Consumer Confidence in U.S. Plunged to Record Low (Update2)

Oct. 28 (Bloomberg) — U.S. consumer confidence fell to the lowest level on record in October as stocks plunged and banks shut off credit, raising the risk spending will tumble.

The Conference Board’s confidence index decreased to 38, less than forecast and the lowest reading since monthly records began in 1967, the New York-based research group said today. A separate report showed home values continued to drop in August.

Household wealth has evaporated as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index verged on its worst one-month loss in 70 years, home equity shrank and job losses mounted. The dimming outlook signals consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, will deteriorate further, deepening the U.S. slump.

“The economy feels like it is contracting at a rapid pace,” Lewis Alexander, chief economist at Citigroup Global Markets Inc. in New York, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “It’s clear that consumers have really been affected by the volatility we’ve seen in the last six weeks.”

The report underscores voter discontent with the country’s direction heading into the Nov. 4 presidential election. A majority of voters think Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the Democrat, will be better able to handle the economic turmoil than Republican rival John McCain, according to polls.

Consumer confidence was projected to drop to 52, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 66 economists. Forecasts ranged from 45 to 56.6. September’s reading was revised up to 61.4 from an originally reported 59.8.

Market Reaction

Stocks gave up some of their earlier gains following the report. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 15.3 points, or 1.8 percent, to 864.2 at 10:24 a.m. in New York, after being up almost 33 points earlier. Treasury securities fell.

The 23.4-point drop this month was the third biggest on record, trailing two plunges in the early 1970s linked to oil shocks. Measures on current conditions and expectations both declined.

“It doesn’t get much worse than this,” said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto. “There’s a risk of a deeper, longer-lasting recession.”

Home prices in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas dropped 16.6 percent in August from the same month in 2007, the fastest pace since year-over-year records began in 2001, a report from S&P/Case-Shiller today also showed. For a fifth consecutive month, all areas showed a decrease in prices from a year earlier.

The housing slump is likely to extend well into a fourth year as foreclosures put more properties on the market and drive down prices even more.

Components Drop

The Conference Board’s measure of present conditions dropped to 41.9 from 61.1 the prior month. The gauge of expectations for the next six months slumped to 35.5 from 61.5.

The share of consumers who said jobs are plentiful dropped to 8.9 percent from 12.6 percent last month. The proportion of people who said jobs are hard to get jumped 5 points to 37.2 percent.

The proportion of people who expect their incomes to rise over the next six months dropped to 10.8 percent from 15.1 percent. The share expecting more jobs decreased to 7.4 percent from 11.9 percent.

The confidence figures corroborate declines seen in other measures. A report earlier this month showed the Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment decreased in October by the most on record.

The Conference Board’s index tends to be more influenced by attitudes about the labor market, economists have said.

Job Losses

The economy lost jobs for nine consecutive months through September, bringing the total drop in payrolls to 760,000 this year, Labor Department figures showed. Some economists anticipate job losses accelerated in October.

Consumer spending probably dropped last quarter by the most in almost two decades, economists forecast a Commerce Department report will show in two days. As a result, the economy probably shrank from July to September, the survey showed.

Today’s confidence report showed fewer people planned to purchase automobiles and major appliances. Home-buying plans improved.

The slump in spending may be even bigger this quarter as consumers retrench. The International Council of Shopping Centers predicts the November-December holiday season, which brings in more than a third of some retailers’ annual sales, will be the weakest since 2002.

The credit freeze “impacted consumers’ attitudes,” Farooq Kathwari, chief executive officer of home-furnishings retailer Ethan Allen Interiors Inc., said in a Bloomberg Television interview this month. “People are cautious, people are holding back.”

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