The index of consumer expectations rose to 89.2 from 84.4 and the gauge for current economic conditions increased to 111.2 from 108.5. Inflation expectations for the year ahead edged down to 2.4 percent from 2.6 percent in February while the 5-year outlook increased to 2.5 percent from 2.3 percent.
The early March gain in sentiment was entirely due to households with incomes in the bottom two-thirds of the distribution, whose sentiment rose to 97.4 from 90.0 in February. Sentiment fell among households with incomes in the top third to 98.5 in early March from 101.7 in February. The difference that accounted for the divergence was how households evaluated their personal finances, as lower income households expressed much more positive assessments. The divergence was due to a monthly jump of one-percentage point in income expectations among middle and lower incomes compared to a change of just one-tenth of a percentage point among those with incomes in the top third. Rising income expectations were accompanied by lower expected year-ahead inflation rates, resulting in more favorable real income expectations.
Moreover, all income groups voiced more positive prospects for growth in the overall economy during the year ahead. Since households with incomes in the top third account for more than half of all consumer expenditures, cautious observers will conclude that the latest data are another indication that the end of the expansion is on the distant horizon. While that may well be true, the current level of consumer sentiment at 97.8 hardly indicates an emerging downturn; even among households with incomes in the top third, the Sentiment Index is 98.5, and 97.4 in the bottom two-thirds. The data indicate that real consumption will grow by 2.6% in 2019 and that the expansion will set a new record length by mid year.