NEW YORK — The public’s mood brightened in April, lifting consumer confidence to its highest level this year and reversing four consecutive months of declines.
With the worst fears about the war in Iraq generally in the past, the New York-based Conference Board’s monthly survey of 5,000 households rallied a better-than-expected 19.6 points to 81 from a downwardly revised 61.4 in March.
"The swift outcome in the Middle East has helped quell consumers’ short-term concerns," Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center, said in a statement.
This month’s rise was the largest one-month advance since March 1991’s 21.7 point surge to 81.1, which coincided with the end of the first Persian Gulf War. The increase also helped to erase the decline in the survey over the past four months.
While an increase of this magnitude occurred after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Franco said this postwar surge differs in that both components of the index posted gains. Twelve years ago, the Present Situation Index fell, to 51.7 from 53.1, while Expectations moved up by more than half, to 100.7 from 63.6.
Both near-term and current outlooks advanced, led by the Expectations Index’s 23.4 point increase to 84.8 in April from 61.4 in March, reflecting a possible increase in postwar job availability. The Present Situation Index gained 13.9 points to 75.3 this month from 61.4 last month.
Peter Glassman, senior domestic economist with Bank One Corp., said he expected the numbers to increase in April not so much because of patriotic fervor as much as from the lower levels of uncertainty about the war and related issues.
"Now consumers can hope the government can focus on the economy and [on] getting us going," he said. "The economy is on the rebound and will be doing better going forward. Consumer attitudes are going back in line with their pocketbooks, a good indicator for retailers who may see a better season than many have thought."
Stephen Gallagher, U.S. chief economist with S.G. Cowen, said he expects that the drop in energy prices and reduced anxiety will prompt a spending increase, noting he will be looking at the May 1 release of auto sales figures for clues on consumer spending habits."If we want to see economic growth, it is important to see consumer confidence numbers rebound," Gallagher said. "This is the first step after Iraq."
Franco said the increase in the Present Situation Index, especially in labor market conditions, "may very well signal a turnaround in confidence and a more favorable outlook for consumer spending."
Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved from March. Those rating present business conditions as "bad" declined to 23.7 percent from 30 percent, while those holding the opposite view rose to 16.2 percent from 13.6 percent. Labor market conditions also improved. Consumers reporting that jobs are hard to get declined to 29.5 percent from 32.3 percent, while those claiming jobs are plentiful edged up to 13 percent from 11.4 percent.
Consumers’ short-term expectations improved considerably. Those anticipating an improvement in business conditions over the next six months rose to 18.7 percent from 13 percent. Consumers anticipating conditions to worsen dropped to 12.3 percent from 20 percent.
The employment outlook was also more optimistic. Consumers anticipating more jobs to become available increased to 16.7 percent from 10.8 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs fell to 20.9 percent from 26.5 percent.
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