Tuesday, November 27, 2007

U.S. Economy: Confidence Drops More Than Predicted (Update2)

By Shobhana Chandra and Bob Willis

Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Consumer confidence fell more than forecast in November as Americans struggled with surging fuel costs and falling home prices.

The Conference Board's confidence index decreased to 87.3, the lowest level since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New York-based group said today. House values dropped 4.5 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, the most since records began in 1988, S&P/Case-Shiller reported separately today.

The gloomier mood increases the likelihood that holiday sales, which account for a fifth of retailers' yearly revenue, will be disappointing. Federal Reserve policy makers and private economists have cut growth forecasts as the housing slump enters its third year and jeopardizes consumer spending.

``This is a strong indication that consumers are going to pull back sharply and growth is going to be very weak,'' said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts. ``The message to the Fed should be that they need to keep cutting rates.''

October's confidence reading was revised down to 95.2, from a previously reported 95.6. None of the 67 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News predicted the size of the decline. The median forecast was 91.

Stocks Jump

Treasury securities remained lower and stock prices rose following the reports as investors focused on news that Citigroup Inc. will receive a cash infusion from Abu Dhabi's government. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 124 points, or 1 percent, at 2:59 p.m. in New York.

Property prices may keep sliding in coming months as slowing sales and rising foreclosures aggravate the glut of unsold homes, economists said.

The housing recession will drive down property values by $1.2 trillion next year and slash tax revenue by more than $6.6 billion, according to a report issued today by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The 361 largest U.S. cities will experience a combined loss of $166 billion in economic growth, led by $10.4 billion in the New York-Northern New Jersey area, according to the study.

``We do have an immediate crisis,'' Robert Shiller, chief economist at MacroMarkets LLC and a professor at Yale University, said in an interview. ``It might push this country into recession.''

Other Reports

Lower property values make it harder for owners to tap home equity, while gasoline at more than $3 a gallon and higher home- heating bills also sour Americans' mood. A report last week showed the Reuters/University of Michigan sentiment index fell this month to a two-year low.

Compared with other sentiment gauges, the Conference Board's index tends to be more influenced by attitudes about the state of the labor market, economists said.

An average of 330,000 workers filed first-time claims for jobless benefits per week in November, up from 306,000 as recently as July. The increase suggests firings are mounting as businesses try to cut costs.

Fed policy makers are counting on wage gains to help Americans maintain spending, according to the minutes of their Oct. 31 meeting. Still, there was a risk falling home prices could ``further sap consumer confidence.''

Expectations Slump

The Conference Board's measure of present conditions fell to 115.4 from 118 the prior month. The gauge of expectations for the next six months decreased to 68.7, the lowest since March 2003, from 80.

Today's report showed the share of consumers who said jobs are plentiful retreated to 23.2 percent in November from 24.1 percent the prior month. The proportion of people who said jobs are hard to get also decreased to 21.3 percent from 22.8 percent.

The proportion of people who expect their incomes to rise over the next six months dropped to 18.7 percent from 19.9 percent. The share expecting more jobs decreased to 10.8 percent from 13.3 percent.

The number of people planning to buy a home or an automobile within the next six months fell.

``The heating bills are a big worry, but behind that is also the worry that jobs might be in jeopardy,'' Kenneth Goldstein, a Conference Board economist, said in an interview.

Retail Profits

Retailers are bracing for a slowdown through the holidays and into 2008. Target Corp., the second-biggest U.S. discounter, last week reported its first profit decline in two years, and said it expects slowing sales growth through the first quarter.

The National Retail Federation this week maintained its forecast that combined sales for November and December will show the smallest increase in five years even after purchases were stronger than forecast after the Thanksgiving holiday. Americans spent less per person even as more went shopping, the group said.

``Elevated energy costs and the anticipation of further increases continues to impact Americans' ability to spend on discretionary projects,'' Robert Niblock, chief executive officer of Lowe's Cos., the second-largest home improvement retailer, said on a conference call last week. ``Access to mortgage financing is a concern we'll continue to watch.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Shobhana Chandra in Washington at schandra1@bloomberg.net Bob Willis in Washington at bwillis@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: November 27, 2007 15:01 EST

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