U.S. Consumer Comfort Rises for Second Week on Fuel Prices

Consumer Comfort Rises for Second Week as Gasoline Falls
Gasoline costs that have dropped by about 20 cents a gallon in the past month from an almost three-year high may continue to support sentiment. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Consumer confidence in the U.S. rose for a second week as gasoline prices receded.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index improved to minus 47.1 in the week ended May 29 from minus 48.4 in the prior period. The 2.3-point gain over the past two weeks has yet to make up for the 6.8-point monthlong slide that propelled the gauge to a nine-month low two weeks ago.

“The consumer is not doing very well these days,” said Robert Brusca, president of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York. “ There is nothing in this weekly survey that gives us any confidence things are getting better. There is really not much improvement in the economy.”

Gasoline costs that have dropped by about 20 cents a gallon in the past month from an almost three-year high may continue to support sentiment. At the same time, falling home prices and slowing job growth may cause households to limit spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s largest economy.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was little changed today after sinking 2.3 percent yesterday. The gauge rose 0.2 percent to 1,316.8 at 10:38 a.m. in New York. Treasury securities dropped, since the yield on the benchmark 10-year note up to 2.99 percent from 2.94 percent late yesterday.

The rise in the comfort gauge over the past two weeks has been within the survey’s margin of error of 3 percentage points.

‘Welcome’ Shift

While the gain “isn’t that statistically significant, the shift in direction, nonetheless, is a welcome one,” Gary Langer, president of Langer Research Associates LLC in New York, which compiles the index for Bloomberg, said in a statement.

The stabilization in recent weeks signals other measures may follow. The Conference Board’s confidence index unexpectedly dropped last month, figures from the New York-based private research group showed today. Only responses received by mail up to May 18 were used in compiling the report, indicating the data didn’t reflect the drop in gasoline prices.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index of consumer sentiment increased to 74.3 in May from 69.8 a month earlier. It was also up from a preliminary reading of 72.4 issued earlier in the month.

Each of the three components of the Bloomberg comfort index gained last week, the figures showed.

Data Breakdown

The personal-finances gauge rose to minus 13.4 from minus 13.7 the previous week. A 3.1 percentage-point increase in the last two weeks failed to make up for ground lost over the prior four weeks. It was the 13th consecutive week in which a minority of Americans rated their own finances positively.

The buying-climate index increased to minus 53.1 from minus 55.8 the previous week. It’s still close to the minus 57.4 reached March 13 that was the lowest since October 2009.

A gauge of Americans’ views of the economy was minus 74.6 compared with minus 75.7 the prior week.

“Gas has stopped rising; consumer confidence has stopped falling,” said Langer. “Life sometimes is that simple.”

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline nationally dropped to $3.79 on May 29, down from $3.84 a week earlier, according to AAA, the nation’s largest auto club. It reached $3.99 on May 4, the highest since July 2008.

“It’s still a challenging market and consumers remain price-sensitive, particularly with rising fuel costs,” Peter Lynch, chairman and president of Jacksonville, Florida-based grocery chain Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., said on a May 17 conference call. “But consumers are slowly starting to return to more traditional buying patterns.”

Stock Prices

The comfort index was minus 6.3 among people with household incomes exceeding $100,000 a year, negative for a third week and below its 2010 and 2011 averages. The 1.4 percent drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in May, the biggest monthly decrease in shares since August, may be starting to concern people at the higher income brackets, Langer said.

Confidence among women has soured after climbing during April, the report showed. The gender gap widened to more than 10 points for the first time in eight weeks, with men at minus 41.5 and women at minus 52.2.

After adding 768,000 workers to payrolls in the first four months of the year, hiring may be about to cool as companies try to compensate for rising commodity costs.

Job gains in May are forecast at 170,000, down from 244,000 in April, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg before tomorrow’s payrolls report. Unemployment is forecast to fall to 8.9 percent from 9 percent.

Claims Elevated

Jobless claims decreased less than forecast last week, indicating the labor market is struggling to pick up. Applications dropped by 6,000 to 422,000 in the week ended May 28, according to Labor Department figures released today. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News had predicted a drop to 417,000.

“Falling gasoline prices have provided some much-needed breathing space for beleaguered consumers,” said Joseph Brusuelas, a senior economist at Bloomberg LP in New York. Even so, Americans face “considerable economic headwinds, including a difficult labor market.”

A housing market struggling to stabilize is also weighing on consumers’ spirits as home values fall.

Property values in 20 U.S. cities dropped in March to the lowest level since 2003, showing housing remains mired in a slump almost two years into the economic recovery. The S&P/Case-Shiller index fell 3.6 percent from March 2010, the biggest year-over-year decline since November 2009, the group said this week.

Sample Size

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index is based on responses to telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,000 consumers aged 18 and over. Each week, 250 respondents are asked for their views on the economy, personal finances and buying climate; the percentage of negative responses is subtracted from the share of positive views and divided by three.

The comfort index can range from 100, indicating every participant in the survey had a positive response to all three components, to minus 100, signaling all views were negative. The margin of error for the headline reading is 3 percentage points.

Field work for the index is done by SSRS/Social Science Research Solutions in Media, Pennsylvania.

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