Tuesday 19 November 2019

Brendan Keenan: Don't buy blindly into confidence surveys

The feelgood factor reflected in consumer confidence surveys doesn't necessarily translate into purchases

ALL this, and the weather too. We may expect a plague of locusts next (there is already a infestation of Portuguese men o'war), but there is never a Moses around when you need one.

One can almost chart the dismal weather in the figures for retail sales. The awful June coincided with a 1.7 per cent drop in shopping. This mostly bounced back in July. The weather was a bit better, or maybe people had delayed purchases long enough. I wouldn't hold out much hope for August.

Things are so marginal for retailers that the lousy summer could be expensive in terms of jobs. For many shops, left with unsold summer stock or having to flog it off cheap, the weather in 2012 could be the last, sodden straw.

A detailed look at last week's figures for retail sales seems to show this happening. Sales of clothing rose quite strongly by volume, as did DIY goods. (Can't get out? Might as well paint the bathroom.)

But prices were cut, leaving retailers with a more modest increase in the value of sales, and probably reduced profits.

The figures coincided with the latest survey of consumer confidence. This sounded much more comforting, with confidence at the highest level since October 2007. One has to be careful about that kind of comfort, though.

It meant that the answers to questions about people's personal finances and their expectations for the future last month were similar to the ones given in 2007. People were generally satisfied with their situation, and thought that things were not about to get worse.

That is another indicator that the economy has at least stabilised at current levels. But similar confidence levels produced very different shopping behaviour in 2007 and 2012.

Back then, that feelgood factor led to a 5 per cent increase in sales. This year, it merely slowed the rate of decline. That is the difference between bull and bear markets. In one, people spend more as confidence improves. In the other, they merely save a bit more slowly.

There are connections between the confidence surveys and actual purchases, but they are not straightforward. From 2008, the two plunge together. As Davy Stockbrokers said, the fall in consumer spending has been "exceptionally large" by any historical standards -- down 15 per cent since the peak.

Confidence stabilised in 2009, but sales kept falling, although the pace of decline slowed sharply. Just five percentage points of that 15 per cent occurred in the last three years.

What everyone wants is a return to growth. The wider measure of total consumer spending on both retail goods and services represents the biggest chunk of the economy. It takes longer to compile those figures, and the latest show a 2.4 per cent in drop in 2011. Most analysts expect a further fall in 2012.

Trends would be easier to discern were it not for the strange mix of Government attempts to stimulate spending alongside policies which are bound to deter it.

What else can you call the combination of the car scrapping scheme and the two percentage point rise in the top rate of VAT in the Budget?

The results indicate that consumers have a fairly fixed idea of how much they are willing or able to spend, and such schemes merely affect the timing, not the amount.

After the end of the scrappage scheme last year, new car sales tumbled 25 per cent on the previous year, having risen almost 13 per cent beforehand. The widely expected rise in VAT led to a jump in retail sales at the end of last year -- and a correspondingly sharp fall after the Budget.

Car dealers, among others, are looking for more special offers courtesy of Government. They might be wise to ask whether this is not just making stock control, and financial planning more difficult.

Ministers themselves tend to daydream about some magic policy (reduction in bank debt perhaps?) which would cheer everyone up and send them scurrying to the shops, but the headwinds are still against any such hope.

It is not the first time that confidence has improved as the last Budget fades in the memory, and before the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the next one begins. Disposable income will be lower for most of us next year and the political atmosphere probably more fevered.

Ideas such as a reduction in VAT, or another car wheeze, seem unlikely to change the total picture.

Chambers Ireland chief executive Ian Talbot may have been closer to the mark when he highlighted the uncertainty and kite-flying around this year's Budget and the fears about property tax, medical cards and pensions.

A sustained upturn in consumer spending depends more on the actions of governments elsewhere, particularly in the capitals of Europe, than those of our own rulers. The best they can do is avoid making people even more nervous than they need to be, by trying to make it look as if they know what they want to do, and telling us what it is.

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