NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When consumer confidence dipped in February, economists thought the mini-funk was probably temporary.
But confidence is slipping further in March, and now CEOs seem to be losing enthusiasm, too -- signs that shouldn't be ignored, and that could be pointing to an economic slowdown later this year.
The ABC News/Money magazine weekly consumer confidence reading issued Tuesday fell to a four-month low, and a measure put out by Investor's Business Daily sank to a five-month low.
Both gauges have proven to be decent at indicating how the more established consumer confidence surveys -- from the Conference Board and the University of Michigan -- will be leaning. Economists, on average, expect the preliminary Michigan index for March, due on Friday, to rise, but just slightly, according to Briefing.com.
But if the earlier confidence measures are to be believed, then economists could be in for another unpleasant surprise on Friday -- sort of like the one they got last Friday, when the Labor Department reported February payroll growth that was more than 100,000 jobs lower than the average forecasts on Wall Street.
That nasty news, in fact, is almost certainly the main reason consumer confidence has continued its slide.
"The main concern is jobs -- jobs, job, jobs," said Northern Trust economist Asha Bangalore. "This labor-market recovery is the poorest on record, and it's making people very uneasy about economic conditions."
There are other factors, of course, most notably record-high gasoline prices. But if household incomes were rising significantly, then consumers might be able to shrug off pain at the gas pump. Instead, the weak labor market has slowed wage and salary growth to a crawl.
|Measure†||Latest percent decline†|
|ABC/Money consumer confidence†||12.5†|
|IBD consumer confidence†||3.5†|
|NFIB CEO confidence†||3.0†|
|TEC CEO confidence†||1.5†|
|†Sources: ABC/Money, IBD, TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, NFIB, TEC, CNN/Money|
Average hourly wages rose just 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending in February, according to the Labor Department, matching the lowest growth rate on record.
Many economists believe higher income-tax refund checks will buoy consumer spending in the first half of the year. And the big drop in bond market interest rates after February's weak jobs report could trigger another mini-boom in mortgage refinancing, putting more cash in homeowners' pockets.
But for consumer spending to be sustained beyond those one-time boosts, income growth will need to be stronger, some economists say.
"In order to maintain growth in consumer spending, we need to have growth in employment and underlying income," said Kevin Logan, chief economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. "Without that, we'll see a slowdown in consumption -- which is what I expect to happen."
CEOs grow more cautious
Perhaps CEOs expect it, too.
On Tuesday, the National Federation of Independent Business said its closely watched index of small-business confidence fell to a six-month low in February. The group's index measuring small-business hiring plans also fell -- bad news, since small businesses create from half to three quarters of the nation's new jobs, according to various measures.
The NFIB said the drop in confidence may have been just a drop to more normal levels -- after all, the measure neared a record high in December -- but added that "first quarter growth, especially in employment, may not be as strong as anticipated a few months ago."
CEO confidence could be waning too.
Also on Tuesday, TEC International Inc., a private CEO development firm, said its index of the confidence of chief executive officers of small- to mid-sized companies slipped in the first quarter, due mainly to a sharp drop in its index of expectations for the next 12 months.
And last week, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said its quarterly survey of 7,300 global business executives also found waning confidence in the global economy.
"Chief executives and other senior corporate leaders around the world agree that the global economy has improved in the past six months, but fewer are confident that the improvement will continue into the second half of the year," the McKinsey report said.
Are politicians, media to blame?
It's important to note that none of these measures are anywhere near their recent lows, so there doesn't appear to be a recession around the corner.
And not all economists agree that there's trouble down the road. Some believe the temporary boosts to consumer spending in the first half will help boost demand, spurring production and hiring that will put the economy on cruise control.
A lot of the consumer worry, some of these analysts say, is due to the recent Democratic presidential primary season, during which candidates hammered Bush on job growth.
Politicians and the media haven't helped, either, they say, by focusing inordinate attention on the recent trend of white-collar jobs moving offshore.
"In light of the political backdrop, the decline in confidence is understandable and is therefore of little worry, particularly now that the primary season is over," said Anthony Crescenzi, bond market strategist at Miller Tabak & Co.
But he added: "There is also the risk that the worry over job creation will feed upon itself and thus weaken the economy, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy."