The 10 June economic release, penned by Westpac’s Chief Economist Bill Evans, reported improved consumer confidence to be back “around pre-COVID levels”, having “recovered all of the extreme 20% drop seen when the pandemic exploded in March-April.”
The Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment recorded the 16.4% gain in May. A rise to 88.1 from the “extremely weak” 75.6 in April.
Evans reported that the Index is now only 2% below the average established in the September-February period.
However, the release did warn that given the difficult recovery ahead, “it would be surprising if the recent upward momentum continues.”
Further, the release pointed out that while the monthly gain was impressive, the index is still “relatively weak by historical standards — in pessimistic territory overall and down 7% on a year ago.”
COVID recession and 1990s recession: better times ahead
While the release found that the data still suggests families are financially constricted and concerned about the near-term economic outlook, there is “firming optimism around prospects for finances in the year ahead.”
Further, the release found that respondents are “confident that they can see eventual better times ahead whereas in the early 1990s there was a pervasive mood of despair for years.”
ASX 200 and improved consumer sentiment
Importantly for ASX 200 stocks reliant on discretionary spending, the Westpac release indicated that the largest gains were around views on the economic outlook and “time to buy a major item”.
The ‘time to buy a major item’ sub-index posted a strong 10.1% gain in June, on the back of a 26.7% May increase.
That said, the buyer sentiment is still well below the long-run average.
Consumer expectations for house prices
Evans reported that consumer expectations for house prices improved. The Westpac-Melbourne Institute House Price Expectations Index rose 10.5%.
However, the index is still 43% below the cheery readings just before the COVID-19 lockdown. Further, Evans reported that survey results continue to “point to a sharp deterioration… compared to a few months ago.”
Finally, the proportion favouring real estate as the answer to ‘wisest place for savings’ dropped to 4% in March. Evans stated that this suggests “investors look likely to stay away from Australia’s housing market near term.”
ASX 200 analysis
Evans concluded the release by noting that “unusually, more respondents nominated shares (11.4%) than real estate as preferred investment options.”
Can the currently reported investment preference for shares over real estate, coupled with improved consumer sentiment lift the ASX 200? Will the improved sentiment percolate across the economy?
The sentiment can certainly impact the discretionary spending sector, at least in the near-term.
For instance, the S&P/ASX 200 Consumer Discretionary (ASX: XDJ) is up 7% from this time last month. It’s also up 4% from this time 3 months ago.
Additionally, Wesfarmers Ltd (ASX: WES) — a stock that certainly benefits from improved consumer sentiment — is up 12.4% from this time last month. JB Hi-Fi Limited (ASX: JBH) is also enjoying gains — up 11.3% from last month.