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Consumer confidence is up in April after an unexpected drop in March

Americans' confidence in the economy grew in April as fears about the job market eased, outweighing the pain from rising prices at the gas pump.

The increase comes after an unexpected drop in March. But the measure had risen for five consecutive months before that to hit a three-year high in February.

The Conference Board said Tuesday the Consumer Confidence Index rose to 65.4 from a revised 63.8 in March. Economists expected a smaller rise to 64.8, according to FactSet.

The index is still far from the reading of 90 that indicates a healthy economy. It hasn't approached that level since the recession began in December 2007, even though the recession officially ended in June 2009.

Still, the index's 40-point increase since its all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009 reflects how far the economy has come.

"Consumers' short-term outlook improved slightly, suggesting that the uncertainty expressed last month is easing," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center, in a statement. "Inflation expectations, which had spiked, retreated somewhat in April."

Consumer confidence can remain in the doldrums long after a recession ends. For example, the recession of the early 1990s ended in March 1991, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but consumer confidence didn't rise above 90 until three years later.

The labor market often plays an outsize role in how quickly consumer confidence improves after a recession.

"People define their financial well-being by whether they have a job and if everyone in their household or in their family has a job," said Deloitte Chief Economist Carl Steidtmann. "When people are employed, that adds to confidence."

In addition, two of the five questions that make up the Conference Board index ask about employment prospects.

Economists monitor confidence because consumer spending, including big-ticket items such as housing and health care, accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity and is critical for a strong rebound.

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