Thu, Dec 30, 2010 - Page 10 News List

Doubts about US economy linger

AP, NEW YORK

Shoppers roam around in a mall in Columbia, Maryland, on Tuesday. Fresh data showed the US economy limping toward the end of this year, its fitness much improved in the past year, but with the recovery still hobbled by high unemployment. The Department of Commerce reported that consumer spending increased in November by US$43.3 billion from the previous month, up 0.4 percent for the fifth consecutive month of gains.

PHOTO: AFP

Holiday spending surged this year, but Americans still have their doubts about the economy.

With unemployment high and home prices falling in the nation’s largest cities, consumer confidence took an unexpected turn for the worse this month.

The decline followed two months of rising optimism. Economists say the economic recovery is likely to be less fitful next year.

“The modest drop in the confidence index is not worrisome,” said Omair Sharif, economist at RBS Economics Research. “What matters to us — and to the economy — is that consumers are getting out there and spending. We’re looking at the best holiday season for retailers in five years.”

Busy malls this month are a big reason economists are less concerned about the latest consumer confidence figures. There’s also a slew of data that suggest next year will be brighter. Layoffs are slowing, businesses are investing money in computers and equipment, and the stock market has risen to its highest point in two years.

Still, consumers are not quite convinced.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 52.5 this month, down from a revised 54.3 in last month’s survey. It takes a reading of 90 to indicate a healthy economy. The last time the index was that high was in December 2007, just as the recession began.

Among the 5,000 people surveyed this month, many expressed concerns about jobs. Fewer see them as “plentiful.” More described them as “hard to get.”

The unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent last month, and only 39,000 net jobs were created that month.

Chris Christopher, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight, cautioned not to read too much into one report. A downward trend over several months would be more worrisome.

The same applies to the holiday sales data, which showed shoppers spending at the fastest pace since 2006. Key areas such as jewelry, home furnishings and consumer electronics are still below pre-recession levels. Many retailers offered discounts on holiday merchandise starting in late October and free shipping to lure buyers back.

Christopher will have a better sense of consumers’ mood when he sees how they spend after the holidays.

“There was a lot of unleashing of pent-up demand,” Christopher said. “Things are getting better, but there are still lot of negatives.”

The biggest may be the decline in home prices in the largest US cities. Every city in the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index posted a decline from September to October. The last time that happened was in February last year.

Prices are expected to keep falling through the middle of next year, as fewer people purchase homes and millions of foreclosed homes come on to the market.

This year is on pace to finish as the worst for home sales in more than a decade. High unemployment and tight credit have kept people from buying. And that’s despite some of the lowest mortgage rates in decades, which have recently begun to spike.

Many people are holding off on purchases because they fear the market has not hit bottom, analysts say.

Buyers aren’t just skittish in the hardest-hit cities, such as Las -Vegas or Phoenix.

Home prices in Atlanta have fallen 6 percent in the last four months. That’s the worst decline among the 20 cities in that time, and it erases gains made in the spring, when the government offered home-buying tax credits.

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