Confidence among U.S. consumers declined more than forecast in January, reaching the lowest level in more than a year as higher payroll taxes took a bigger bite out of Americans’ paychecks.
The Conference Board’s index decreased to 58.6, the weakest since November 2011, from a revised 66.7 in December, figures from the New York-based private research group showed today. The January reading was lower than the most pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg survey, which had a median estimate of 64.
The drop in confidence coincides with a two percentage- point increase in the payroll tax used to fund Social Security, a hurdle for consumers after a projected pickup in spending in the fourth quarter. The outlook for employment prospects and incomes also deteriorated this month, today’s data showed.
“The uncertainty and bickering is weighing it down,” Richard F. Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, Alabama, said before the report. “I’m convinced that a lot of people didn’t realize that their taxes were going up in January. These higher payroll taxes, they’re going to put that much of a dent in disposable income.”
The 8.1-point slump in the gauge of sentiment from a month earlier was the biggest since August 2011. Estimates of the 73 economists surveyed by Bloomberg ranged from 59 to 70. The measure averaged 53.7 in the recession that ended in June 2009.
Stocks declined after the figures, erasing earlier gains. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.1% to 1,499.42 at 10:04 a.m. in New York.
Another report today showed property values increased in November by the most since August 2006. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 U.S. cities climbed 5.5% from November 2011, after advancing 4.2% in the year to October.
The Conference Board’s gauge of present conditions fell to a three-month low of 57.3 in January from 64.6. The measure of expectations for the next six months slumped to 59.5, the lowest since October 2011, from 68.1.
The share of consumers expecting more jobs to become available in the next six months dropped to 14.3% in January, the lowest since December 2011, from 17.9% the previous month.
Fewer consumers anticipate a pickup in their incomes as well. The share expecting an increase in the next six months fell to 13.6%, the lowest since October 2011.
The number of respondents who said jobs are currently plentiful declined to 8.6% in January from 10.8%. Those who said jobs are hard to get rose to 37.7% from 36.1%.
Increased pessimism about the labor market may be seeping into purchase plans. The share of Americans planning to buy a car in the next six months fell to 10.1%, the lowest since April 2012.
Today’s figures mirror other measures of consumer confidence. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index dropped in the week ended Jan. 20 to the lowest level since early October as Americans’ concerns about the economy mounted.
The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment dropped in January to its lowest point since December 2011.
These reports also showed that a decrease in take-home pay from the increase in payroll taxes is weighing on attitudes. Americans earning $50,000 a year will take home about $80 less a month after the tax used to pay for Social Security benefits went up to 6.2% from 4.2%.
While lawmakers avoided broad-based increases in income taxes, Congress is now debating how best to reduce the nation’s budget deficit. Automatic spending cuts are slated to go into effect March 1.
Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, sees customers who have grown more value conscious.
“Many of our customers are concerned about long-term employment,” Kermit Crawford, president of the company’s pharmacy, health and wellness business, said at a health-care conference on Jan. 7. “They’re concerned about issues such as Medicare and Social Security. They’re concerned about the debt issues. It’s changing the way they think about value. It’s changing the way they shop.”
Employment gains are helping sustain demand. Employers added 155,000 workers in December, according to Labor Department data. For all of 2012, the economy created 1.84 million jobs, matching the gain in 2011. It’s the best back-to-back reading since 2005-2006.
Consumers are also paying less at the gas pump. The average price of a gallon of gas yesterday was $3.36, down from a recent high of $3.87 in September, according to data from AAA, the biggest U.S. motoring organization.