WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A strengthening jobs market helped lift U.S. consumer confidence to a one-year high this month, but a surprisingly large plunge in orders for some factory goods cast a cloud over signs of increased economic momentum.
Other data on Tuesday showed home prices fell in December, a reminder of the uphill climb faced by the housing market.
A recent slew of positive data had allayed fears economic growth could slow sharply early in the year. Other gauges of manufacturing activity have been solid, and the unemployment rate sank to a three-year low last month.
But Tuesday's data muddied the waters.
"From an economic perspective, it shows that we are moving very slowly forward, " said Paul Nolte, managing director at Dearborn Partners in Chicago.
U.S. stock indexes rose modestly on the consumer confidence data, but the gains were checked by January's decline in new orders for U.S.-made durable goods. Prices for U.S. government bonds, a traditional safe-haven investment, trimmed gains.
The spike in the Conference Board's monthly gauge of economic confidence, which rose more than expected to a reading of 70.8, could mean consumers will open their wallets more readily in coming months, analysts said.
The report by the Conference Board, a private business research group, showed confidence had yet to be badly hit by a rise in gasoline prices, while consumers are beginning to believe in an improving labor environment.
About 38.7 percent of respondents in the Conference Board survey said jobs were hard to get this month, down from 43.3 percent in January. The share of consumers viewing jobs as plentiful rose to 6.6 percent from 6.2 percent the prior month.
Graphic - durable goods: link.reuters.com/qab86s
Graphic - home prices: link.reuters.com/beb86s
Graphic - consumer confidence: link.reuters.com/fub86s
The readings on confidence contrasted with a government report that showed orders for long-lasting factory goods fell the most in three years in January.
The Commerce Department data also pointed to a potential scaling back of business investment, which would undermine a pillar of the country's recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.
New orders for durable goods dropped 4.0 percent last month, the biggest decline since January 2009. Demand slipped across the board - from machinery and appliances to airplanes.
Data on durable goods can be volatile, and January's weakness followed strong gains in December and November. Some analysts said the weakness last month was likely due to one-time factors like the expiration of some tax breaks.
The drop, however, was much sharper than expected.
"We are seeing a slowdown in domestic demand for equipment and also slower overseas demand," said Christopher Low, an economist at FTN Financial in New York.
Weaker export demand highlights one of the chief risks facing the U.S. economy: a festering debt crisis in Europe that could lead to fewer orders for American manufacturers.
Non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for future business investment, fell 4.5 percent, the steepest drop in a year. Machinery orders dropped 10.4 percent, the largest decline since January 2009.
A 6.1 percent drop in bookings for transportation equipment - including a 19 percent fall in civilian aircraft orders - dragged on the overall reading for durable goods. Boeing received 150 orders for aircraft during the month, down from 287 in December.
A third report cast doubt on the strength of an incipient housing market recovery .
The S&P/Case Shiller index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas fell 0.5 percent in December from November and a hefty 4.0 percent from a year earlier. The 20-city index registered its lowest reading since January 2003.
Analysts said the drop, which came despite relatively upbeat signs for home building and sales in recent weeks, likely reflected downward pressure from an ongoing wave of foreclosures.
"It is really a tough market for these prices to make any progress," said Sean Incremona, an economist at 4Cast Ltd in New York.
Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington and Luciana Lopez and Leah Schnurr in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Leslie Adler