Irish Consumer Sentiment Significantly Weaker in March

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Analysis and press release for KBC Bank Ireland/ESRI Consumer Sentiment Index for March 2016

  • Survey posts largest monthly drop in seventeen months.
  • Decline driven by downgrading of Irish economic prospects and buying climate.
  • We think global concerns, Brexit worries and domestic political uncertainty were the key drivers.
  • Sentiment reading still consistent with generally positive outlook on part of Irish consumers but now notably more conscious of downside risks.

Analysis by Austin Hughes, Chief Economist, KBC Bank Ireland

Irish consumer sentiment weakened notably in March as increased uncertainty internationally and domestically prompted a marked downgrading of the economic outlook and a corresponding pullback in spending plans. At current levels, the sentiment survey is still pointing to a broadly positive assessment of Irish economic prospects but the drop last month suggests consumers are increasingly conscious of downside risks to the recovery. The March results suggest the ‘fear factor’ remains an issue for many Irish consumers.

The KBC Bank Ireland/ESRI consumer sentiment index fell from 105.8 to 100.6 in February. This was the largest monthly decline since October 2014 and broght the index to its lowest level in six months. The three month moving average of the sentiment series fell for the first time since September, confirming a significant change in the mood of Irish consumers last month.

As the March survey still shows positive balances for all the five main elements, it remains the case that Irish consumers are generally confident about their economic circumstances. However, the scale of the pullback in sentiment in March again underlines how tentative the improvement in these circumstances is for many consumers.

The weakening in the Irish sentiment reading in March was part of a broader deterioration in similar confidence surveys in other countries which we think may be worth considering before we examine the details of the Irish survey. As the diagram below shows, comparable indicators for the US, the Eurozone and the UK also weakened in March. However, the diagram also shows that sentiment has been on a healthier trajectory in Ireland than elsewhere for most of the past twelve months.

Chart showing Consumer Sentiment comparisons for UK, US, Euro area and Ireland

While the decline in US consumer sentiment was relatively modest, it has to be seen in the context of a recovery that has cut unemployment to 5% of the workforce and also seen significant gains for consumers from falling oil prices and rising house prices. However, it appears that the absence of a marked pick-up in wages and fragile sentiment on financial markets have translated into a more apprehensive American consumer.

An altogether more tentative economic upswing in the Euro area together with increasing concerns about migration and terrorism (even though the survey was conducted before the most recent atrocities in Brussels) has left many European consumers more anxious about the future. As the diagram shows, confidence has been on a sharply weakening trend in the Euro area for the past few months, reflecting an altogether less certain economic and political environment.

UK consumers have also been reporting a gradual if uneven weakening in confidence through the past year. As in the US, a relatively low jobless rate has not translated into a stronger path for wages. In addition, consumers may be having difficulty weighing extreme and opposing claims about the implications of ‘Brexit’. In these circumstances, it is not entirely surprising that confidence has been trending lower.

Our judgement is that the weakening in Irish consumer sentiment in March has something in common with the concerns felt by their counterparts in other countries. The weakest part of the Irish survey in March was in relation to the economic outlook for the next twelve months. The monthly decline in this element of the survey was the sharpest since November 2014.

There is little question that uncertainty about the global economy served to counter what continued to be a strong sequence of domestic economic data through the survey period, including  healthy jobs numbers and notably better than expected GDP figures for end-2015. Our sense is that Irish consumers felt the broader economic news flow of late implied that future readings of these domestic indicators might not be so robust.

We think three distinct considerations contributed to the marked downgrading of the economic outlook in the March survey. The first of these is a general concern about the health of the world economy, particularly in relation to the threat of a sharp deterioration in the Chinese economy and its impact on global economic and financial conditions. A second area of unease likely stems from notably greater coverage of the looming ‘Brexit ‘ vote in the UK and  the heightened focus of late on associated worst case scenario risks to the Irish economy.  Finally, the darker mood of Irish consumers last month likely reflects the prospect of a prolonged period of domestic political uncertainty.

The March survey clearly reveals increased concerns about Irish economic prospects but it must be emphasised that it does not signal a collapse in confidence. It remains the case that notably more consumers still expect the Irish economy to improve (46% of responses ) rather than deteriorate (15% of responses) in the next twelve months.

This is largely a reflection of fewer positive views rather than an increase in particularly gloomy assessments. The number expecting weaker economic conditions has changed little of late, rising only modestly from a low-point of 11% of responses in November. In contrast, the number of consumers expecting further Irish economic gains has slipped significantly from 61% of responses as recently as January. The March survey hints that the persistence of the Irish economic upswing looks a little less certain but the details also argue that a dramatic downturn is still regarded as remote.

