Economy Watch: Consumer Sentiment Edges Down in February

Consumer sentiment dropped in February, according to a Reuters/University of Michigan poll. The surge in gas prices accounted for most of the uptick in February's CPI. And manufacturing edged up a little in the first month of 2012.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Image courtesy Flickr user vl8189

Consumers were a little miffed in February, according to the latest Reuters/University of Michigan consumer-sentiment index, which dropped to 74.3 during the month against the expectations of economists predicting another rise. Since the nervous days last summer, around the time the U.S. government came within a whisker of defaulting, the index has been on a steady upward march. The February downtick, however, wasn’t that much down from January’s reading of 75.3 (back in August, consumers were grumpy indeed, with the index at just over 55).

The current-conditions component of the index actually increased by than one point to 84.2. Jobs numbers and retail spending have been reasonably good lately, after all. It was the expectations component, dropping more than two points to 68, that dragged the headline index downward. Things might be better now, but the worry is that the economy will disappoint as the spring passes, just as it has for two years in a row now.

The upward creep of gas prices, which accelerated in February, was probably also a dampening factor. The University of Michigan asks the 500 households in its survey how much inflation they expect, and the average reply jumped by seven-tenths of a percent last month to an expectation of 4 percent inflation over the next 12 months. On the other hand, when asked about inflation for the next five years, the respondents thought on average that it would be 3 percent, so perhaps the upswing in gas prices is still perceived as temporary.

CPI Driven Upward by Gasoline

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that the Consumer Price Index saw a February uptick of 0.4 percent month-over-month. The main factor in the rise should be little surprise: gasoline. The surge in pump prices during the month accounted for over 80 percent of the change in the overall index.

In fact, the gas increase led to a 3.2 percent rise in the BLS’s energy index, despite a decline in the price of natural gas, which is at a 10-year low because of oversupply and anemic demand during the warmish U.S. winter. The price of food didn’t move much in February, with at-home food unchanged for the second month in a row. Presumably, though, the gas-price increases will eventually start pushing up food prices, as happened in 2008 before the September panic.

Without energy (and food), the “core” CPI saw an increase of only 0.1 percent during February. Some things were a little more expensive for consumers, such as shelter (rent, that is), new cars, medical care, and household furnishings. On the other hand, some classes of goods were a little cheaper, such as apparel, recreation, used cars and tobacco.

Manufacturing Edges Up

The Federal Reserve said on Friday that U.S. industrial production was unchanged in February, following a 0.4 percent rise in January, but manufacturing edged up a little. Within manufacturing, the index for motor vehicles and parts fell 1.1 percent after jumping 8.6 percent in January, but the index for manufacturing excluding cars increased 0.4 percent in February.

Wall Street gyrated all day on Friday and ended more or less where it started. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 20.14 points, or 0.15 percent, when the Nasdaq dropped a minuscule 0.04 percent. The S&P 500 eked out a gain of 0.11 percent.