Consumer morale stagnates; home prices steady

WASHINGTON Tue Sep 27, 2011 5:17pm EDT

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago September 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans worried about their incomes as they struggled to find work in September, holding consumer confidence near 2-1/2-year lows and pointing to weak spending in the months ahead.

Other reports on Tuesday on regional manufacturing and services showed some improvement this month, and house prices stabilized in July, supporting hopes that slow growth will continue as long as Europe's debt crisis does not escalate.

But depressed consumer and business sentiment is holding back recovery. The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes was little changed at 45.4 this month from 45.2 in August. Economists had expected a rise to 46.0.

"Consumers appear to have lost some hope in this recovery and may cause them to retrench spending, which could augur poorly for the recovery," said Millan Mulraine, a senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.

Details of the confidence report were mixed. More Americans plan to buy houses over the next six months, but fewer intend to purchase cars and other big-ticket items.

The steep stock market sell-off, political bickering in Washington over budget policy and the worsening debt crisis in Europe all have eroded confidence, viewed as a key gauge of consumer health.

Consumer spending data on Friday will shed more light whether the decline in equities -- with the Standard & Poor's 500 index down 13 percent since late July -- caused households to hunker down. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, slowed sharply in the second quarter.

Consumer pessimism and a tough jobs market are creating a "titanic" struggle for President Barack Obama in his bid for reelection, his senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, said on Tuesday.

Markets, however, were focused on Europe's debt crisis, and hopes the euro zone would beef up a rescue fund lifted U.S. stocks for a second day and pushed government debt prices lower, while the dollar lost ground to the euro.

BUSINESS MORALE SINKS

Increased economic uncertainty is also weighing on confidence among small U.S. businesses. Vistage International said its confidence index, which surveys 1,700 chief executives, fell to a two-year low in the third quarter at 83.5 from a 92.9 reading in the second quarter.

There were glimmers of hope for the economy, which barely grew in the first half of the year, with data showing manufacturing activity in the U.S. central Atlantic region contracted at a slower pace this month.

The Richmond Federal Reserve's manufacturing index improved to -6 from -10 in August, while activity in the Texas services sector grew solidly this month. The Dallas Fed service sector revenues index rose to 14.1 from 3.2 in August.

There were signs of stability in the housing market, with the S&P/Case Shiller composite index of single-family homes in 20 metropolitan areas unchanged in July on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Unadjusted prices in the 20 cities rose 0.9 percent.

But Yale University economist Robert Shiller, who co-founded the index, said U.S. house prices might fall further given the range of uncertainties hampering the market.

"There's a lot of people that are worried about their jobs and that's why the outlook for housing is not for any resumption of a boom any time soon," he told Reuters Insider.

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In a sign that the labor market remains challenging, the jobs-hard-to-get index in the Conference Board survey rose to 50.0, the highest level since May 1983, from 48.5 the previous month. The labor market differential -- the percent reporting jobs plentiful less the percent reporting jobs hard-to-get -- widened to -44.5 in September from -43.7 in August.

"It's a bad sign for September payrolls. It's consistent with what we saw in the trend in jobless claims, which have risen also in recent weeks," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

The government will issue its closely watch monthly payrolls report for September on October 7.

Nissan Motor Co Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said U.S. auto sales are holding their ground and should improve in 2012.

"So far there is no sign of weakening in the automotive sector, so at the end of September I think this industry is going to be way in advance compared to last year," Ghosn said in a Reuters Insider interview.

Retailers gave mixed views on consumer spending. Walgreen Co, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, reported a healthy rise in sales in its latest quarter and an increase in the number of shoppers.

But the chief executive of Best Buy Co, Brian Dunn, told Reuters that the weak economy makes the retail outlook for the holiday more difficult.

"The consumer is being really careful about where he or she is spending the dollars, and I think that will continue through the holidays," Dunn said.

(Additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Dan Grebler, Leslie Adler)