Consumers lose confidence as 'fiscal cliff' nears

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WASHINGTON — U.S. consumers peering over the “fiscal cliff” don’t like what they see.

Fears of sharp tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect next week sent consumer confidence tumbling in December to its lowest level since August.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its consumer confidence index fell for the second straight month in December to 65.1, down from 71.5 in November.

The survey showed consumers’ outlook for the next six months deteriorated to its lowest level since 2011 – a signal to Lynn Franco, the board’s director of economic indicators, that consumers are worried about the tax hikes and spending cuts that take effect Jan. 1 if the White House and Congress can’t reach a budget deal.

Earlier this week a report showed consumers held back shopping this holiday season, another indication of their concerns about possible tax increases.

The December drop “is obvious confirmation that a sudden and serious deterioration in hopes for the future took place in December – presumably reflecting concern about imminent ‘fiscal cliff’ tax increases,” said Pierre Ellis, an economist with Decision Economics.

While consumers are more worried about where the economy is headed, they were upbeat about present conditions, according to the latest survey. Their assessment of current economic conditions rose this month to the highest level since August 2008.

A key reason for that is gas prices hit a 2012 low of $3.21 a gallon last week. Normally, that would prompt consumers to spend more.

But the opposite has happened. A report from MasterCard Advisors Spending pulse indicated sales grew in the two months before Christmas at the weakest rate since 2008.

Shopping picked up in the second half of November. But “fiscal cliff” worries dampened sales in December.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, remains optimistic that sales won’t be quite as bad as earlier reports have suggested. It is sticking to its forecast for total sales for November and December to be up 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year. That’s more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent.


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