US Consumer-Confidence Update April 2014
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The Consumer Confidence Survey reports monthly about how US citizens see the economy. At 78.1 in February 2013, the index is trending up and "is now at its highest level in almost six years (April 2008, index of 81.9)," according to a Conference Board spokesperson. The Consumer Confidence Index is an important measure but doesn't necessarily reflect how people see their personal financial situation. People's attitudes about their finances lead behavior. Optimism or pessimism indicates, in part, whether people spend—even when they can well afford to do so. GfK Mediamark Research & Intelligence, LLC's The Survey of the American Consumer asks respondents ages 18 and older about their personal financial situation: how they are doing now in comparison with the previous 12 months and what they anticipate in the coming 12 months. Possible answers include better now, about the same, or worse off. With these data, researchers can make analyses using various aspects of the population, such as age or income breaks, with interesting results. However, using stable consumer segmentation, VALS™, in the context of employment and retirement status, provides insightful and useful results.
In November 2011, US Consumer Confidence: The Bulls and The Bears reported on the eight VALS consumer groups' optimism or pessimism about the economy. The groups' mind-sets are stable—they haven't changed—but changing circumstances do affect spending ability.
Innovators are optimistic because they believe they are in control of their lives. In spring 2011, as many Innovators reported their financial situation would be better in the next 12 months as reported their situation would be about the same (44%); the incidence for being worse off in the next 12 months edged up in fall 2011 (11%). In spring 2013, the proportions of better off and worse off are the same as they were in fall 2011. The percentage of Innovators who report a worsening situation has declined slightly from 14% in fall 2011 to 11% in spring 2013. Innovators remain bullish even though median income has declined from a high of $124 400 in fall 2009 to $120 800 in spring 2013. The slight income decline and the slight increase for being worse off may be attributable, in part, to the fact that the percent of retired Innovators has doubled between 2003 and 2013 and fewer Innovators than before have full-time employment (72% in 2003 to 62% in 2013). Overall, Innovators remain active consumers, although some spending has shifted from goods to experiences. Many Innovators are reaching acquisition saturation after years of spending; some Innovators anticipate downsizing, and those who retire will shift from spending to living on investments.
Thinkers are heavily invested, and most monitor financial news regularly because managing their finances is a hobby. Even so, in the past few years, many have had difficulty in anticipating their personal financial situation because of market volatility. The majority of Thinkers (about half) anticipate their personal financial situation to remain about the same. In spring 2013, 30% look for their financial situation to improve, but almost 20% say they will be worse off—a slight uptick from fall 2012. In part, increasing pessimism and uncertainty is understandable, because more Thinkers than previously are retired (from 22% in 2003 to 31% in 2013). Thinkers are, and remain, very modest in their expectations relative to their high financial assets. Income has increased only slightly (by about $2000) between fall 2008 and spring 2013. Thinkers plan ahead; they buy items on sale whenever possible. Always responsible, Thinkers are cautious. Consequently, their ability to buy continues to exceed their spending by far.
Believers want to put on a happy face, but confidence about their personal financial situation remains elusive. In spring 2013, about 30% anticipate an improved situation. However, the same proportion reports they are worse off than in the previous 12 months. With a median household income of $50K or less, the majority of Believers struggle to make ends meet; income has not increased since 2009. Almost one-quarter are retired; their full-time and part-time employment is about the same between 2003 and 2013. Believers continue to manage as best they can as costs of essentials, such as food, continue to increase. Many hope for a wage increase to improve their situation. In the meantime, more Believers than previously use credit to pay for needed expenses; some have difficulty in keeping up with minimum monthly credit-card payments. A significant income increase will be necessary before hope becomes reality and Believers return to modest consumer spending.