The sense that last month’s sentiment reading reflects increased fears rather than a more fundamental re-assessment of Irish consumers’ prospects is suggested by a very limited weakening in three of the five main elements of the survey. The notably poorer view on the general economic outlook prompted only a fractional change in thinking on job prospects. In this context, the survey period saw official data pointing to on-going and broadly based increases in employment and a steady stream of new job announcements. Concrete evidence in this form provided a significant counterweight to growing, if less clearly defined unease about the economic climate.

The March sentiment survey saw a relatively modest mark-down of consumers views on their own household finances. As a result, it remains the case that marginally more Irish consumers hold positive rather than negative views of their personal financial circumstances. As increased economic unease reflects risks rather than realities, the March survey saw only a slight drop in the number of consumers expecting an improvement in their household purchasing power to 28% from 31% previously, while there was a statistically insignificant drop in the number anticipating poorer household finances from 15% to 14% of respondents.

Aside from the economic outlook there was one other element of the survey that saw a large decline in March. Consumers’ spending plans, as expressed by their answers to the question asking whether now is a good time to buy big ticket items, recorded the largest monthly decline since October 2014. It should be noted that this element of the survey can be volatile on a monthly basis and that the balance of responses remains positive. However, the weakening in this part of the survey is consistent with a precautionary pull-back in spending plans in response to the threat of more difficult economic times ahead.       

We don’t think the March sentiment survey points to a marked change in the outlook for Irish consumer spending which we still expect to increase at a broadly similar pace to last year. That said, these results suggest consumers are sensitive to the risk of more difficult economic times ahead and this may be reflected in a slightly more cautious approach to ‘discretionary’ spending in coming months.

In part, the concerns evident in the March sentiment reading reflect what is still a tentative and uneven recovery in Irish households spending power after a very painful adjustment through the recent crisis. This means many Irish consumers are poorly placed to handle any renewed economic weakness and, consequently, more focussed on such risks.

While such circumstances make Irish consumers particularly sensitive to risks to the economic outlook, the diagram above suggests they have weathered various global economic storms through the past year rather better than their counterparts elsewhere. Our judgement is that the clear decline in Irish consumer sentiment in March owes something to the general worries afflicting consumers around the globe at present. However, we think the key driver is the combination of two developments specifically relevant to Ireland in the shape of the threats posed by ‘Brexit’ and prolonged domestic political instability.

While the drop in sentiment in March might be regarded as no more than a wobble given that the details of the survey remain generally positive, it should also be taken as a warning given particular threats to the Irish economic outlook and the still strained financial circumstances of many households. The March results certainly suggest that Irish consumers are more conscious of downside risks to the recovery of late.

PRESS RELEASE

Commenting on the results Daniel Foley, ESRI, said:

“The consumer sentiment index fell in March after significant increases in recent months. The underlying trend for the main indices continues to point upward suggesting that confidence is still broadly positive. The results suggest a more cautious outlook by consumers. ”

“Overall, views in relation to consumer’s expectations seemed to disimprove in March compared to February. While the dis-improvement in expectations was broadly based, it was primarily driven by a more negative perception in the economic outlook over the next 12 months. This resulted in a fall of 4.3 index points in the index of consumer expectations.”

“The buying climate worsened in March driven mainly by a relatively large fall in the component asking people whether it was a good time to make large household purchases. This suggests that the scaling back of consumer purchases after Christmas is continuing into March after a modest decrease in this component in February. This contributed to an overall fall in the index of current economic conditions from 121.0 in February to 114.5 this month.”

In addition, Austin Hughes, KBC Bank Ireland, noted:

“In one sense, the March consumer sentiment reading might be regarded as a ‘wobble’ as it remains the case that all the main components report more positive than negative responses. So, on balance, Irish consumers still see an improvement in the broad economy and in their financial circumstances in the year ahead. In a more important sense, the survey is a warning. The largest monthly drop since October 2014 suggests notably greater unease among consumers of late in response to sharply increased uncertainty at home and abroad.”

“In part, the weakening in Irish consumer sentiment in March reflects a general unease about various risks to the global economy which is also reflected in weak confidence readings in many other countries. However, we think two developments of specific importance to the Irish economy were probably more important in driving the decline last month. The first is a notably increased focus on the potential damage to Ireland from ‘Brexit’ and the second is the risk of a prolonged period of domestic political instability. With the improvement in household finances still tentative and uneven, it is scarcely surprising that sentiment has responded marginally to increasing risks to the recovery.”

For further information contact:

Austin Hughes, KBC Bank Ireland @ 664 6889 (office) or 087 669 6972 (mobile)

Daniel Foley, ESRI @ 863 2045 (office)

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