Consumer sentiment suffered its largest monthly drop on record in April, a survey showed today, demonstrating the scale and speed of the economic collapse unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Restaurants, bars and non-essential retail outlets have been closed in stay-at-home restrictions put in place on March 29. 

These restrictions are due to run until at least May 5 and the closures, as well as the closing down of construction sites, have already more than trebled the unemployment rate to 16.5%. 

KBC Bank Ireland's consumer sentiment index nosedived to 42.6 from 77.3 in the previous survey conducted from March 3 to 10, before the gradual shutdown of the country began. 

It was the sharpest month-on-month decline in the survey's 24-year history. 

It was also the second survey this month to show a record monthly fall after a collapse in activity reported by the services sector. 

The sentiment reading was slightly above the series' lowest mark of 39.6 recorded in July 2008 when Ireland was among the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis that pushed it into a three-year international bailout two years later. 

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The scale of the drop this time around suggested the capacity of consumer spending to move back to a positive path "may depend critically on the scale, scope and speed of policy actions to re-start economic activity", Austin Hughes, chief economist at KBC Ireland, said. 

"Expectations are still slightly above the low point of the previous crisis, presumably reflecting a judgment that the current crisis is finite in nature," Mr Hughes said. 

"The details of the sentiment survey underline the scale of difficulties now being felt. Only one in 20 see their financial circumstances on an improving trend at present compared to one in five at the start of the year," the economist added.

Austin Hughes pointed out that a similar index in the US - while also recording a record dip in sentiment - did not register a fall of the same magnitude as the indicator here.

He put this down to a number of factors, including more consistent messaging around the health and economic effects of the outbreak here and a more recent memory of the financial crisis, the effects of which lingered for longer in Europe than the US.

However, he said the policy response from the US government and the Federal Reserve had also contributed to stemming the collapse in consumer confidence stateside.

He added that there was an argument for a similar response here.

"The US government enacted a stimulus package amounting to around 10% of GDP and they've signalled more. The Fed introduced various lending programmes.

"The message is that if sentiment is to be turned around, we need a loud and large fiscal response to put spending and employment activity back on an improved trend," he said.

Mr Hughes dismissed the concept of deploying 'helicopter money' - a practice where governments or Central Banks inject money directly into citizens' bank accounts.

"It has to be focused and it has to be seen to be fair. It should be focused on those areas where it's needed most in terms of improving infrastructure, housing and healthcare.

"It's about putting the economy in a better place and not wasting the crisis. It's not about just giving people a few quid extra," he concluded.