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‘Renewed concerns’ about economy sees consumer sentiment dip: Westpac

Consumers remain deeply pessimistic about the near-term outlook for the economy despite signs of improvement last month, says the major bank.

 

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The Westpac Consumer Sentiment Index fell 1.8 per cent to 84.4 in March with concerns still worried about the outlook for the economy.

Westpac said while there were promising signs last month that the consumer gloom that has dominated the past two years was beginning to lift, the March survey indicates that progress is “slow at best”.

“Consumers are still deeply pessimistic and becoming more concerned about the economy’s near-term outlook,” the Westpac Consumer Sentiment report stated.

The index indicated renewed concerns about the economic outlook.

 

Four of the five sub-indexes recorded declines in March, with the biggest move being a 4.5 per cent fall in the economic outlook.

The next biggest decline was the next 12 months sub-index which offset just over half of the gain from February.

“Assessments of family finances and ‘time to buy a major household item’ also retraced some of their February gains, with all still well below long run average levels despite some modest net improvement over the last six months,” Westpac said.

“The only positive was around the ‘economic outlook, next 5 years’ sub-index which edged up 1.1 per cent to be at 94, slightly above the long run average of 92.”

The major bank said responses to the survey suggest that sentiment made a sharp turnaround following the RBA decision.

“Sentiment amongst those surveyed prior to the decision came in at a much stronger 94.9 compared to 79.3 amongst those surveyed post-decision – almost identical to the swing recorded in February,” the report said.

“The implication is that while few would have been expecting rates to be cut, many consumers may have been hoping for a more positive message on inflation and the interest rate outlook.

“However, the RBA Governor was still not ruling out the possibility of further rate rises following the March meeting.”

Westpac Group senior economist Matthew Hassan said the RBA’s commentary looks to be tempering consumer expectations for interest rates as well, with fears of rate hikes easing but few expecting rate cuts any time soon.

The Westpac-Melbourne Institute Mortgage Rate Expectations Index, which tracks consumer expectations for variable mortgage rates over the next 12 months, dipped 0.5 per cent to 120.9.

“The mix of responses shows 40 per cent of consumers are still bracing for rate increases, 22 per cent expect no change, 22 per cent expect declines and 15 per cent simply “don’t know,” said Hassan.

Hassan said consumers remain relatively comfortable about the outlook for jobs, however.

“The Westpac-Melbourne Institute Unemployment Expectations Index rose slightly, by 1 per cent, in February but at 128.1 is still in line with the long run average of 129,” he said.

“Readings remain consistent with a softening in labour market conditions rather than a sharp rise in job losses.”

Housing-related sentiment improved slightly overall for the month with another lift in assessments of time to buy and price expectations holding at optimistic levels.

 

 

 

Miranda Brownlee
27 March 2024
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