NEW YORK — Higher job anxiety is driving consumer confidence down and worries about holiday spending up.

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, based on a monthly survey of 5,000 households, revealed Tuesday that consumer attitudes towards the U.S. economy and labor market conditions became pessimistic in September, sending the reading down a worse-than-expected 4.9 points to 76.8.

The poor showing last month, which sent stocks reeling in early trading Tuesday, was down from a upwardly revised 81.7 in August, and erased that month’s 4.7 point gain.

Stocks came back from steep declines early in the day, but still finished the session with hefty decreases. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended Tuesday down 105.18 points, or 1.1 percent, at 9,275.06. On a percentage basis, The Standard & Poor’s 500 and S&P Retail indices weathered similar drops, finishing at 995.97 and 344.47, respectively, while the Nasdaq shed 2.1 percent to end Tuesday’s trading at 1,786.94.

The overall decline in the confidence index was driven by decreases in both of its components. The Expectations half, which assesses consumer attitudes for the next six months, backtracked 6.5 points to 88.4 from 94.9, while the Present Situation component, which addresses consumers’ current views, declined 2.5 points to 59.5 from 62, its fifth straight monthly decline.

“The lack of improvement in labor market conditions continues to dampen consumers’ spirits,” Lynn Franco, director of the board’s Consumer Research Center, said.

Despite the September retreat, Franco said, consumers remain cautiously optimistic and don’t plan drastic changes in their spending habits: “As long as expectations continue to point to an improvement in economic conditions, consumers are optimistic.”

On the other hand, Moody’s Investors Service economist John Lonski warned consumer spending has already cooled off after its summer sizzle. “While we did have summertime acceleration in consumer spending, this month’s drop in confidence brings to attention how the outlook for consumer spending remains marred by the lack of job creation,” he said.

Lonski blamed “a lousy job market” for September’s deeper than anticipated decline. “We had the lowest percentage of respondents claiming jobs were plentiful since December 1993 and the highest percentage of respondents claiming jobs are hard to get since December 1993. That’s what did it,” Lonski said.Those describing jobs “hard to get” increased to 35.3 percent from 34.1 percent, while those calling them “plentiful” retreated to 10 percent from 11.3 percent in August.

Indeed, if unemployed consumers make for lousy customers, year-over-year comparable-store sales for retailers will be made more difficult by year-over-year increases in the unemployment rate. Although that rate dipped a bit to 6.1 percent in August from June’s peak of 6.4 percent, the August figure is up from the 5.8 percent of August 2002. And, according to Lonski, September’s confidence report suggests September’s unemployment rate will at least match August’s 6.1 percent, which will be higher than last September’s 5.7 percent.

“Retailers want to be sensitive to the possibility of a slower than expected holiday shopping season,” Lonski warned. “Unless the labor market begins to steady, the risk of another disappointing holiday shopping season grows.”

Analysts recently have received mixed signals about retail sales, some of which may be cleared up when retailers report their September sales on Oct. 9.

A joint report by the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and UBS showed that U.S. chain store sales fell 0.4 percent during the week ended Sept. 27 from the prior week, their third decline in a row, after tumbling 1.8 percent in the prior week.

However, in year-over-year comparison, sales rose 4.4 percent last week and were up 4 percent the week before.

Consumers’ expectations for the next six months weakened in September. Those anticipating that business conditions will improve during the next six months slipped to 21.4 percent from 22.6 percent in August, while those expecting business conditions to deteriorate rose to 11.9 percent from 10.6 percent.

The employment outlook is also less optimistic. Those anticipating the job market to improve in the next six months decreased to 16.7 percent from 18 percent. Those expecting fewer jobs to become available increased to 21 percent from 18.6 percent. Consumers anticipating an increase in their incomes fell to 18.6 percent from 20.7 percent.

Consumers’ assessment of the present business environment remained relatively unchanged. Those rating current business conditions as “good” edged up to 16 percent from 15.9 percent, while those holding the opposite view declined to 29.6 percent from 31 percent.

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