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Consumer confidence levels on upswing

WASHINGTON — Consumer sentiment jumped last week to the highest level in more than five years as record stock prices and the rebound in housing made more Americans feel the expansion will be maintained.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index climbed to minus 29.2 in the week ended April 14, the highest since January 2008, from minus 34 during the prior period. A separate gauge of the economic outlook, issued once a month, was little changed in April at minus 4.

Last week's gain in confidence, the biggest in more than a year, was broad-based with every age group, all regions and most income brackets showing an advance, raising the odds that any slump in consumer spending will prove temporary. At the same time, the mood of those on the lower end of the pay scale remained depressed by higher taxes and a slowdown in hiring.

"Upper-income Americans continue to feel buoyant on the sustainable recovery," said Joseph Brusuelas, a senior economist at Bloomberg LP in New York. "The difficulties that can be observed down the income ladder reflect the significant split in the fortunes of upper-income Americans and low-income cohorts."

Another report Thursday showed little change in the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits. First-time jobless claims climbed by 4,000 to 352,000 in the week ended April 13, the Labor Department said.

Increases as large as last week's 4.8 points, which was the biggest gain since December 2011, are relatively rare for the comfort index. Advances at least that large have only happened in 25 of the 1,400 weeks of polling.

All three comfort index components improved last week, with one crossing into the positive. The personal finances gauge rose to 1.6, its highest level since July, from minus 2.9 the prior week.

The measure assessing Americans' views on the current state of the economy climbed to minus 54.7, the highest since late January 2008. The index of whether consumers consider it a good time to buy improved to a four-month high of minus 34.6.

"We're on the upward curve now," Glenna Blackwell, a 58- year-old from Great Barrington, Mass., said as she browsed a Macy's department store in downtown Washington, intent on spending.

In the nation's capital for business and as a tourist, Blackwell said she was "feeling a little bit better than I did a few months ago."

So far in 2013, the Bloomberg comfort index has averaged minus 34.1, its best showing since 2007, when the gauge averaged minus 10.5.

Increasing optimism among higher-income earners led last week's advance. Those taking home more than $50,000 per year were the least pessimistic in more than five years. Underpinning the gain, those with incomes greater than $100,000 were the most optimistic in more than two years. Advances in the stock market and home values have helped boost confidence by increasing the wealth of asset holders.

The S&P 500 hit a record-high this month, and real estate prices are on the upswing. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities rose 8.1 percent in January from the same month last year, the biggest gain since June 2006, according to a report released March 26.

Consumer confidence levels on upswing 04/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 8:09pm]
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