Consumer Confidence Improves from Early August

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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Steven C. Johnson

NEW YORK -- U.S. consumer sentiment retreated in August from last month's six-year high, though Americans were slightly more upbeat in their outlook than earlier in the month, a survey released Friday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment slipped to 82.1 in August from 85.1 in July. The final result did manage to top an initial mid-month reading of 80.0 and beat economist expectations for a final read of 80.5.

"Most of the late August gain was due to more favorable income expectations, with consumers expecting the largest income gains in nearly five years, although the median expected increase was just 0.9 percent, less than the expected rate of inflation," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.
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However, households with incomes below $75,000 grew more pessimistic about the future, and all households expected higher interest rates over the next year and slightly slower growth. That helped drive the gauge of consumer expectations down to 73.7 from 76.5. The survey's barometer of current economic conditions slipped to 95.2 from 98.6 in July.

Long-term interest rates have risen by more than a full percentage point over the last three months on the view that the Federal Reserve will start scaling back as soon as next month its hefty support for the economy.

That has pushed up mortgage rates. Economists fear consumer sentiment could weaken if higher interest rates start to slow momentum in a housing revival that has been one of the brightest spots in the overall U.S. recovery

The one-year inflation expectation fell to 3 percent from 3.1 percent while the five-to-10-year inflation outlook edged up to 2.9 percent from 2.8 percent.

9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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Consumer Confidence Improves from Early August
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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