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Consumer confidence takes a dive Anxiety over jobs, Clinton is blamed


Bill Clinton's economic program isn't playing any better on Main Street than the president's $200 haircut, according to the latest consumer confidence poll.

Virtually all the postelection surge in optimism about the new administration's ability to turn the economy around quickly has evaporated, the Conference Board survey for May showed.

Confidence in May plunged to the lowest level since October, the private research group said yesterday. And job worries are intensifying despite few reports of major new layoffs and Labor Department data suggesting that job growth picked up modestly in the past six months.

Only 13 percent of consumers think jobs will become more abundant within six months, compared with 21.5 percent who thought so in January, the survey showed. The May percentage was the lowest reading in more than a year.

The Conference Board's overall consumer confidence index tumbled to 61.5 in May, from 67.6 in April. The measure fell in every region except the Southeast and more than reversed a 4-point gain last month.

"The consumer voted for change, no tax increases for the middle class, health-care reform," said Allen I. Questrom, chairman of Federated Department Stores Inc. "What she sees now are all kinds of trial balloons: taxes not just for the wealthy, a BTU tax, a [value-added tax]."

Fabian Linden, executive director of the Conference Board's consumer research center, said, "The economy is just not getting off the ground."

What was striking about the survey results -- which confirmed downbeat surveys by the University of Michigan and ABC/Money magazine -- was that expectations have turned as gloomy as they were before the election. The Conference Board's expectations index plunged from 81.1 in April to 72.2 in May, a drop of nearly a third since December.

By contrast, perceptions of current economic conditions are more sanguine than seven or eight months ago. The current conditions index, at 45.4 in May, was down only marginally from 47.2 in April.

The contrast between feelings about the future and the present suggests that although consumers can detect signs of slow expansion, they have all but lost faith that the president can do much to speed job growth, a principal source of anxiety.

"Pessimists substantially outnumber optimists on this issue," Mr. Linden said. "Consumer confidence continues at levels historically associated with a weak economy."

The deterioration in consumers' mood in the Clinton administration compares with growing faith in Reaganomics ,X during President Ronald Reagan's first spring in office.

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