Consumers have never hated the U.S. economy this much—it’s a huge recession warning sign

A man looks at the gas prices at a Chevron station.
Fuel prices at a Chevron gas station in San Francisco on June 9, 2022.
Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Americans have never been more pessimistic about the path ahead for the U.S. economy, according to the June edition of the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

The consumer sentiment index fell from a reading of 55.2 in May to a record low of just 50.0 in June, as four-decade high inflation and consistent predictions of an impending recession continue to dampen Americans’ view of the economy. All in all, it amounts to a massive 41.5% drop in consumer sentiment year over year.

If you ask economists, the drop is cause for concern, because consumer confidence is a key indicator of the potential for a recession. 

Americans’ gloomy outlook is also somewhat of a historical anomaly, given the current low unemployment rate of 3.6%.

“Peaks in sentiment and lows in unemployment tend to broadly coincide,” Jim Reid, Deutsche Bank’s head of credit strategy and thematic research, wrote in a Friday research note, pointing out that what we are seeing now is a very different dynamic.

“I have circled the main occasions where [low] sentiment has notably led unemployment, and interestingly, they were all between the late 1960s and the late 1970s when inflation structurally picked up,” Reid noted. “All of those situations led to a recession.” 

Roughly 79% of Americans also expect “bad times” for business conditions in the coming year, the University of Michigan’s surveys showed. That’s the most since 2009 when the economy was coming out of the Great Recession.

“Consumers across income, age, education, geographic region, political affiliation, stockholding, and homeownership status all posted large declines [in sentiment],” Surveys of Consumers director Joanne Hsu said in a statement.

There was a bright spot in the most recent Surveys of Consumers data, however.

One-year inflation expectations were unchanged from May at 5.3%, and actually fell slightly from a preliminary June reading of 5.4%.

That’s likely a result of the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates by 75 basis points last week, its largest hike since 1994. The Fed has been attempting to cool the economy with its rate hikes, thereby reducing inflationary pressures.

Still, rising consumer prices continue to be a thorn in the side of consumers.

“47% of consumers blamed inflation for eroding their living standards, just one point shy of the all-time high last reached during the Great Recession,” Hsu said.

The less-than-stellar consumer confidence reading from June follows multiple other reports that show deteriorating conditions in the U.S. economy as well.

The S&P Global Purchasing Managers’ Index, for example, which helps to measure business conditions in the U.S., declined sharply in June, hitting its lowest level since the start of the year.

That’s yet another worrying sign for the economy, Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global, said in a report accompanying the survey data.

“The pace of U.S. economic growth has slowed sharply in June,” he said. “Business confidence is now at a level which would typically herald an economic downturn, adding to the risk of recession.”

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