U.S. Consumer Sentiment Holds Up in Second Half of February

(Bloomberg) —

U.S. consumer sentiment remained elevated in the second half of February despite the intensifying coronavirus fears that have battered equity markets this week.

The University of Michigan’s final sentiment index for February was little changed at 101 from an initial reading of 100.9 and the second-highest of the expansion. Economists in a Bloomberg survey called for a slight decline from the preliminary figure. The gauge of current conditions increased from the prior month to 114.8 and the expectations index rose to 92.1, data showed Friday.

Only 8% of all consumers in February mentioned the virus when describing the economic outlook, though the share rose to 20% in the final two days of the survey. Interviews were conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 25.

Still, “the domestic spread of the virus could have a significant impact on consumer spending,” Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan consumer survey, said in a statement. “If the virus spreads into U.S. communities, consumers are likely to limit their exposure to stores, malls, theaters, restaurants, sporting events, air travel, and the like.”

Meantime, gasoline prices are low, the job market is sturdy and disposable income is picking up, lending support to sentiment. The report showed improving finances were reported by 58% of all respondents, an all-time high.

While the final February sentiment reading is the latest sign consumers remain a steady hand for the U.S. economy, a rapidly spreading coronavirus, the stock market collapse and the approaching elections nonetheless represent risks.

Other highlights:

– Longer-term inflation expectations dropped to 2.3% this month from 2.5% in January. Federal Reserve officials watch this figure closely as Chairman Jerome Powell has warned that lower expectations can drag actual inflation even lower.

– Inflation expectations for the year ahead fell to 2.4% from 2.5% in January. The preliminary February reading also was 2.5%.

– The gauge of sentiment about current personal finances was the second-highest since 1998.

– Mortgage rates continue to support homebuying, with the highest share of respondents since 2016 mentioning low borrowing costs.

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