An optimism of sorts is in the air. Perhaps, it is a reflection of an economic turnaround. Recent data releases suggest that the economy is reviving. Tax collections, foreign trade, electricity generation have all been convincingly and consistently buoyant so far in this fiscal year. Employment conditions and consumer sentiments also improved dramatically in September. Further, in the week ended October 10, consumer sentiments vaulted by an extraordinary 9.8 per cent. To benchmark this, note that the mean weekly change in consumer sentiments has been 0.6 per and the median 0.5 per cent over the past one year. A near-ten per cent increase is therefore worth taking notice, particularly as it comes on top of three consecutive months of steadily improving sentiments. The growth seen in macroeconomic indicators seems to be in harmony with the direction in which the mood of households is veering. Something seems to be working for Indian consumers. Yet, the Indian consumer expresses some caution this festive season.
The index of consumer sentiments scaled up by a handsome 7.9 per cent in September. This came on top of a 1.7 per cent increase in August and a massive 11.1 per cent in July. The cumulative gain in the past three months was therefore an impressive 21.9 per cent.
The index has improved in the last three months largely because the current economic conditions of households have improved and not as much because of expectations of improvement in the future. The overall index comprises both, current conditions and expectations. The greater share of current conditions in the improvement in the index of consumer sentiments is therefore more real than anticipatory. In September, the index of current economic conditions rose by 11.9 per cent over its level in August. At the same time, the index of consumer expectations increased by a relatively modest 5.7 per cent. In the quarter ended September, the former increased by 29.8 per cent while the latter increased by a lower 17.7 per cent.
The principal reason why the index of consumer sentiments improved in September is that more households reported that their incomes were higher than a year ago. Eight per cent of the respondents said so as against just 4.6 per cent in August. This is the first time since the beginning of the current economic downturn since April 2020 that more than seven per cent of the responding households said that their household incomes were higher than a year ago. Equally importantly, it is the first time since April 2020 that less than 40 per cent of the respondents said that their household income was worse than what it was a year ago. There is an increase in the proportion of households reporting an improvement in incomes and a reduction in the proportion reporting a worsening of incomes.
This improvement in household incomes had a rather marginal impact on household intentions to buy consumer durables. This is disappointing given that India is at the eve of its festive season. Only 4.3 per cent of the households reported that it was a better time to buy consumer durables in September 2021 compared to a year ago. More than 51 per cent considered these to be worse times than a year ago to buy consumer durables.
A year ago, in September 2020, only 5 per cent of the respondents had said that their incomes were higher than they were a year ago. In September 2021, this proportion, as noted above, has increased to 8 per cent. However, while 5.7 per cent of the respondents thought it was a better time to buy durables in September 2020, a lower 4.3 per cent believe that this is a good time to buy consumer durables now. The income effect was not translated into a discretionary buying effect this year.
This, perhaps, is an indication that an increase in income may be a necessary but it may not be a sufficient condition for households to start spending. Compared to a year ago, the threshold of income increase required to motivate larger proportion of households to increase their spending on discretionary goods has risen now. By September, the spread of the phenomenon of household income increases had not spread into an increase in intentions to buy durables. By September, enthusiasm on the future was also muted.
Both improved somewhat during the week ended October 10. The index of consumer expectations jumped up by 10.4 per cent. This again is extraordinary. The recent historic mean (since August 2020) is 0.5 and the median is 1. Most of this extraordinary gain emanates from a jump in the expectation that the economy as a whole would do better in the coming one year and also in the coming five years. However, expectations of this translating into better household incomes are still muted. There is only a small increase in the intentions to buy consumer durables.
We see progression. First, there was an improvement in households reporting an increase in incomes. Then, there was an increase in households expecting the economy to improve in the short-to-medium term. But, the progression may be incomplete. There is no increase yet, in expectations of an increase in household incomes or enthusiasm in purchasing consumer durables.
There is optimism in the air but, there is some hesitancy too.