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Americans’ Financial Satisfaction Dips Slightly in Q4: AICPA

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Americans’ personal financial satisfaction eased in the fourth quarter, but remained firmly in positive territory as a new administration entered the White House, the American Institute of CPAs reported Thursday.

The AICPA said rising inflation drove the slight decline in its Personal Financial Satisfaction Index, which measured 18.5, down 0.2 points from the third quarter. The index was 2.8 points higher than a year ago.

The PFSi weighs a variety of economic factors to determine the financial standing of what the AICPA calls a “typical American.” It is calculated as the personal financial pleasure index minus the personal financial pain index, two component subindexes.

These comprise four equally weighted factors that measure the growth of assets and opportunities, in the case of the pleasure index, and the erosion of assets and opportunities, in the case of the pain index.

Pain Index

The report noted that although financial pleasure continues upward, the increase in the pain index outpaced it by a small margin in the fourth quarter, reaching its highest level in 18 months. At 44.5, the pain index was 1.3 points higher than the previous quarter and 1.1 points higher than the year before.

The rise from the preceding quarter was driven largely by a 9.7 point increase in inflation. Inflation, the PFSi’s most volatile factor, continues to climb up from historic lows, and was the biggest contributor to fourth quarter index movement of any individual factor, either for pain or for pleasure.

This said, inflation remains below the Federal Reserve target of 2%.

The report said personal taxes, a second factor in financial pain, increased by 0.6 points from the previous quarter, but were down by 1.6 points from the year-ago level.

The increases in the inflation and taxes factors overwhelmed a 2.9 point drop in the loan delinquencies factor, which was also down 12.9 points from a year ago. The report said this positive result demonstrated the continued strengthening of the housing market, as delinquencies on mortgages finished below the historical average for the first time since the third quarter of 2008.

Underemployment, the fourth factor, decreased by 2.1 points from the prior quarter and was 3.2 points below the 2015 fourth quarter.

Pleasure Index

The personal financial pleasure index, at 63, was 1.2 points higher than the third quarter quarter and 3.9 points up from a year ago. The gain over the previous quarter was due to improvements in three of the four factors that make up the index.

The CPA Outlook Index increased by 4.6 points, the 750 Market Index by 2.6 points and home equity by 1.5 points. The only factor that did not improve from the previous quarter was the job openings index, which declined by 4.1 points.

The outlook index, which captures the expectations of CPA executives in the year ahead for their companies and the U.S. economy, was based on a survey conducted in November after the election. The report said optimism for the U.S. economy was the biggest contributor to both the year-over-year and prior quarter improvement, with positive sentiment for respondent’s own organization as the number two contributor.

The PFS 750 Market Index, which comprises the 750 largest companies by market capitalization trading on the U.S. market, excluding mutual funds and ETFs, has been the biggest contributor to the pleasure index for several years, a trend that continued in the fourth quarter, the report said.

It noted that most market commentators agreed there was a post-election rally fueled by expectations of reduced taxes and relaxed regulations. Share prices began an uptrend immediately after the election and trading volumes increased dramatically in December. Financials had the strongest gains in the three-month period, followed by industrials and materials.

“The PFS Market 750 and the CPA Outlook Index are the two components of the PFSi that react the quickest to events at the macro level, and both of those were up for the fourth quarter when the election results were the big news story,” Kelley Long, member of AICPA’s consumer financial education advocates group, said in a statement.