Commentary > The Hays Files
Is the consumer going bye-bye?
Confidence plunged in July -- but there's still hope.
July 30, 2002: 5:16 PM EDT
By Kathleen Hays, CNN/Money Contributing Columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Watch what they do, not what they say. That's the take-home after another steep drop in consumer confidence in July, which was reported Tuesday.

The slide in confidence (see more) is all about the plunging stock market, according to Delos Smith, consumer-confidence poster boy for the Conference Board, which constructs the index each month. "Corporate scandals, equity market problems, a lack of transparency, a lot of greed -- it was not just the Dow falling, it was all of these things that make people very, very nervous," Smith told me Tuesday after his appearance on CNNfn.

There's more to worry to about, too. Usually the Conference Board survey used to construct the index is viewed more as a referendum on the labor market than on the stock market, and one result showed the highest number of people saying jobs are "hard to get" since 1996. Maybe people in the survey are seeing some of their neighbors lose their jobs or are getting laid off themselves.

Still, economist Steve Ricchiuto of ABN-Amro is downplaying the loss of confidence. He points out anecdotal reports suggesting that new car sales were pretty strong in July. And he says that as stocks have disappointed, real estate has picked up the slack.

  graphic  Recently in the Hays Files  
Pillars of the recovery
In with stocks, out with bonds

Last week's numbers from the Mortgage Bankers Association showed that demand to purchase homes remained at very healthy levels. And there's been a mini-boom in refinancing. That means more money to pay bills, go on vacation, and buy back-to-school clothes.

Ricchiuto says for most people the loss of stock market wealth was a paper loss, not a realized loss, and that will soften the blow in future months. "I think to a great number of Americans, what happened in their 401(k), or in their pension program, or their IRA was something they were not able to tap anyway, and we are just basically getting back to the upward trajectory over a 10-year pattern anyway, so I don't think people are terribly paranoid about it."

We shall see -- there will be a lot of economic reports in days and weeks to come. Wednesday's second-quarter gross domestic product report won't tell us much of anything about what July's stock market turmoil did to the economy. But Thursday's survey of manufacturing from the Institute of Supply Management, and Friday's July employment report, may.

After that we'll be watching for July retail sales and the final monthly auto and chain store sales figures. If the U.S. consumer survives the recent carnage in stocks without cutting back on spending, that's another one that will go down in the economic and financial history books.

Kathleen Hays co-anchors Money & Markets, airing Monday to Friday on CNNfn, and appears throughout the day reporting on the economy and how it affects financial markets. As part of CNN's Business News team, she is also a regular contributor to Lou Dobbs Moneyline.  Top of page

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