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Economy in Brief

Consumer Confidence Improves Sharply In Italy
by Robert Brusca April 27, 2009

The consumer confidence reading for Italy has been weak in this cycle but not quite as weak as it was in the previous two downturns in the early 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the bad press this business cycle keeps getting, in Italy consumers have not generally gotten as despondent as in the past two cycles nor have they stayed as depressed for as long. That is probably against public perceptions of this recession. Indeed, when I looked at these results I double checked the spread sheet to see if I’d entered the dates correctly – and I had. I was (I am!) surprised.

The chart on Italy’s consumer disposition is demonstrating a clear uptrend, albeit in an oscillating fashion. This month’s reading is the highest it has been Since December 2007. Moreover the 5.1 point jump m/m is the fifth largest month-to-month jump in the index since early 1992. The level of the index is still low but the jump is large.

The rise in the index is notable – especially given the size of the rise - since Italian unemployment is expected to rise further and consumer conditions are importantly a reflection of labor market conditions. In Germany, too, the GfK index of consumer sentiment which is a survey that projects readings for May shows consumer confidence unchanged even though last week the leading German research institutes came out with harsher assessments for the German economy for 2009. For some reason- and Italian consumers are not alone in this – consumer confidence is firming in the face of news that is in many ways worsening.

The devil is in the details -- Italian consumers assess their own mood with an index value of 104.9 which stands in the 33rd percentile of its range of values back to January of 1992. The index is weaker than this level only 27% of the time. So while these are low readings they are not among the worst ever. The overall situation for the past 12-months is evaluated as in the 58th percentile of its range, ranking 121st out of 208 observations leaving it in the bottom 41st percentile of its range. These statistics give the raw readings more meaning by putting them in the context of the range of values and in the context of rankings (frequency). We use ‘the percentile of the range of value’ instead of ‘percent of mean’ since these components can move in both positive and negative ranges: ‘percent of mean’ is just not meaningful. Being in the 58th percentile means that although the reading is above the mid point of its range it is still a moderate reading: In fact it appears as an even lower reading in this case since 60% of the time the assessment is better than this. In this way we can use percentage of range and ranking data to close in on what the current reading really means

Over the next 12 months the reading for the overall situation is, however, lower residing in the 20th percentile of its range and being lower only 16% of the time. By this reading we see that conditions have not been good and they are expected to get worse. Still, in the last two recessions these metrics were even worse. Unemployment for the next 12-months remains very bad, in the 75th percentile of its range but with the fifth worst reading overall- a ranking that puts it in the top 3% all time. That is to say that unemployment fears have been worse than this only 3% of the time.

The household financial situation is in the 38th percentile for the last 12 months and is expected to be in the 49th percentile of range for the next 12-months. While 49th percentile is a ‘mid range’ reading that is misleading since the actual reading is lower than that level only about 17 percent of the time. Apparently the range is wide and skewed.

Perhaps the real reason Italian consumer sentiment is not so bad is that Italians remain optimistic about the future, despite their adverse sentiment. When they assess if it it’s the right time to make a major purchase they put the current situation in the 40Th percentile of its range. But when they assess the future they put it in the 95th percentile of the range. So Italian consumers seem to admit that the current situation is bad and may get worse in the period ahead. Yet they remain optimistic that there will be a better time to buy things in the coming months by a wide margin. Consumer optimism on the time to make major purchases stands in marked contrast to assessments of the overall situation for the next 12months as well as to fears of unemployment and pressures on the household budget. We might be encouraged to dismiss some of this optimism except we see it arising in Germany as well. It’s a trend to watch for elsewhere.

Italy ISAE Consumer Confidence
          Since Jan 1992 Rank
  Apr-09 Mar-09 Feb-09 Jan-09 Percentile Rank percentile
Consumer Confidence 104.9 99.8 104 102.6 33.4 151 27.4%
Last 12 months              
OVERALL SITUATION -74 -84 -78 -75 58.4 121 41.8%
PRICE TRENDS -43 -45 -38.5 -33.5 4.1 207 0.5%
Next 12months              
OVERALL SITUATION -26 -35 -26 -22 20.6 174 16.3%
PRICE TRENDS 9.5 7 7.5 8.5 19.4 96 53.8%
UNEMPLOYMENT 21 38 28 20 75.0 5 97.6%
HOUSEHOLD BUDGET 1 5 8 4 17.0 198 4.8%
Last 12 months -37 -39 -35 -36 38.8 127 38.9%
Next12 months -11 -10 -10 -10 49.0 172 17.3%
Current 60 69 66 59 72.7 13 93.8%
Future -29 -33 -29 -38 40.4 159 23.6%
MAJOR Purchases              
Current -41 -43 -39 -42 40.4 99 52.4%
Future 3 3 7 6 95.7 3 98.6%
Total number of months: 208
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