Press Release

Consumers’ Spending Expectations Rise Despite Flat Income and Earning Expectations

December 14, 2020

NEW YORK—The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data released the November 2020 Survey of Consumer Expectations, which shows that despite flat income and earnings growth expectations, households’ year-ahead spending growth expectations rose sharply in November to 3.7%, the highest level recorded in more than 4 years. Labor expectations were mixed with deteriorating expectations about the unemployment rate and improving expectations about job security. After returning to their pre-COVID-19 levels in recent months, home price expectations recorded their first decline since April 2020. Median inflation expectations increased at both the short and medium-term horizons, while uncertainty and disagreement about future inflation remain elevated.

The main findings from the November 2020 Survey are:


  • Median inflation expectations increased 0.2 percentage point in November to 3.0% at the one-year horizon and increased 0.1 percentage point to 2.8% at the three-year horizon. The increase in the short-term measure was driven mostly by respondents who are younger (below the age of 60), more educated (bachelor’s degree or higher) and with higher household income (over $100,000). Our measures of disagreement across respondents (the difference between the 75th and 25th percentile of inflation expectations) remain substantially above their pre-COVID-19 level at both horizons.
  • Median inflation uncertainty—or the uncertainty expressed regarding future inflation outcomes— remained unchanged at the short-term horizon and increased at the medium-term horizon. Both measures are elevated relative to pre-COVID-19 readings.
  • Median year-ahead home price change expectations decreased 0.1 percentage point to 3.0% in November. This is the first monthly decline in the series since April 2020 when it reached its lowest level of 0%. The decline was recorded in all Census regions except the Northeast.
  • The median one-year ahead expected change in the cost of a college education and in the price of gasoline both increased by 0.3 percentage points to 5.2%. In contrast, the median expected change in the cost of medical care declined sharply, from 9.1% to 7.1%, slightly below its 2019 average of 7.2%. Expected changes in food prices and in the cost of rent declined by 0.1 and 0.2 percentage point to 5.1% and 5.5%, respectively.*

Labor Market

  • Median one-year ahead expected earnings growth remained flat in November at 2.0%, below its 2019 average level of 2.3%. This is the fifth consecutive month that the series has remained unchanged.
  • Mean unemployment expectations—or the mean probability that the U.S. unemployment rate will be higher one year from now—increased for the first time since July 2020, from 35.4% in October to 40.1% in November.
  • The mean perceived probability of losing one’s job in the next 12 months decreased for the third consecutive month from 15.5% in October to 14.6% in November, still slightly above its 2019 average of 14.3%. The decrease was more pronounced among respondents above the age of 60 and without a college education. The mean probability of leaving one’s job voluntarily in the next 12 months decreased by 1.3 percentage point to 16.6% in November, a new series low. The decrease was driven mostly by respondents above the age of 60.
  • The mean perceived probability of finding a job (if one’s current job was lost) increased from 46.9% in October to 47.9% in November, but remains substantially below its 2019 average of 59.8%.

Household Finance

  • The median expected household income growth stayed flat in November at 2.1%, well below its 2019 average of 2.8%.
  • Median household spending growth expectations rebounded sharply in November, increasing 0.6 percentage points to 3.7%, its highest level since July 2016. The increase was driven mostly by those with household incomes below $50,000.
  • Perceptions of credit access compared to a year ago remained essentially unchanged in November. In contrast, expectations for future credit availability improved, with more respondents expecting it will be easier to obtain credit in the year ahead.
  • The average perceived probability of missing a minimum debt payment over the next three months increased by 1.6 percentage points to 10.9% in November, still below its 2019 average of 11.5%.
  • The median expectation regarding a year-ahead change in taxes (at current income level) increased sharply in November from 2.9% to 4.1%, the highest reading since May 2014. The increase was more pronounced for respondents between the age of 40 and 60.
  • The mean perceived probability that the average interest rate on saving accounts will be higher 12 months from now increased 0.5 percentage point to 24.8% in November, remaining below its 2019 average of 30.0%.
  • Perceptions about households’ current financial situations compared to a year ago remained essentially unchanged in November. In contrast, respondents were more pessimistic about their households’ financial situations in the year ahead, with more respondents expecting their financial situation to deteriorate, and fewer respondent expecting an improvement in their financial situation.
  • The mean perceived probability that U.S. stock prices will be higher 12 months from now decreased 2.3 percentage points to 38.5% in November, its lowest level since August 2019.

About the Survey of Consumer Expectations (SCE)

The SCE contains information about how consumers expect overall inflation and prices for food, gas, housing, and education to behave. It also provides insight into Americans’ views about job prospects and earnings growth and their expectations about future spending and access to credit. The SCE also provides measures of uncertainty regarding consumers’ outlooks. Expectations are also available by age, geography, income, education, and numeracy. 

The SCE is a nationally representative, internet-based survey of a rotating panel of approximately 1,300 household heads. Respondents participate in the panel for up to 12 months, with a roughly equal number rotating in and out of the panel each month. Unlike comparable surveys based on repeated cross-sections with a different set of respondents in each wave, our panel allows us to observe the changes in expectations and behavior of the same individuals over time.

* Due to a data recording error in the “one-year ahead commodity price change expectations” series, the data for this series has been revised going back to October 2020.

Shelley Pitterson
(917) 698-0510
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