Consumer sentiment, home prices increase

WASHINGTON — Americans' pessimism about the economy appears to be lifting, with consumer expectations for the next six months hitting their most positive point since the recession began.

The improvement stems partly from the housing market, as a national gauge of home prices on Tuesday posted its first quarterly increase in three years.

The consumer and housing reports, along with President Barack Obama's reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chief, sent the financial markets modestly higher. But economists warned consumer confidence remains far below levels associated with a healthy economy and might not lead to the increased spending critical for a broad recovery.

"People's spending decisions depend more on whether they have money in their pocket than on how they feel," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial.

Still, Cheney and other economists said Tuesday's report on consumer sentiment was encouraging.

Consumers' expectations for the economy over the next six months rose to 73.5 from 63.4 in July, the highest level since December 2007, when the recession began.

More consumers said they were likely to buy a home or a car within the next six months than said so in July's survey. The outlook for jobs also improved, albeit from very low levels.

The housing sector received positive news, too. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller's U.S. National Home Price Index rose 1.4 percent in the second quarter from the January-March period, the first quarterly increase in three years.

Home prices, though still down nearly 15 percent from last year, are at levels last seen in early 2003.

The report added to other recent positive news about housing. The National Association of Realtors said last week that sales of existing homes rose 7.2 percent in July, the fourth-straight monthly gain.

The Commerce Department today is set to report new-home sales for July. Analysts also expect that figure to rise.

"An upturn in prices has to ease some of the pain and may even get some people to loosen up on their wallets a touch," Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors, wrote in a note to clients. "An improving housing market coupled with better consumer spending could ensure that the recovery takes hold."

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