Originally created 03/31/04

Consumer confidence remains virtually unchanged in March



NEW YORK -- Consumer confidence, which fell sharply in February, remained relatively steady in March, according to a business research group.

The Conference Board report Tuesday that its consumer confidence index stood at 88.3, down from 88.5 in February. The February figure marked a sharp drop from the revised 97.7 in January.

The March figure was better than analysts' projections of 86, but it still shows that consumers' confidence has not seen a major improvement.

The Present Situations index, one component of the confidence index, rose to 84.1 from 83.3 in February. The Expectations Index, another component, fell to 91 from 91.9.

"While consumers claimed business conditions were more favorable in March than last month, they also claimed jobs were less readily available," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board's Consumer Research Center in a statement. "The labor market not only continues to dampen consumers' present-day spirits, but it is also making them less optimistic about the short-term outlook."

Economists closely follow consumer confidence because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States. Consumers who feel more positive about the economy are likely to spend more, while those who remain downbeat may curb their purchases.

Consumers' optimism about future business conditions continues to wane. Those expecting business conditions to improve in the next six months dipped to 19.3 percent from 19.5 percent. Consumers expecting conditions to worsen was unchanged at 9.6 percent.

But their assessment of current conditions is more favorable than last month. Those claiming business conditions improved increased to 20.7 percent from 19.3 percent. Those saying conditions have worsened was almost unchanged at 23.3 percent.

Consumers claiming jobs are "hard to get" increased to 30 percent from 28.9 percent. But those saying jobs are "plentiful" rose slightly to 14.7 percent from 14.5 percent.

The six-month job outlook is mixed. Those anticipating more jobs to become available fell to 15.7 percent, down from 16.4 percent. Those expecting fewer jobs, however, declined to 17.3 percent from 18.8 percent. The proportion of consumers anticipating a decrease in their incomes rose to 10.1 percent from 8.4 percent in February.

Reaction to the report was muted on Wall Street. In early trading, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 7.04, or 0.1 percent, to 10,322.59.

Broader stock indicators were also lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down 1.19, or 0.1 percent, at 1,121.28, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.38, or 0.3 percent, to 1,987.19.