Confidence among U.S. consumers increased in February to the highest level in eight months, a sign falling unemployment and rising stock prices may be comforting households.
The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment for the month climbed to 75.1 from 74.2 in January. Economists projected the gauge would rise to 75, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey.
As households, the largest part of the economy, grow more optimistic, consumer spending may keep contributing to the expansion. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s testimony this week said that “the growth rate of economic activity appears likely to pick up this year.”
“We’re starting to see consumers reacting to the better news,” said Omair Sharif, an economist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, who forecast the gauge would rise to 75.2. “We’ve gotten a pretty nice jump in assessments of job conditions over the last couple months.”
Estimates in the Bloomberg survey of 68 economists ranged from 71.5 to 78.5. The index averaged 89 in the five years leading up the recession that began in December 2007.
Household purchases, which make up about 70 percent of the economy, grew at a 4.4 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter, the fastest since the first three months of 2006, Commerce Department figures showed Jan. 28.
The sentiment survey’s current conditions gauge, which reflects Americans’ perceptions of their financial situation and whether they consider it a good time to buy big-ticket items like cars, increased to 86.8, the highest since January 2008, from 81.8 the prior month.
Recent equity market performance may have played a part in boosting peoples’ attitudes. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has advanced 5.1 percent this year through yesterday, extending gains from the end of 2010. The index was down 0.1 percent today to 1,320.3 at 10:27 a.m. in New York on concern the unrest in Egypt will escalate after President Hosni Mubarak yesterday declined to resign.
While employers added a fewer-than-forecast 36,000 jobs to payrolls in January, the unemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 9 percent, the lowest since April 2009, according to Labor Department figures released Feb. 4. Unemployment dropped to 9.4 percent in December from 9.8 percent the previous month.
The index of consumer expectations six months from now, which more closely projects the direction of consumer spending, decreased to 67.6 from 69.3.
Whole Foods Market Inc., the largest U.S. natural-goods grocer, this week raised its forecast for revenue and earnings for 2011 because it expects more consumer demand. The Austin, Texas-based company reported sales at stores open more than a year rose 9.1 percent in the company’s first-quarter.
“Our results underscored signs that consumer confidence continues to improve,” Walter Robb, the grocer’s co-chief executive officer, said Feb. 9 during a conference call with analysts. Sales are “the greatest indicator of people’s confidence,” he said.
Consumers in the confidence survey said they expect an inflation rate of 3.4 percent over the next 12 months, the same as in January. Over the next five years, the period tracked by Federal Reserve policy makers, Americans surveyed said they expect a rate of inflation of 2.9 percent, also unchanged firm the prior month.
Brightening sentiment among consumers could play a part in accelerating growth in the U.S., according to central bank policy makers.
“We’re trying to get consumers to become more confident, be able to spend more, and to help put people back to work,” Fed Chairman Bernanke said Feb. 3 in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. Improving household confidence, along with other conditions turning more positive, “seems likely to lead to a more rapid pace of economic recovery in 2011 than we saw last year,” he said.
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