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Region's consumers more confident ; But optimism for long term drops sharply

Consumer confidence in the Buffalo Niagara region rebounded to its best level since the recession hit but remains below pre-recession levels, according to a quarterly survey. And consumers are more skeptical in their long-term outlook.

Buffalo Niagara's consumer confidence score for the fourth quarter was the best for any three-month period since the fourth quarter of 2007, according to the Siena Research Institute, which conducts the survey of consumer buying plans.

The survey looks at consumers' willingness to spend, rather than their ability to spend, in nine major New York State cities. Consumer confidence was up in eight of the areas and declined only slightly in Albany.

Among the nine cities, Buffalo Niagara's score ranked No. 5. Its 4.3 percent increase from a year ago was the fourth-best improvement in the state.

Along with overall confidence, the Siena survey measures consumers' current and future confidence separately. Buffalo Niagara's current consumer confidence score was third-best in the state, but its future confidence score was near the bottom, at No. 7. Donald Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, said the improved current confidence results are a sign consumers feel greater economic stability than a year ago.

"Fewer and fewer people are saying, 'My personal situation is going to get worse,' " he said.

Consumers believe it is a good time to buy something if they have the money to do so, influenced in part by positive news coverage of the Christmas shopping season, he said.

He noted that for the first time in three years, current confidence in Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester has risen to the point where almost equal percentages of consumers are positive about the economy as negative.

But results indicate consumers are more wary about the longer-range prospects for the economy, Levy said. Without that longer-term confidence, he said, it is hard for a robust recovery to get under way.

Consumers are keenly aware of problems like financial woes at the federal and state levels, and are unsure how those will be addressed, Levy said. He said consumers will need to see a consistent stream of good economic news, involving jobs and growth, before they will feel more confident about the future.

Levy compares the statewide gains in overall consumer confidence to 401(k) year-end statements: Both were up, but they still have a lot of ground to make up.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com