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Retail, Auto Sales Advance as Consumers' Moods Improve

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Retail, Auto Sales Advance as Consumers' Moods Improve
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Despite Europe's problems, the “fiscal cliff” and other signs of global economic softness, the U.S. consumers appears to be unfazed. The Conference Board released its Consumer Confidence index on Thursday, the same day that major retailers reported same-store sales and automakers reported the number of new car sold in October. The three separate reports all paint a picture of a consumer that is powering ahead, albeit at a moderate pace.

To understand consumers' behavior, first consider their mood. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index, which had increased in September, improved again in October and now stands at its highest since February 2008. The headline measure advanced to 72.2, up from 68.4 in September. The Present Situation Index increased to 56.2 from 48.7. The Expectations Index, which tends to be more correlated to future consumer spending patterns, rose to 82.9 from 81.5 last month.

In releasing the report, Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, said, “Consumers were considerably more positive in their assessment of current conditions with the improvements in the job market as the major driver.”

The index was created in 1985 with a reading of “100,” and in good economic times, levels above “90” tend to prevail, but one must focus on the improvement, not the level. Expectations for the future are more correlated to spending than are assessments of the economy's current state.

Consumers claiming business conditions are “good” rose to 16.5% from 15.3%, while those saying business conditions are “bad” edged down to 33.1% from 33.8%. Consumers' appraisal of the labor market was also more positive. Those stating jobs are “plentiful” increased to 10.3% from 8.1%, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” declined to 39.4% from 40.7%.

Consumers were generally more optimistic about the short-term outlook in October. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes edged up to 16.7% from 15.9 %. In broader terms, those anticipating an improvement in business conditions over the next six months increased to 21.4% from 17.9%, yet, at the same time, those expecting business conditions to worsen inched up to 15.1% from 14.5%. Consumers' outlook for the labor market was similarly mixed: Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 19.2% from 18.1%, while those expecting fewer jobs increased to 20.3% from 18.7%.

However, given consumers' views of improving personal incomes, they spent more. The 17 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters indicated sales growth of 4.3% growth in October from a year ago for same-store sales, or sales at stores open more than a year. This compares with an increase of 4.1% in October 2011. The retailers ended their fiscal October on Saturday, before Sandy reached the Northeast.

Meanwhile, U.S. auto sales also continued to climb in October despite the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and appear sufficient to provide a strong gain over 2011 for the industry. Auto makers said they expect the storm trimmed 25,000 vehicles off the month's sales, reducing the annualized selling pace for October to an estimated 14.4 million vehicles compared with a forecast 14.7 million pace.

Despite the natural disaster, the auto makers reaffirmed a full-year outlook for U.S. sales to rise to between 14.5 million and 14.7 million. Broadly, U.S. new auto sales for October were expected to rise 11% from a year earlier and fall 4.6% from the prior month, according to automotive information site Edmunds.com.

What remains to be seen, however, is how consumers may react to news of layoffs that companies have announced while reporting earnings results. Challenger Gray and Christmas announced that the number of planned layoffs by U.S. firms jumped 41.1% in October to the highest level in five months, but to be fair, this number includes more than 10,000 jobs in U.S.-owned auto plants in Europe. Employers announced 47,724 planned job cuts last month, up from September's 33,816, according to the report. This might illustrate a disconnect between consumers' improving moods and those of their more-circumspect employers.

Posted-In: News Econ #s Economics Markets

 

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