* Consumer confidence pulls back to 70.2 in March
* Single-family home prices unchanged in January
* Small business confidence improves in Q1
By Leah Schnurr
NEW YORK, March 27 Americans were more worried
about inflation in March than at any time in the last 10 months
and consumer confidence waned in the wake of higher gasoline
Still, data on Tuesday suggested consumers did not feel the
economic recovery was losing momentum, and their view of their
present situation rose to the highest level since September
2008, the heart of the financial crisis.
A separate report on Tuesday showed U.S. home prices were
unchanged in January from December, the first time since July
prices have not declined in a sign the battered housing market
is slowly stabilizing.
A report from industry group The Conference Board showed the
index of consumer attitudes slipped to 70.2 from an upwardly
revised 71.6 the month before, roughly in line with economists'
forecasts for 70.3.
But expectations for inflation in the coming year jumped to
the highest level since May 2011 at 6.3 percent from 5.5
"The biggest moving part in that scenario has been gasoline
prices. So that's certainly on consumers' radar screen - or
dashboard as the case might be," said Carl J. Riccadonna,
director and senior U.S. economist of global markets research at
Deutsche Bank Securities in New York.
Rising gasoline prices have sparked worries that already
fragile consumers could start to feel squeezed, putting a dent
in the economy. Prices at the pump reached $3.92 a gallon last
"At this point, it's enough to certainly slow things down
for the consumer," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond
James in St. Petersburg, Florida.
"I don't think it's enough to throw us into a recession, but
we really haven't seen the full impact yet."
Consumers' expectation for inflation was below the 6.7
percent seen a year ago when similar concerns were taking hold
following a massive earthquake in Japan and political turmoil in
the Middle East and north Africa.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Monday defended the
central bank's policy of very low interest rates, making clear
the Fed is in no rush to reverse course after responding
aggressively to a deep recession.
"The Fed's not really concerned with 12-month ahead
inflation forecasts, they're really interested in a more
long-term inflation outlook," said Brown.
The S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan
areas was flat in January on a seasonally adjusted basis,
beating economists' expectations for a decline of 0.2 percent.
It was the first time the index did not decline since July
2011, when prices were also flat month-over-month. The last time
prices increased was April of last year. Average home prices
across the country were back to early 2003 levels, the report
"We expect prices now to be stable, and perhaps even to
nudge a bit higher, over the next few months at least," Ian
Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics,
"A sustained recovery in home prices is still a long way
off, but stabilization is an essential first step, not least
because no-one wants to borrow money to buy a depreciating
Prices have been pressured by a low demand, distressed sales
and an overhang of pending foreclosures. The data echoed other
recent reports suggesting the housing market is in a fledgling,
though weak, recovery.
On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, prices tumbled 0.8
percent in January from December.
Year over year, prices fared a little better with January
notching a 3.8 percent decline compared to the year before, in
line with expectations and an improvement from December's 4.0
Financial markets saw little reaction to the data as Wall
Street stalled near four-year highs.
A separate survey showed U.S. small business confidence rose
to its highest level in a year in the first quarter with more
firms planning to ramp up hiring as the economy's prospects
Vistage International said its confidence index rose to
105.1 in the first three months of 2012 from 98.8 in the final
months of 2011.