The Problem With Declining Consumer Confidence

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Americans may have thought they had escaped the clutches of the five-year economic downturn, but new consumer confidence data says “not so fast.”

In fact, to paraphrase Al Pacino, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Fresh data from the Bloomberg Consumer Confidence Index has the news, and it’s not good for the economy, although it may have a silver lining for homeowners and homebuyers.

The index shows U.S. consumer confidence at a two-month low, just as the data showed consumer sentiment on the economy at a four-year high in February.

Tepid employment numbers, along with slowing U.S. manufacturing data and high gasoline prices, are feeding the beast this month, as Bloomberg notes consumers view April and May to be a “bad time to buy needed items.”

Overall, U.S. gross domestic product has fallen to 2.2%, based on the latest reading from the federal government.

Souring attitudes on the economy are particularly prevalent among middle-class consumers, widely viewed as the demographic group squeezed hardest by the Great Recession–and its harsh aftermath.

“The reversal of gains in confidence has been particularly pronounced in middle-income groups that are likely caught between sluggish wage increases and rising inflation that has eroded their real purchasing power,” notes Joseph Brusuelas, a senior economist at Bloomberg LP in New York City. “The deterioration ‘does not bode well’ for household consumption.”

Another widely-respected consumer confidence index doesn’t offer much solace. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment barely budged from March to April, rising 0.3%.

Worse, the “current conditions” index fell by 3.6% in April, another sign that consumers don’t like where the economy is–or where it’s going.

“The current financial situation among all income groups weakened in April,” says Thomson-Reuters. “Just one in four households anticipated an improved financial situation during the year ahead, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since the start of 2012. This dismal outlook was due to the absence of anticipated income increases in the year ahead, expected by the majority for an unprecedented 40 consecutive months. Even a lower expected inflation rate still meant that the majority of households expected declining inflation-adjusted incomes during the year ahead.”

One silver lining from a weakening economy and souring consumer sentiment is mortgage rates, which continue to slide downward. According to the BankingMyWay Weekly Mortgage Rate tracker, 30-year mortgage rates are still below the 4% mark, with three- and five-year adjustable-rate mortgages well below 3%.

That’s good news for credit-worthy homebuyers and for homeowners looking to refinance.

But for everyone else, the decline in consumer confidence is what it is: a signal that, once again, Americans have little faith in the U.S. economy, and aren’t inclined to spend much to support it.

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