Consumer Confidence in U.S. Economy Heats Up in July

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By Leah Schnurr

NEW YORK -- U.S. consumer sentiment rose in July to the highest level in six years as Americans felt better about the current economic climate, though they expected to see a slower rate of growth in the year ahead, a survey released Friday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment climbed to 85.1 from 84.1 in June, topping expectations for 84.

It was the highest level since July 2007 and was also an improvement from July's initial reading of 83.9.

"This high level of confidence points toward a continued expansion of consumer spending in the year ahead," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

Still, there were a number of cross-currents among consumers' attitudes amid expectations interest rates will rise. Future prospects for the economy were judged slightly less favorably, while lower income households were more optimistic than higher income earners.
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The survey's barometer of current economic conditions also hit the highest level in six years on a final reading basis, jumping to 98.6 from 93.8. But the gauge of consumer expectations was less robust, slipping to 76.5 from 77.8.

Increasing expectations that interest rates will rise have prompted consumers to pick up the pace of their purchases. The index of buying conditions for durable goods rose to 149 from 143, while 68 percent of consumers expected rates to rise in the coming year, up from 55 percent in June.

That made for the highest proportion to expect interest rate hikes since August 2006.

The survey's one-year inflation expectation rose to 3.1 percent from 3 percent, though the survey's five-to-10-year inflation outlook fell to 2.8 percent after holding at 2.9 percent for three months.

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Consumer Confidence in U.S. Economy Heats Up in July
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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