Consumer confidence in the United States slid to its lowest point in almost a year, as worries about job availability, high gasoline prices and the severity of the housing slump weighed on peoples' minds.
The steep drop disappointed economists and raised fresh questions about consumers' appetite to spend in the months ahead; their spending is a major shaper of the country's economic health.
The RBC Cash Index showed that confidence tumbled to 76.1 in July. That was considerably weaker than June's 81.4 and was the worst reading since last August. The index is based on the results from the international polling firm Ipsos.
To a lesser extent, the deterioration in confidence also may have been influenced by concerns about terrorism - fanned by the attempted car bombings last month in London and Glasgow - and violence in Iraq, analysts said.
"Consumers feel more pessimistic. There is a spreading sense of insecurity and concern," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.
The erosion in confidence comes as the public gave U.S. President George W. Bush a job-approval rating of just 33 percent in July, according to a separate AP-Ipsos poll. On the economy, only 37 percent approve of his performance. Both figures are close to record lows.
Much of consumers' angst is over how the economy and their own financial fortunes will fare in the next six months. This expectations measure dropped to an 11-month low of 23.1 in July.
Whether gasoline prices, which recently started to creep up again, will continue to climb was one factor blamed for consumers' growing unease about the future. Gasoline prices nationwide are now hovering around US$2.98 a gallon, up a bit from US$2.96 a gallon at the beginning of July, according to the Energy Department. Prices spiked past US$3 a gallon in May.
Another factor depressing consumers' feelings about the future is whether the yearlong housing slump will worsen and drag down home prices, economists said. During the five-year housing boom, rising home values made people feel more wealthy. They borrowed against their homes and spent lavishly. Weaker home values - a byproduct of the housing slump - have made some more cautious.
Meanwhile, peoples' sentiments about current economic conditions were mostly stable. This current conditions gauge clocked in at 95.8 in July, close to 96.8 in June.
Yet, a measure tracking consumers' feelings about the nation's employment climate fell to 116.8 in July. While that was still decent, it was a sharp drop from June's 126.9 and was the weakest showing in 14 months. July's reading suggested consumers are feeling a bit edgy about the job market.
Although the national unemployment rate in June stayed at a low 4.5 percent for the third straight month, the creation of new jobs has slowed.
In the first half of the year, job growth averaged 145,000 a month. That was weaker than the average monthly gain of 189,000 for 2006, according to Labor Department figures.
"The job market has softened. It is resilient but undeniably weaker today than a year ago," observed Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
While the job market remains healthy, that softening in job creation has come as the economy endured a nearly yearlong sluggish spell. The economy barely grew in the first three months of this year; it expanded at a pace of just 0.7 percent, the worst in more than four years.
The economy probably rebounded in the April-to-June quarter, logging growth of 3 percent or higher, according to some economists' forecasts. However, some analysts think economic activity in the current July-to-September period will be more subdued.
Economists keep close tabs on confidence barometers for any clues about consumers' willingness to spend. Consumer spending accounts for a big slice of overall economic activity.
"Overall, the consumer confidence numbers are disappointing. They are not a case for a consumer (spending) rebound in the second half of this year," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia.
Macy's Inc. and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. were among the retailers on Thursday that reported disappointing sales for June. A notable exception was Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose sales beat expectations. Still, the overall sales results cast a bit of a pall over retailers' hopes for a successful back-to-school shopping season.
A gauge looking at peoples' sentiments about investing, including their comfort in making major purchases, dipped to 83.6 in July, down from 86.1 in June.
The overall confidence index is benchmarked to a reading of 100 on January 2002, when Ipsos started the survey.
The RBC consumer confidence index was based on responses from 1,004 adults surveyed Monday through Wednesday about their attitudes on personal finance and the economy. Results of the survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.