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This stock market sell-off isn't bothering U.S. consumers

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

To put it lightly, the stock market has had a bad run since the beginning of October.

All three of the major U.S. indexes have dropped more than 9% from their record highs, with the high-flying FAANG names that powered the market higher all down more than 20% from their 52-week highs.

This pain in financial markets, however, is not broadly impacting the mind of many consumers, a positive for the U.S. economy as we enter the holiday shopping season.

The University of Michigan’s final reading on consumer sentiment in November released on Wednesday showed that confidence among consumers in the lowest third of the income distribution rose 10.4 points in November. Sentiment among consumers at the lower end of the income scale is a more meaningful measure for gauging overall habits as these shoppers have a higher marginal propensity to consume, meaning they are more likely to spend each additional dollar of income.

In contrast, sentiment among folks in the highest third of incomes fell 6.6 points. This drop is to be expected as higher earners are more likely to own financial assets and thus be sensitive to fluctuations in markets. Higher earners are also less helpful in gauging overall consumer appetites as they are more likely to save, rather than spend, additional income.

But overall indicates that a theme we hit on earlier this week remains squarely in play as economic data rolls in — the stock market might be ugly, but the economy is poised to remain strong. Economists at Oxford Economics said Wednesday’s sentiment report, “suggests that recent equity market volatility is weighing on sentiment for those who own a large majority of stocks, while wage gains are emboldening those in the lower echelons of the income distribution.”

Everything is fine!

In October, the economy created 250,000 new jobs and wages grew at the fastest pace in over nine years. In the third quarter, the GDP grew at an annualized pace of 3.5%; the back-to-back quarters of growth in the middle of 2018 were the best stretch for the economy since 2014.

And for many consumers, the economy is seen as good or bad simply based on whether or not they have a job; for about 2.5 million Americans over the last year, the answer to that question has become yes.

Investor concerns about the future path of Fed policy, slowing global, slowing corporate earnings growth, and an increasingly indebted U.S. corporate sector all contribute to a somewhat muddied outlook for the economy and the markets.

But until the outlook among the poorest Americans dims and we see these folks pull back spending, it is going to be hard to argue an economic downturn is imminent. And as some Wall Street strategists begin offering mixed outlooks for the markets in 2019, it is worth keeping in mind how little the stock market impacts many consumers.

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland