Consumers jittery about inflation and income

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Americans are becoming less confident about spending their hard-earned money as inflation concerns rise and the outlook for personal income remains cloudy, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, said its Consumer Confidence Index for March fell to 63.4 from 72 in February. That was the lowest reading since December, when the index also registered 63.4.

Economists were expecting the index to fall to 65, according to consensus estimates from Briefing.com.

"Consumers' inflation expectations rose significantly in March and their income expectations soured," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's consumer research center. That combination, she added, "will likely impact spending decisions."

While the U.S. economy has improved, the nation's job market remains sluggish and prices for a variety of consumer staples have been going up. In particular, gas prices have risen sharply this year, driven higher by a surge in the price of crude oil.

In addition to higher energy costs, household budgets have been strained by rising food prices. A combination of bad weather in many parts of the world and growing global demand have pushed up prices for agricultural commodities such as corn and wheat. That has led to higher prices for breakfast cereals, while more expensive feed grains have lifted meat prices.

"The recent acceleration in inflationary pressures, particularly related to food and fuel prices, is likely to weigh on discretionary spending if it persists," said Jim Baird, chief investment strategist for Plante Moran Financial Advisors. "Today's report illustrated that consumer fear about future inflation is picking up, even as they became more skeptical about future income growth."

However, the index also indicated that consumers' view of current economic conditions improved in March.

The present situation index rose to 36.9 from 33.8 the month before. In addition, the share of consumers who believe business conditions are "good" increased, while those claiming conditions are "bad" declined.

Franco said the optimistic assessment of current conditions suggests that "while the short-term future may be uncertain, the economy continues to expand."

Still, consumers remain discouraged about the short-term outlook. The expectations index fell to 81.1 from 97.5, and the share of consumers who expect business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 20.6% from 25.2%.

Consumers are also less certain about their earning potential. According to the survey, the share of consumers who expect an increase in their income over the next six months fell to 15.3% from 17.4%.

Baird noted that the survey can be "volatile," adding that he expects consumer confidence "will remain relatively resilient" over the long term.

"Underlying economic growth appears to be good and the job market has been providing signs of further improvement in recent months," he said. "We are likely looking at a continuing pattern of 'two steps forward, one step back' in terms of the collective mood, given the sources of uncertainty and risk that will not be easily resolved." To top of page

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