NEW YORK -- U.S. consumer sentiment tumbled to a nine-month low in April, with Americans especially gloomy about the long-term health of the economy, a survey released on Friday showed.
The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading on the overall index of consumer sentiment fell to 72.3 in April, a level last seen in July, 2012, and below economists' forecasts of 78.5. The index stood at 78.6 last month.
The barometer of current economic conditions fell to 84.8 this month from 90.7, while the gauge of consumer expectations hit 64.2, down from 70.8.
Americans' long-term outlook was even more gloomy, with many anticipating a higher unemployment rate and lower after-tax income in the year ahead, Richard Curtin, the survey's director, said in a statement.
But more immediate plans for buying homes and vehicles were positive, Curtin said, while rising home and stock values were expected to support spending this year.
Economists have worried that higher payroll taxes and government belt-tightening could cause consumers to keep a closer watch on their wallets as the year goes on.
Consumer pessimism this month did suppress inflation expectations, with the one-year outlook dipping to 3 percent, the lowest in the past year, from 3.2 percent in March. The survey's five-to-10-year inflation outlook held at 2.8 percent.
The Federal Reserve has repeatedly pointed to tame inflation expectations and a still fragile labor market as reason to press ahead with its aggressive monetary stimulus.
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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.