Arizona consumers may finally believe the bad economic times are ending.
The latest statewide survey shows the consumer confidence index has reached 75.1. While that's a far cry from the heady 100-plus numbers before the recession, it's the best figure since 2008.
Pollster Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center said the index is being driven by the fact that Arizonans are becoming more optimistic about the job market.
He said the percentage saying jobs are hard to find slid 6 points from just three months earlier, to 45 percent. At the same time there was a tiny boost in the number of people who believe that jobs are plentiful, to 14 percent.
And de Berge said while that may not seem like much, three years ago only 2 percent of Arizonans though jobs were easy to find.
Coupled with that is the fact that 28 percent expect to see job availability improving further in the next six months, up 5 points from January.
Still, Arizona has one big hurdle to overcome: Close to two thirds of those 710 adult heads of household questioned last month expect no real change in their own family's income during the coming six months.
“They're not confident yet that they're going to personally feel the impact of hopefully better income,” de Berge said. He said that tracks with national studies that show employment is improving — but that wages are not.
That question in consumers' minds could be crucial to what happens to the state's economy. That's because there's a link between confidence in the future and the willingness to spend, particularly on things that may not be necessities.
Economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said consumers have been investing in durable goods for awhile. That includes not just things like furniture and fixtures but cars and trucks.
He said part of what may be driving that is that Arizonans, particularly with long commutes, figure that the savings in fuel from a more efficient vehicles will make up for the higher car payments. And Hoffman said the generally higher confidence numbers should keep those purchase continuing apace.
Less clear, Hoffman said, is whether that trend will expand into more general merchandise purchases, where trends have been lagging.
And that goes to the direct link between confidence, spending — and things actually getting better.
“We're not seeing it in the current jobs data yet,” Hoffman said of the Arizona economy.
He said rising confidence could increase purchases. And more sales means more employment.
“So the hope will be that something like this will portend job creation and faster job growth numbers in the next couple of months,” he said.
Pima County posted higher numbers this time than three months earlier. But the trend here is a bit harder to recognize, with the survey showing that residents have been alternately optimistic and pessimistic during the last few years.
Hoffman said Pima County faces “challenges” associated with federal spending, both with the automatic cutbacks that took place in overall federal spending as well as reduced aerospace defense expenditures.
“They are very reliant from the injections from the Department of Defense,” he said. “And those are less certain with each passing day.”
The outlook from rural consumers, on average, remains lackluster, though Hoffman said that likely varies from town to town.
“It probably is associated with simply low tourism numbers,” he said. At the same time, most rural counties have very little domestic in-migration.
“Folks are just not moving anywhere in the state,” Hoffman said.