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Experts downplay consumer confidence; Despite gloom, people continuing to spend

Economists have advice for anyone worried that consumers are too fearful to keep spending: Look at what they're doing, not what they're saying.

A survey of consumer confidence shows that Americans were spooked early this month by the standoff over the debt ceiling, a downgrade of U.S. long-term debt and a swoon in stock prices.

But maybe only temporarily.

If stock prices stay steady, consumers will likely keep spending, and the economy should improve modestly in the months ahead, economists say. Most downplayed the results of a Conference Board survey released Tuesday that showed consumers were in a gloomy mood in early August.

"They tend to register their anxiety about the future in these surveys without actually curtailing their spending," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.

The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index sank to 44.5 in August, a 15-point drop from July. That was a much sharper fall than analysts had expected. And it brought the index to its lowest point since April 2009. A reading above 90 would show the economy was on solid footing.

The report coincided with similarly glum results from a survey of business and consumer sentiment in Europe. In that poll, European retailers were pessimistic about the future, and consumers were fearful of losing their jobs. A major factor was Europe's debt crisis.

For August, economists don't expect Americans to cut their spending sharply, if at all. Most foresee consumer spending, which drives about 70 percent of the economy, rising faster in the July-September period than the preceding three months.

Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics Inc., a research firm, noted that the mood of consumers has been downbeat all year. Yet sales at retail chains have remained relatively healthy.

"There's been a little bit of a disconnect," Perkins said. "Consumers say one thing and do another."

Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics, said he doesn't even pay attention to the Conference Board's survey or a similar one put out by Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan.

"I've found that these confidence indicators can lead you astray," he said.

Mayland looks instead at the savings rate, which reflects consumers' actual behavior. Monday, the government said the household savings rate dipped to a four-month low of 5 percent in July. Consumers spent money a bit faster than they earned it.

"The tempo of the economy seems like it's picking up a bit," Mayland said.

Mayland thinks lower gasoline prices will make consumers more likely to spend on other goods and services that are more likely to boost economic growth.

One reason consumers sketched such a dim outlook on the economy in the Conference Board's survey earlier this month was a sinking stock market -- which was followed by wild price gyrations. Economists say surveys of consumer confidence tend to be heavily influenced by stock prices.

The Dow Jones industrial average tumbled more than 9.5 percent from Aug. 1 to Aug. 18, when the survey was taken. And during the week that ended Aug. 12, the Dow swung more than 400 points on four consecutive days for the first time in its 115-year history.

In the midst of that period, the Federal Reserve couldn't agree on what to do to address the economy's slowdown.

At its Aug. 9 policy meeting, some Fed officials pushed for a more aggressive response. Minutes of the meeting released Tuesday show how the Fed settled for a plan to keep rates near zero for two more years and agreed to discuss more options at an extended meeting in September.

Ken Fisher, CEO of Fisher Investments in Woodside, Calif., said the Conference Board's results show what he and others already know: Consumer sentiment mirrors movements in the stock market. In the short run, when stock prices drop, so does consumer confidence.

The only difference, Fisher said, is that the stock market is a real-time measurement. And the consumer confidence survey takes a couple of weeks to collect results.

Michael Hanson, senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said some early signs also show that auto sales also held up in August.

Consumers "may have just been spooked by everything that happened at the beginning of the month," Hanson said. He said some upcoming economic data, particularly Friday's report on August unemployment, would paint a clearer picture.

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