California consumer confidence back to pre-pandemic levels

California shoppers are feeling the best they have since the coronavirus slammed the economy, two surveys show.

The Chapman University-Claremont McKenna College California Consumer Sentiment Index jumped a record 37% in the first quarter from the end of recession-scarred 2021.

The Conference Board’s California Consumer Confidence Index hot 110.8 for March — up from a revised 96.1 a month earlier and up from 107.5 a year ago.  That’s a 15%, one-month gain (fourth increase in a row) and a 3% gain over 12 months. The last time optimism was higher was in February 2020, just before the pandemic throttled the economy.

Golden State consumers are clearly cheered by falling coronavirus cases and deaths — plus a wider availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Such moves have allowed the state’s economy to more broadly reopen — getting more folks back to work and offering those with spare cash more opportunities to spend.

Chapman-CMC says its index rose to 90.6 from 65.9 in the fourth quarter — wiping out all the 2020’s losses.

The seven questions that create the index all surged higher: business conditions vs. a year ago (up 195%); improved current business impact (up 59%); better business conditions next year (up 48%); chances of finding a job (up 30%); willingness to buy a car (up 26%); improved business impact next year (up 21%); and better finances (up 13%).

“The large jump in California consumer sentiment over the last quarter sends a strong signal that the state economy is in recovery mode,” wrote Chapman professor Marc Weidenmier. “It looks like the medical community and public health officials finally have the upper hand in their battle with the coronavirus. Businesses are opening up and people are going back to work. This trend should continue for the foreseeable future unless we see another wave of the virus.”

The Conference Board’s two measures inside the state index revealed some mixed feelings.

Start with California consumers’ view of current business conditions. The present-day view scored 74.8 — up from 58.1 a month earlier but below 152.3 a year earlier. Folks seem to know things are still dicey right now. For example, California has suffered the nation’s fourth-highest job losses. 

But shoppers’ outlook for the future is soaring. March set a new record high for this subindex at 134.9 — topping the previous record of 121.5 set in February. This forward-looking index was 77.7 a year earlier.

The Conference Board also tracks seven other big states and they’re mostly bullish.

For the month, overall confidence rose in Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. Over 12 months, optimism is up in Texas and Florida.

Among the states tracked, current conditions were better in all but Pennsylvania for the month. Over 12 months, this measure of present-day conditions rose nowhere. But expectations were up in all but Pennsylvania, for the month and year.

Nationally, the U.S. consumer confidence index was 109.7 in the month vs. 90.4 a month earlier and down from 118.8 a year ago. The one-month gain was the biggest since the economy was emerging from the Great Recession in 2011.

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