Consumer Confidence

Are the world's most upbeat consumers feeling down?

Shoppers look at a display of shoes and handbags at a store in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Goh Seng Chong | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Consumers in Southeast Asia remain the most upbeat globally, but external and domestic fears may be dampening their optimism, according to a new survey by Nielsen.

Home to more than 600 million consumers, the region scored 112 on Nielsen's second-quarter consumer confidence index published on Monday, outperforming the global consumer confidence reading of 96.

Among the top-10 most bullish countries, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam were ranked second, third, fifth and tenth, respectively, in the quarterly survey, which measures perceptions of local job prospects, personal finances and immediate spending intentions, among more than 30,000 respondents in 60 countries.

By comparison, consumer confidence in the rest of Asia-Pacific stood at 107, followed by North America's 101, Africa/Middle East's 94 and Latin America's 83. Europe remains the least optimistic region globally with an overall index of 79. Levels above and below 100 indicate degrees of optimism and pessimism.

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However, there are "signs of vulnerability" emerging in the region, according to Regan Leggett, Nielsen client service director for Southeast Asia, North Asia and Pacific.

"We have markets like Philippines, where we're seeing a continued influx of foreign investments and a robust domestic consumption base, [but] in comparison, markets such as Vietnam are starting to face headwinds, such as declining foreign direct investment and a struggling retail environment," Leggett wrote in the report.

Apart from the Philippines, where consumer sentiment rose seven points to reach the country's all-time high of 122, other Southeast Asian countries posted a drop in confidence, with Vietnam falling 8 points from the first quarter to 104, marking the region's biggest quarterly decline.

Malaysia lost 5 points to 89, while Indonesia and Thailand shed 3 points to 120 and 111, respectively, on the back of dimming economic outlook for the coming six months.

Analysts have said that the region's bullish prospects might be about to receive a reality check as the Federal Reserve increases interest rates this year. Additionally, global economic or capital market crises such as Greece's financial situation and the meltdown in Chinese equity markets, may also take a toll on Southeast Asian economies and their respective currencies, wrote Paul Gambles, a fundamental investment analyst and investment planner at MBMG Investment Advisory, in a note on Friday.

In the case of Malaysia – emerging Asia's only major energy exporting economy – lower energy prices have been an economic headwind due to the country's heavy reliance on state-owned oil company Petronas.

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The latest results from ANZ's monthly measure of consumer sentiment also showed signs the region's consumers are feeling less chipper.

In Vietnam, the ANZ-Roy Morgan Vietnam Consumer Confidence fell 4.5 points to 138.6 in July, primarily due to lower confidence about the country's economy over the next 12 months.

Meanwhile, July consumer confidence in Thailand dropped 12.5 points to 98.3 for the sixth consecutive month, "carrying a real risk for domestic demand [to] follow sentiment significantly lower," the note released on July 22 said.

"Thailand has turned from the land of smiles to the land of frowns," ANZ analysts wrote. "We expect consumer sentiment to remain persistently downbeat, with the economy failing to gain traction and agricultural income depressed by the possibility of a protracted drought. Monetary easing alone via the interest rate channel seems insufficient to deal with this."

Big savers and investors

Those concerns are why Southeast Asians are among the world's most conscientious savers, with seven in 10 channeling their spare cash into savings in the second-quarter of 2015.

Vietnam topped the leaderboard with the highest ratio of savers (73 percent), while the Philippines (72 percent) and Indonesia (69 percent) were the second and third- most frugal spenders globally. Singapore and Thailand (66 percent) tied in the fifth position when it comes to the number of respondents who opted to save instead of spend.

Having a diversified investment strategy is also gaining traction in the region, with more than two-thirds of Thai consumers investing in stocks or mutual funds in the April-June period. Elsewhere, 32 percent in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as 28 and 27 percent in Singapore and the Philippines respectively, opted to improve their financial situations via investments.

"Consumers across the region consistently show a strong propensity to plan for the future. Growing interest in diversified investment strategies is a good sign for industries such as banking and finance, as demand increases for a broader range of banking products and services." Leggett said in a press release issued Tuesday.

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Meanwhile, a majority of consumers have also adjusted their spending habits to prepare for rainy days ahead.

According to the report, Malaysians (64 percent), Singaporeans (62 percent), Vietnamese (62 percent) and the Filipinos (60 percent) are cutting back on shopping, while 52 percent of Thais allocated a smaller budget for out-of-home entertainment. Half of the Indonesians surveyed chose to delay technology upgrades.

However, Southeast Asians are not giving up their globetrotting plans just yet.

Nearly half of the respondents in Singapore, as well as more than 40 percent in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia splurged on a vacation in the June quarter, way higher than the global average of 35 percent.