GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jan. 30, 2013 – Florida’s consumer confidence dipped to 75, down one point from a revised reading of 76 in December, according to a monthly University of Florida (UF) survey.
Consumer confidence has been more or less flat since the November election because of improving economic conditions and Congress’ delay handing the federal government’s fiscal problems, says Chris McCarty, director of UF’s Survey Research Center in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Responses to the five survey components used to reflect confidence were mixed. When asked if they are better off financially than a year ago, survey takers’ overall response showed a three-point decline to 59. However, expectations that their own personal finances will improve by this time next year rose one point to 77.
Faith in the U.S. economy over the coming year was unchanged at 76, while the outlook on economic conditions for the next five years fell two points to 76.
Finally, opinions about whether it’s a good time to buy expensive retail goods, such as televisions, rose one point to 87.
January may have seen a modest dip in confidence, but McCarty says there could have been a big decline if Washington had failed to avert the fiscal cliff. While Congress put off major action, however, it did raise taxes on incomes exceeding $400,000 a year by reverting to Clinton-era tax levels. It also repealed the payroll tax cut, although it may take Floridians a while to notice the change in their paychecks.
McCarty says the higher taxes for upper income levels might explain why consumer confidence decreased by seven points for Florida’s more affluent households even as it rose five points for those making less than $30,000.
“So far there have been no changes to Social Security and Medicare, which is reflected in an increase in confidence among seniors by three points,” McCarty says. Other mixed economic trends were also under way. Florida’s unemployment rate declined again in December by one-tenth of a percent to 8 percent, ending the year only slightly higher than the national 7.8 percent rate.
“Although much of the drop in unemployment in 2012 was due to a decline in the labor force, there have been some real gains,” McCarty says. “For example, across the U.S. jobless claims fell unexpectedly last week, another indication that the U.S. and Florida economy is on the mend.”
The stock market also hit a post-recession high. The housing market is improving, too.
“Some areas of Florida are actually experiencing shortages of existing homes, leading to increased construction,” McCarty says. In fact, Floridians saw the median price of a single-family home increase to $154,000 in December, almost matching its 2008 value. Though overall housing prices remain far below its peak in June 2006, it has increased substantially since bottoming out, thus helping many Florida homeowners who were “underwater in their mortgages.” Gas prices are rising but may fall as U.S. supplies improve.
Despite these positive indicators, consumer confidence may decline in February as consumers begin to notice the effect of a return to pre-stimulus payroll tax levels, a change in withholding from 4.2 to 6.2 percent, McCarty says. In March, Congress also will confront $109 billion in scheduled cuts it postponed in January. If the cuts are finally made, federal agencies will possibly compensate for them quickly with layoffs, furloughs, and cuts in services and grants.
“While sequestration would hit other areas of the country, such as the Washington, D.C., area, more than Florida, no state will be unaffected,” McCarty says.
The index used by UF researchers is benchmarked to 1966, which means a value of 100 represents the same level of confidence for that year. The lowest index possible is a 2; the highest is 150.
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