Consumer outlook lightens up a smidge

NEW YORK — Americans see a slice of sunlight for the economy, as a widely watched report Tuesday showed people are not as pessimistic about the future as they were a month ago.

The housing market is still falling, but so have gas prices — at least a little — and that was enough to spark a little hope amid the deepest economic gloom in 16 years.

But economists warn that the slight uptick, which reverses a six-month slide since January, is likely to be only temporary and doesn't signal the beginning of a rally.

The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index stands at 51.9 for July — about half of what it was a year ago and still the lowest since the index registered 54.6 in October 1992, when the country was coming out of a recession.

But the reading was slightly higher than the revised 51.0 level for June and a bit better than the 50 economists expected. Still, economists were cautious.

"The rebate checks have just been spent," said Bernard Baumohl, managing director of The Economic Outlook Group. "This is hardly the backdrop normally associated with a rebound in consumer confidence. What we'll see at best is a bounce around at these low levels for the next six to nine months. We are not going to get an improvement unless we get an improvement in housing and the job market sectors."

In fact, Baumohl believes that the odds of a recession this year have increased, citing the fading benefits of the federal stimulus checks, deteriorating household wealth and the slowdown of foreign economies.

Stocks, however, rebounded a day after their steep tumble, as investors latched on to a drop in oil prices and the rise in confidence. The Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 266 points.

Economists and investors closely monitor sentiment since consumer spending represents about two-thirds of all economic activity. The tax rebates helped lift retail sales in May and June, but those benefits have faded, and analysts worry about whether shoppers will have extra money to spend on clothing and other nonessentials in the important back-to-school season.

Baumohl noted that while a slight decline in gas prices has a psychological impact on consumers, whether they will fall more is uncertain. The latest national survey shows gas prices have dropped a fraction below the $4-dollar mark. The average price of regular gasoline at self-serve stations was $3.996 a gallon Friday, according to the Lundberg Survey of 7,000 gas stations nationwide, released Sunday.

In the Rogue Valley, unleaded averaged $4.275 per gallon Tuesday, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.

Prices are at their lowest level since May 16, but the survey showed that the average U.S. price is $1.11 higher than it was a year ago.

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