Consumer Confidence Improves as Hiring in U.S. Picks Up

Consumer sentiment climbed last week and U.S. companies added more workers than projected in December, showing the world’s largest economy picked up even as lawmakers were embroiled in budget disputes.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to minus 31.8 in the period ended Dec. 30, its highest since April, from minus 32.1 a week earlier, according to a report today. Figures from the ADP Research Institute showed a 215,000 increase in employment, the largest since February, while the Labor Department said more Americans filed claims for jobless benefits last week.

This week’s agreement averting income-tax increases on about 99 percent of households, combined with the pickup in hiring, may give confidence an added lift after spending at stores from Nordstrom Inc. to Gap Inc. topped analysts’ estimates last month. A strengthening economy lowers the risk that further deliberations on government spending cuts and the debt will derail the expansion.

“The economy is growing quite well,” said David Sloan, a New York-based senior economist at 4Cast Inc., the best ADP forecaster over the past two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “The labor market seems to be expanding at a fairly solid pace. Consumer spending will continue to grow, but slowly.”

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC posted December vehicle sales gains that exceeded analysts’ estimates in December, industry reports showed today. Auto purchases ran at a 15.3 million annual rate after 15.5 million in November, the best two months since early 2008.

Stocks Fall

Stocks fell after minutes of the Federal Reserve’s December meeting showed policy makers said they will probably end $85 billion in monthly bond purchases this year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.2 percent to 1,459.37 at the close in New York. The S&P 500 surged 2.5 percent yesterday, the biggest one-day jump since December 2011, after Congress passed the bill averting tax increases and government spending cuts slated to take effect this year.

The median forecast of 36 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 140,000 gain in ADP’s hiring data. Estimates ranged from increases of 70,000 to 210,000. The prior month’s advance was revised up to 148,000 from a previously reported 118,000 gain. ADP had estimated that superstorm Sandy reduced payrolls in November by about 86,000.

Private Payrolls

A Labor Department report tomorrow may show private payrolls, which exclude government agencies, rose by 150,000 last month, and the jobless rate held at an almost four-year low of 7.7 percent, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

“The job market held firm in December despite the intensifying fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc., said in a statement. “Businesses even became somewhat more aggressive in their hiring at year-end.” Moody’s produces the figures with ADP.

Economists at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. and Credit Suisse raised their forecasts for December employment after the ADP report. Credit Suisse now projects a gain of 195,000 in private payrolls from a prior estimate of 175,000. Deutsche Bank added 40,000 to its projection, raising it to 205,000.

Winnebago Industries Inc., a Forest City, Iowa-based maker of motor homes, is among companies expanding staff and adding work hours as it increases production. The company hired about 160 people, or 12 percent more hourly employees, in the quarter ended Dec. 1.

More Overtime

“We’re still supplementing by working overtime in many, many areas of the company,” Sarah Nielsen, chief financial officer, said on an earnings conference call on Dec. 20. “That’s been a factor for the last six months plus. And we’re going to have to continue to hire to support attrition.”

A report today showed the employment situation in Europe’s largest economy may be stabilizing. German unemployment increased less than economists forecast in December even as Europe’s debt crisis curbed company investment and economic growth.

The pickup in U.S. hiring may be helping to boost Americans’ confidence. For the year, the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index climbed 12.9 points, the biggest annual improvement since 1998.

Last week’s gains were broad-based, indicating even wealthier households were less concerned about tax increases and fiscal policy challenges heading into 2013. The report showed sentiment among Americans earning $100,000 or more was the highest in more than two years.

2012 Average

For all of 2012, the comfort index averaged minus 38.1, the highest since 2007. Nonetheless, it remains below its long-term average of minus 15.8.

Retailers attracted shoppers with last-minute discounts during the holidays last month. Purchases in November and December account for 20 percent to 40 percent of U.S. retailers’ annual revenue.

Sales at Gap, the largest U.S. specialty-apparel retailer, rose 5 percent, exceeding the average projection of 3.6 percent from analysts surveyed by researcher Retail Metrics Inc. Nordstrom, the Seattle-based chain of department stores, posted an 8.6 percent increase in same-store sales last month, beating the 3.6 percent estimate.

Another report today showed the holidays played havoc with government data. More Americans than forecast filed claims for unemployment insurance last week as the closing of some state agencies during the holidays prompted the government to estimate some figures.

Jobless Claims

Applications for jobless benefits increased by 10,000 to 372,000 in the week ended Dec. 29, the Labor Department said. Economists forecast 360,000 claims, the Bloomberg survey showed.

A Labor Department official said the number of applications reflects the effects of the holidays. Eight states and territories provided estimates last week and the Labor Department projected the reading for one additional state.

“The underlying claims trend is still really low,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida. “There’s a lot of volatility this time of year. Job destruction is really not a problem right now, it’s really hiring that’s the issue.”

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