Consumer Sentiment Wanes in April on Job, Money Woes

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Nam Y. Huh/AP
By Leah Schnurr

U.S. consumer sentiment eased in April as Americans remained concerned about their employment and financial prospects, a survey released Friday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment fell to 76.4 from 78.6 in March, although it topped economists' expectations for 73.2.

It also was an improvement from April's preliminary reading of 72.3.

The barometer of current economic conditions fell to 89.9 from 90.7, while the gauge of consumer expectations slipped to 67.8 from 70.8.

Just 23 percent of consumers anticipated a decline in the unemployment rate during the coming year, while three out of four expected an unchanged or higher jobless rate.

Consumers continued to take a grim view of government economic policy, with just 9 percent rating policy favorably, slightly above the all-time low of 4 percent.

The outlook for vehicle and home purchases remained positive, with eight out of 10 respondents viewing home buying conditions as favorable. But the overall index measuring buying conditions for durable goods fell to 137 from 140.

The survey's one-year inflation expectation fell to 3.1 percent from 3.2 percent, while the survey's five-to-10-year inflation outlook also edged down to 2.9 percent from 2.8 percent.

Consumer Sentiment Wanes in April on Job, Money Woes

Nationally, the average gas price hit a recent high of $3.74 per gallon, nearly $0.50 higher than it was on Jan. 1. According to website GasBuddy.com, that's about a 14 percent increase since the start of the year.

The start of the new year also marked the end of the temporary 2 percentage point tax break on Social Security contributions. Once that part of President Obama's stimulus package expired, your paychecks went back to being 2 percent smaller. For the average family, that adds up to about $1,000 a year.

That same "average family," by the way, already earns only about $50,000 a year today. And according to CNN, that's about $4,000 less than you were earning in 2000.

A disconcerting report from Sallie Mae last week showed that about one-third of Americans working toward retirement are having to raid their retirement savings to pay for their kids' college educations.

According to a poll commissioned by Bankrate.com (RATE) in February, only 55 percent of Americans have enough money tucked away in their savings accounts and "emergency funds" to cover the amounts owed on their credit cards.

That Bankrate poll also revealed that among women in particular, 51 percent actually owe more on their credit cards than they have cash in the bank. Digging deeper into the data, Bankrate reported that while high earners are doing well, and generally flush, most people (59 percent) who earn less than $30,000 annually owe more on their cards than they have in savings. And these are the people least able to afford the high cost of credit card interest.

Speaking of earnings -- and jobs -- the same unemployment report that set Wall Street to cheering Friday can be looked at from a glass half empty perspective as well. The new, lower unemployment level of 7.7 percent is the best number we've seen since the Great Recession ended. However, The Wall Street Journal points out that 7.7 percent is very close to the worst unemployment ever got (7.8 percent) in the 1991 recession. Our best number in years is within a whisker of the worst they faced back then.

The overall workforce participation rate -- the percentage of Americans currently earning wages at all -- currently stands at just 63.5 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's much worse than what we saw in the 1991 recession. It's the lowest we've seen since the recession that hit during the Carter administration.

Little wonder, then, that according to the Bankrate survey, people are increasingly concerned about "job security." Friday's unemployment report may suggest that the jobs market is on the mend, but most people (59 percent) say they feel no more or less  confident in their employment situation today than they did a year ago. Among those polled whose opinions have changed, 23 percent said they feel "less secure today" than they did a year ago, versus 19 percent who feel more secure.

That doesn't exactly jibe with the story that things are getting better.

It's great news for folks who own stocks, no doubt, and according to the Journal , more than 90 percent of people earning $100,000 or more do. But what about the rest of us? Fewer than 46 percent of Americans earning less than $50,000 are invested in the stock market -- and remember, "$50,000" is the average income in America today.

So yes, It turns out for the average American, things may not be getting better at all.

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