Consumers, whose continued spending is key to an economic recovery, are increasingly anxious about the economy, a survey of consumer confidence released yesterday indicates.
The Conference Board's index of confidence fell to 64.0 in February from 78.8 in January. It was the lowest reading since the index fell to 60.5 in October 1993.
This month's 15-point drop was surpassed only by a 17-point plunge after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a steep slide in April 1980 after the failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The index is based on a mail-in survey of 5,000 people.
The increasing lack of confidence expressed by survey respondents is shared by Bert Rogers, an information technology consultant from Reston. He said that just yesterday morning he decided to put off a new-car purchase because he was nervous about oil prices and the economy. He also said he is cutting back on things such as lunches in restaurants and has even decided to forgo his family's traditional spring-break trip to Panama City, Fla.
"I'm not holding my breath waiting for things to get better fast," Cherie Jamason, chief executive of a food bank in Sparks, Nev., said as she waited for a train at Union Station.
"I don't see anything on the horizon that would kick the economy into high gear," said Hal Stucker, an editor at a New York advocacy group for the disabled.
"Lackluster job and financial markets, rising fuel costs and the increasing threat of war and terrorism appear to have taken a toll on consumers," Lynn Franco, a Conference Board economist, said in a prepared statement. "This month's confidence readings paint a gloomy picture of current economic conditions, with no apparent rebound on the short-term horizon."
Those surveyed were increasingly pessimistic about the job market, an important influence on consumer confidence. The percentage of respondents who said they believed that jobs are hard to find reached a nine-year high.
Nearly a third of respondents, 30.1 percent, said they believe that jobs are hard to get, up from 28.9 percent last month. The proportion expecting fewer jobs to become available in the next six months increased to 28.4 percent from 21.2 percent in January.
"For most people if they have a job they're okay and if they don't, they're not," said Donald H. Straszheim, president and chief economist of Straszheim Global Advisors in Santa Monica, Calif. "When you get right down to it, for most people it's about a paycheck."
Economists say that fluctuations in consumer confidence surveys don't always translate into changes in consumer buying habits, but that significant drops usually foretell at least a short-term reduction in spending. That could make this a tough month for retailers, already hurt by a snowstorm that kept many shoppers home over Presidents' Day weekend.
"Anytime you see a change of at least 10 points in a month or two, it has an almost immediate effect on spending," said Christopher Low, chief economist for FTN Financial in New York. "This raises a red flag about retail sales in February."
Despite those concerns, however, home sales are brisk. Existing-home sales climbed 3 percent in January, the National Association of Realtors said yesterday. That translates to an annual rate of 6.09 million homes, which would be a record, the association said.