In his famous "irrational exuberance" speech on December 5, 1996, then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan posed a rhetorical question: "How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions?” With those words, he underscored the influence that emotions can have on financial assets.
Thinking along these lines, it is interesting to note that if there is such a thing as “irrational exuberance”, the opposite must also exist. Let’s call this converse emotion “irrational negativity”. Is there such a thing? The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is a rolling average based on telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly selected adults over the previous four-week period. Last week, 89% rated the economy negatively, while only 54% rated their own finances negatively. Translation: People think we are worse off than we actually are (irrational negativity).
For the year, the S&P 500 is up 0.94%, the Dow is up 1.72%, and the Nasdaq is up 2.05%. Company earnings are strong, and stocks have moved steadily higher in September thanks to a series of encouraging signals on the economy. Despite this fact, gold set another record last week, and Treasury prices edged higher in a sign that investors remain cautious.
Will people eventually come around? There are reasons to believe they will. One good sign is that Americans are spending more. The U.S. Census Bureau announced Tuesday that consumer spending rose 0.4% from July to August, and 3.6% from 12 months ago, with retail sales up 0.5% and 3.7% respectively. This was the 10th month in a row of year-over-year growth in consumer spending estimates from the Census Bureau, following 14 months of year-over-year declines. All told, Americans spent $363.7 billion at retailers in August – the most since April. Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, this provides yet another silver lining in what many still view as confusing times.