Coronavirus could trigger a worrying psychological change in US consumers, economist says

Key Points
  • For one economist, the "biggest thing" to watch now is the impact the coronavirus outbreak could have on U.S. consumers.
  • U.S. consumer confidence rose less than expected this month, but it's unclear whether coronavirus will dent sentiment.
  • Another analyst said social media posts about the virus "could spread panic" and negatively impact consumer behavior.
Worried coronavirus will trigger psychological changes in consumers: economist

The rising numbers of coronavirus cases outside of China could trigger a psychological change in consumer behavior that ultimately damages the U.S. economy, an economist told CNBC.

Speaking to CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" Thursday, Michelle Girard, chief U.S. economist at NatWest Markets, said investors were currently focused on how the outbreak was disrupting supply chains.

"But what we're quickly shifting toward, which is far more worrisome, is that it actually begins to have an effect on consumer demand and consumer behavior," she said. "For me in the States that's the biggest thing to be watching."

Claiming "nothing in modern history" had led to as many shutdowns and self-isolations as COVID-19, Girard added that the magnitude of the spread could lead to a shift in American consumers' mindsets.

"What I fear is you'll have people in the U.S. actually beginning to change their behavior, to think 'do I want to go to the movies, do I want to go to a sporting event, do I want to sit in big crowds?'" she told CNBC. "So it's the psychology change here as the virus begins to spread that is most worrisome for me. People just begin to pull back on their willingness to be out there and spending, and of course in the U.S. the consumer has been the economic bright spot."

Chinese tourists with facial masks stand in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 3, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. consumer confidence rose less than expected this month, although economists told Reuters on Tuesday the coronavirus was unlikely to dent American consumer sentiment.

Craig Jackson, a professor of psychology at Birmingham City University in England, told CNBC in a phone call Thursday that people in western, "individualistic" cultures were unlikely to alter their behavior unless it was absolutely necessary.

"People don't want to change their behaviors unless they have to," he said. "People still want to go to football games, people still want to go to the movies. But if this gets worse, access to those kinds of places and events could be restricted."

However, he noted that if mass panic ensued, people were more likely to rethink or alter their plans — and social media could encourage that to happen.

Coronavirus: Social media could influence consumer behavior, analyst says

"We didn't have fake news during the SARS outbreak, and that did cause people to change their plans and behavior," Jackson said. "COVID-19 has a low mortality rate, so I don't think we're going to see mass panic — but with social media panic can be accelerated incredibly quickly."

He also speculated that many people would hear advice from their governments to self-isolate and voluntarily self-contain, which would ultimately change their spending activity.

Speaking to CNBC's "Street Signs Europe" in January, Martina Bozadzhieva, managing director and head of research at Frontier Strategy Group, also warned that social media might negatively influence consumer behavior.

"Social media could spread panic and then affect behavior by consumers and individuals who are trying to stay out of the way," she said.

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