Achievers (Bears and Bulls)
Less concerned about the economy in general and more focused on their personal financial situation, the majority of Achievers were Bears in 2011. As the stock market has soared and assets in 401k plans are increasing, about one-quarter of Achievers are currently Bulls. In fall 2011, the same portion of Achievers (26%) saw an improved financial situation as reported they were worse off. The data indicate that income has steadily increased for the top 20% to 25%, despite the Great Recession; income remains flat, or has declined, for the bottom 25%. Whereas more Innovators than Achievers had full-time employment in 2003, more Achievers than Innovators in 2013 have full-time employment (72% of Innovators versus 67% of Achievers in 2003; 66% of Achievers versus 62% of Innovators in 2013). Since the recession, many Achievers have worked to lower credit-card debt; they are, once again, in a position to spend, albeit more cautiously. Achievers are important to monitor because most are active consumers.
Strivers continue to be optimistic about their personal financial situation—for the majority, unrealistically so. In fall 2011, almost half anticipated their personal financial situation would improve in the next 12 months; only 12% thought they would be worse off. In fact, only 1 in 5 report improved finances the following year (fall 2012), and one-third report they were worse off. Only 44% have employment in 2013—the same incidence as in 2011: Their part-time employment has increased very modestly from 15% in 2011 to 19% in 2013—any employment is better than no employment but may not be enough to decrease dependence on social-safety-net programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. With a median income of $30 000 in spring 2013 (down from $33 700 in fall 2009), almost all Strivers struggle financially. Optimistic Strivers may count on winning the lottery in the coming year or believe their "luck" will change for the better. As financially strapped as they are, the majority consider cellular and smartphones a necessity; most shop constantly for the best data plan from the lowest-cost provider.
Smart, but most unseasoned by life's ups and downs, more Experiencers think their financial situation will improve than think their situation will remain the same. Over half of Experiencers are optimistic about their financial future. Experiencers are the only consumers to believe consistently that their personal financial situation will improve—and to do so at higher incidences than believe they will stay the same in the coming year. Although 40% of Experiencers currently have full-time employment, 43% had full-time employment in 2011. In comparison, 19% had part-time employment in 2011, but 26% are part-timers in 2013. The majority of employed Experiencers are in "starter" jobs. Because many have a college degree, they think the only direction they can go is up. Even though their income has declined by roughly $4000 between fall 2009 and spring 2013, Experiencers remain optimistic. The primary reason for their exuberance is that the majority are young (median age is 24). Their current lack of spending power is a source of frustration not only to Experiencers but also to companies and retailers that expect young consumers to grow the market for their goods and services. At present, few Experiencers are marrying or starting families—two primary drivers of consumer spending. Few can afford a major purchase such as a vehicle. For Experiencers with a high level of student-loan debt, using credit to fund spending is not possible. Experiencers do spend on technology, particularly smartphones, because they use phones as a method to keep in touch (sociability) and as a source of entertainment.
In spring 2013, over 30% of Makers are optimistic about their personal financial situation in the next 12 months; many still believe that hard work remains linked to an increased income. However, median income has increased by only by $4000 since fall 2007. One result is that one-third of Makers in 2013 were worse off than in the previous 12 months. Makers' optimism is elusive, because the jobs market ties closely to slowly rebounding opportunities for their skilled labor. The incidence of full-time employed Makers (55%) is only slightly improved since 2010 (53%). The incidence for retired Makers is roughly the same between 2009 and 2013 at 11%. Many Makers who have reached retirement age simply can't afford to retire even if employed (2013 median income is $53 000). Always modest consumers, Makers who are worse off are not buying even previously owned goods.
Half of Survivors anticipate the same financial situation in the next year. Unlike other adults, however, higher proportions anticipate they will be worse off next year than anticipate they will be better off. The trend is consistent between spring 2003 and spring 2013. Only Survivors exhibit this trend pattern. Over one-half of Survivors are currently retired, in comparison with 62% who were retired prerecession. The majority of Survivors live on a fixed income; only 13% have full-time employment, and 7% have part-time employment. Very few, if any, Survivors have discretionary income. In spring 2013, over one-quarter think they will be worse off in the coming year, in comparison with fewer than 20% who anticipate improved finances. Overall, Survivors' income continues to improve so modestly that it barely keeps pace with the cost of living. With a median income of $23 000, an unimagined income gain would be necessary to change Survivors from Bears to Bulls or from consumers of bare necessities to modest consumers.