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Consumer confidence declines unexpectedly

Already battered consumers have lost even more confidence in the economy during October as they contended with hurricanes, surging gasoline prices and worries about the job market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The outlook for the holiday shopping season darkened Tuesday as the latest consumer confidence reading showed Americans even more pessimistic about the economy during October. Hurricanes, surging gasoline prices and worries about the job market took a further toll on consumer psyches.

A separate report on home sales during September also pointed to consumers’ growing uneasiness.

The Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 85 in October, the lowest level since October 2003 and down from September’s revised reading of 87.5, which had been the sharpest drop in 15 years. Analysts expected an October reading of 88 for the index, which is compiled from a survey of U.S. households.

“Much of the decline in confidence over the past two months can be attributed to the recent hurricanes, pump shock and a weakening labor market,” said Lynn Franco, director of the private research group’s Consumer Research Center in a statement.

She said the “degree of pessimism, in conjunction with the anticipation of much higher home heating bills this winter, may take some cheer out of the upcoming holiday season.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors said sales of previously owned homes were unchanged in September. The Realtors said sales would have fallen without an increase in demand among people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

The nation’s retailers are already preparing for a difficult season. Although gasoline prices have slipped back from recent weeks, they still are quite high, and home heating costs are expected to soar this fall and winter, forcing many consumers to budget carefully for the holidays.

“The unexpected decline means optismism is under more pressure than we thought,” said Patrick Fearon, senior economist at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. Fearon believes all the political uncertainty is also weighing on consumers’ confidence.

“There is certainly more going on than just hurricanes and a resulting spike in gasoline prices,” said Fearon. He noted President Bush’s drop in approval ratings, political unrest in the Middle East and concerns about the Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers “could weigh on people’s attitudes.”

Economists closely track consumer confidence because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

One component of the Conference Board report, which examines consumers’ views of the current economic situation, fell to 108.2 from 110.4 last month. The Expectations Index, which measures consumers’ outlook over the next six months, fell to 69.5 from 72.3.

Consumers’ assessment of the current employment market was somewhat bleaker than in September. The number of consumers saying jobs are “hard to get” rose to 25.3 percent from 25.0 percent, while the number saying jobs are “plentiful” was virtually unchanged at 20.8 percent.

The outlook for the labor market also worsened. The number of consumers expecting more jobs to become available in the coming months fell to 12.2 percent from 14.0 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs eased to 23.7 percent from 24.8 percent in September. The proportion of consumers anticipating their incomes to rise in the months ahead fell to 16.8 percent from 18.1 percent last month.

The Conference Board index is derived from responses received through Oct. 18 to a survey mailed to 5,000 households in a consumer research panel. The figure released Tuesday include responses from at least 2,500 households.