POLITICS: PennAve

Consumer confidence weathers the winter cold, but some signs of concern for lower-income households

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Polls,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Retail,Consumer Confidence

U.S. consumers are emerging from the harsh winter with their confidence slightly tempered, yet resilient.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers released Friday morning showed consumer sentiment slipping slightly in March to 80, down from 81.6 in February. Nevertheless, that number was higher than last year's reading, and consumers were more optimistic about their financial situation in March than they were at the start of the winter.

"Consumers are ready to celebrate a delayed spring with renewed spending," said Richard Curtin, the survey's chief economist.

Other indices of consumers' feelings also have stagnated over the winter. Since January, Gallup's daily Economic Confidence Index, which has been underwater since the recession, has slipped from -13 to -18.

The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index also slipped in February, from 79.4 to 78.3. The Conference Board announced on Tuesday that the index rose again in March to 82.3, finally regaining the losses incurred during the October government shutdown and debt limit standoff.

The evidence is mixed, but overall it appears that the cold and snow that showed up in the economic data for the winter also held down consumers' confidence, which has never recovered from the financial crisis.

One major question regarding consumers' plans in the early months of 2014 was cuts to food stamp spending and the December expiration of unemployment benefits for those out of work for 27 weeks or longer. Retailers warned at the outset of 2014 that limiting those benefits would lead some households to curb their spending.

In the early readings from the Conference Board, there was a split in the expectations of high-income and low-income earners in March. The index for those making more than $125,000 has risen dramatically from 112.8 in December to 133.7 in March — by far the highest reading since the Conference Board started measuring confidence for this income bracket in 2011.

Meanwhile, confidence among those in the lower brackets, starting with the group earning under $15,000, has deteriorated significantly since January.



The data can jump from month to month, and the long-term trend for all income groups over the past few years has been up, slowly but persistently. Nevertheless, this data could be the first sign of 2014 policy changes taking a toll on lower-income Americans.
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