March 27, 2012 / 3:38 PM / 5 years ago

Consumer confidence eases, inflation view jumps

A woman carries shopping bags at South Park mall in Charlotte, North Carolina November 25, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Keane

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans this month ratcheted up their expectations on inflation to the highest level in 10 months and consumer confidence waned, though the economic recovery was still seen on track.

Separate data on Tuesday showed home prices were unchanged in January from December, the first time since July the seasonally adjusted S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index has not declined, a sign the battered housing market is slowly stabilizing.

A report from industry group The Conference Board showed the index of consumer attitudes eased to 70.2 from an upwardly revised 71.6 the month before, roughly in line with economists’ expectations for 70.3.

The details of the report were mixed as consumer expectations fell, but their assessment of their current situation rose to the highest level since September 2008.

The improvement in consumers’ view of their present situation suggests they still feel the economy is not losing momentum, the report said.

But expectations for inflation in the coming year jumped to the highest level since May 2011 at 6.3 percent from 5.5 percent.

“The biggest moving part in that scenario has been gasoline prices. So that’s certainly on consumers’ radar screen - or dashboard as the case might be,” said Carl J. Riccadonna, director and senior U.S. economist of global markets research at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York.

Rising gasoline prices have sparked worries that already fragile consumers could start to feel squeezed, putting a dent in the economy. Prices at the pump reached $3.92 cents a gallon last week.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Monday defended the central bank’s policy of very low interest rates, making clear the Fed is in no rush to reverse course after responding aggressively to a deep recession.

The S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas was flat in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, beating economists’ expectations for a decline of 0.2 percent.

It was the first time the index did not decline since July 2011, when prices were also flat month-over-month. The last time prices increased was April of last year. Average home prices across the country were back to early 2003 levels, the report said.

“We expect prices now to be stable, and perhaps even to nudge a bit higher, over the next few months at least,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said.

“A sustained recovery in home prices is still a long way off, but stabilization is an essential first step, not least because no-one wants to borrow money to buy a depreciating asset.”

Prices have been pressured by a low demand, distressed sales and an overhang of pending foreclosures.

On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, prices tumbled 0.8 percent in January from December.

Year over year, prices fared a little better with January notching a 3.8 percent decline compared to the year before, in line with expectations and an improvement from December’s 4.0 percent drop.

Financial markets saw little reaction to the data as Wall Street stalled a day after major indexes rallied to near four-year highs.

A separate survey showed U.S. small business confidence rose to its highest level in a year in the first quarter with more firms planning to ramp up hiring as the economy’s prospects improved.

Vistage International said its confidence index rose to 105.1 in the first three months of 2012 from 98.8 in the final months of 2011.

Additional reporting by Ellen Freilich; Editing by Padraic Cassidy

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