Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Does Consumer Confidence Matter?

I like to read the papers as early as possible in the day. As a morning person, I find that I can absorb bad economic news best before 6 AM. This morning, I was challenged to do just that, as consumer confidence hit a low that was unexpected by analysts. That, of course, will make the real estate market worse.

It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, because the poor real estate market has a lot to do with what happens to the consumer confidence index. Is it so low because recent news about housing sales has been so negative? Or is low confidence causing the level of real estate sales to drop? Although it's hard to know for sure, it's probably some of each.

If you were making a list of what goes into the strength of the real estate market, apart from local issues and demographic trends, you would probably cite three things: household income; interest rates; and consumer confidence. Income is obvious, because the more you earn, the more you can afford to buy. That can occur because your job pays more over time, or for other reasons, such as the run-up in prices caused by two-income families going up dramatically and allowing housing prices to follow. Interest rates also have a clear effect. Since the only thing that really matters to most people is the amount of their monthly payment, lower rates will let them buy more house for the same monthly nut.

Consumer confidence is really the measurement of people's expectations about the near-term future, both of their own situations and the national economy. To translate that into housing prices and sales, the index reflects what they think will happen to their jobs and wages. Unless they feel positive about their prospects, they are most likely not going to take on additional or increased debt. Unfortunately, there is a multiplier effect as well; when they read that others are not feeling rosy about the future, their own opinions tend to drop as well.

The Federal government is charged with raising confidence about all of our futures. Let's hope, for all our sakes, that they come up with something that works, and sooner rather than later.