remained stubbornly high, defying the Fed’s projections for a steady decline. The core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index, which strips out volatile food and energy costs and is the Fed’s primary inflation gauge, rose 2.8% over the past year in March.

Not only did that overshoot estimates, but core PCE accelerated to a concerning 4.4% annualized pace in the first quarter. This has cast doubt on the Fed’s ability to wrestle inflation back down to its 2% target in a timely manner using just rate hikes alone.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged as much in April, stating “The recent data have clearly not given us greater confidence and instead indicate that it’s likely to take longer than expected to achieve that confidence” that inflation is sustainably moving back to 2%.

This means the Fed’s fight against inflation is likely to grind on for longer, with interest rates projected to remain elevated well into 2024 and potentially longer. The federal funds rate currently sits in a range of 5-5.25% after over a year of aggressive rate hikes by the central bank.

While higher borrowing costs have slowed some sectors like housing and manufacturing, the impacts on services inflation and consumer prices have lagged. Consequently, the risk of overtightening by the Fed and precipitating a recession rises with each stubbornly high inflation print.

Complicating the outlook, first quarter GDP growth came in at a sluggish 1.6% annualized pace, missing estimates of 2.5% expansion. The deceleration from 3.4% growth in Q4 has sparked fears that excessive Fed tightening is already dragging on the economy.

This weakening backdrop is likely amplifying consumer unease over the potential for job losses and income hits, sapping the willingness to spend freely. While household balance sheets remain solid overall from the pandemic recovery, the renewed bout of pessimism bears close watching as consumer spending accounts for over two-thirds of economic activity.

The Fed now faces a tricky challenge in quelling the inflation psychology that has taken hold without crashing growth entirely. Restoring price stability will require keeping monetary conditions tight for some time and accepting the economic pain that entails. But if consumer spirits remain depressed for too long, the subsequent pullback in spending could exacerbate any potential downturn. Threading that needle will be one of the central bank’s toughest tasks this year.


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