By Tom Ozimek
Amid fears of negative economic impacts from high interest rates and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, U.S. consumer confidence fell for the fourth straight month in November while long-run inflation expectations rocketed to the highest level in 12 years.
The University of Michigan’s closely watched consumer sentiment gauge fell more than five percentage points in November, to a reading of 60.4 percent.
The slump extends a months-long decline in U.S. consumer confidence as various economic indicators have deteriorated and recession fears have continued to swirl.
Even though current and expected personal finances showed modest improvement in November, the long-run economic outlook plunged 12 percent, according to the University of Michigan sentiment survey.
The sharp decline in future economic expectations was partly due to growing concerns about the negative impacts of high interest rates, according to Joanne Hsu, University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers director.
The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates sharply from near zero in March 2022 to within a current range of 5.25–5.50 percent in a feverish bid to quash soaring inflation.
But while the effect of the rate hikes has yet to bring inflation down to the Fed’s 2 percent target, the central bank’s moves have driven up borrowing costs, starving the economy of credit and prompting warnings of stagflation—a toxic combination of sluggish growth and high inflation.
Inflation Expectations Jump
Inflation fell from its peak of 9.1 percent year over year in June 2022 to 3 percent in June 2023, sparking hope that it would continue falling. But this decline stalled in August and September, with the rate rebounding to 3.7 percent, partly on the back of higher energy costs.
The rebound of inflationary pressures has translated into expectations that inflation will continue to pick up steam going forward.
Consumers now expect the year-ahead pace of inflation to be 4.4 percent, up from the 4.2 percent they predicted in October, which itself was a large jump from September’s reading of 3.2 percent, per the University of Michigan survey.
It’s the longer-run inflation expectations that were the biggest upside surprise in the survey, however. These rose from 3.0 percent in October to 3.2 percent this month—the highest reading since 2011.
Gas price expectations—both over the short and long run—rose to their highest readings so far this year, contributing to the slump in consumer sentiment.
“Ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine weighed on many consumers as well,” Ms. Hsu said of other factors depressing consumer confidence.
The outbreak of conflict in the Middle East—triggered by a shock incursion of Hamas terrorists into Israel and slaughter of hundreds of civilians—is the latest geopolitical hotspot to flare up and cause economists to worry about negative economic impacts.
Bestselling author and Bear Traps Report founder Larry McDonald recently warned that the Israel-Hamas war could be “extremely inflationary.” He also lamented that the decarbonization movement has led to dwindling oil patch investment—while predicting that $250-per-barrel crude was an acute possibility.
There have been other warnings by experts that inflation could stay higher for longer, with those fears having trickled down to everyday consumers, the University of Michigan survey shows.
‘Slower Inflation Is an Oxymoron’
Even though the latest (September) data showed that the pace of inflation was 3.7 percent in annualized terms—a significant drop from the recent peak of 9.1 percent—this has been of little solace to consumers. Many lament that these numbers don’t show prices falling, just rising a bit more slowly.
“Slower inflation is an oxymoron to consumers that take no solace in the fact that prices aren’t rising as fast, because they are still rising,” Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate, told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“The cumulative effect of inflation has strained household budgets and undermined buying power, with the Consumer Price Index up more than 18 percent in the past three years,” he added.
Next week, the government will release the inflation data for October, with Mr. McBride saying that any uptick in the pace of inflation is likely to rattle both stock and bond markets and undermine the notion that the Fed is done raising interest rates.
“If inflation is seen as trending lower, this helps keep the Fed on the sidelines. But even then, rates will remain high for some time to come—to the delight of savers and the disappointment of borrowers,” he said.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell said during a recent press conference that there’s been “significant progress” on inflation, but added that getting inflation “sustainably down to 2 percent has a long way to go.”
Even though the Fed is forecasting one more 25 basis-point rate hike this year, analysts at ING said they “doubt it will follow through.”
That’s in part due to significant weakness in loan demand caused by high interest rates, combined with an increased reluctance for banks to lend.
“This combination of sharply higher borrowing costs and reduced credit availability tends to be toxic for growth,” ING analysts said, adding that they expect a recession in 2024 lasting for at least two quarters.
“In this environment, we see the slowdown in inflation regaining momentum in early 2024,” they predicted.