Consumer, business confidence both weaken

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By Anne D'Innocenzio

NEW YORK (AP) — Americans' view of the economy turned grimmer in September amid escalating job worries, falling to the lowest point since February.

The downbeat report was released Tuesday on the same day a survey of CEOs was released that showed dimming optimism about business. The Business Roundtable's poll indicated that executives weren't as optimistic about sales growth as they were in June, suggesting some are putting plans to hire more workers on hold.

The Conference Board, based in New York, said its monthly Consumer Confidence Index now stands at 48.5, down from the revised 53.2 in August. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters were expecting 52.5.

The reading marked the lowest point since February's 46.4. It takes a reading of 90 to indicate a healthy economy — a level not approached since the recession began in December 2007.

Economists watch confidence closely because consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity and is critical to a strong rebound.

The index — which measures how shoppers feel about business conditions, the job market and the next six months — had been recovering fitfully since hitting an all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009, but Americans are just as downbeat as they were a year ago.

In September 2009, the index stood at 53.4. Since then, it has mostly hovered in a tight range between the mid-40s and the high 50s. May 2010 was the peak, at 62.7.

One portion of the index, which measures how shoppers feel now, decreased to 23.1 in September from 24.9. The other, which measures consumers' assessment of economic conditions over the next six months, fell to 65.4 from 72.0.

"Overall, consumers' confidence in the state of the economy remains quite grim," Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement. "And, with so few expecting conditions to improve in the near term, the pace of economic growth is not likely to pick up in the coming months."

Fears had been easing that the economy isn't heading toward a double-dip recession amid a fresh batch of economic reports. While companies aren't making lots of job offers, far fewer people are applying for unemployment, according to the latest figures from the Labor Department. And the nation's trade deficit narrowed in July, due to a bigger appetite overseas for American exports.

Such reports fueled a September's stock rally, which put the Dow Jones industrial average back to about even for 2010. But Tuesday's Conference Board's report made investors jittery, though major indexes recouped much of their losses as traders were encouraged by another flurry of corporate deals.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 5 points after being down 83 points earlier in the day. Broader indexes dipped.

Many Americans feel they're still in a recession, even though it's officially over. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the panel that determines the timing of recessions, concluded last week that the latest recession ended in June 2009 and lasted 18 months.

People are grappling with unemployment that's stuck at nearly 10 percent. Dramatic improvement in hiring isn't expected to happen until corporate executives have more confidence to add workers. And the latest poll of CEOs by Business Roundtable underscores that won't be happening anytime soon.

Two-thirds of the CEOs that Business Roundtable surveyed in September expected sales to grow over the next six months. That's down from 79 percent who said they expected sales growth in June. The group is an association of CEOs of big U.S. companies.

Meanwhile, the housing market is still weak. Home prices ticked up in July for the fourth straight month, but many cities are bracing for declines in the year ahead, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index.

The price increases were fueled by now-expired homebuyer tax credits. With the peak buying season over, a record number of foreclosures, job concerns and weak demand from buyers are pushing prices down.

The home price index increased 0.6 percent in July from June and 3.2 percent from a year ago. Twelve cities showed monthly price gains, while Cleveland's prices were flat.

The Consumer Confidence Index is based on a random survey mailed to 5,000 households from Sept. 1 to Sept. 21.


AP Real Estate Writer Janna Herron and AP Business Writer Tali Arbel contributed to this report in New York.