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Americans' loss of confidence: Worse even than it looks

June 25, 2008 |  3:00 am

Like a hypnotherapist, the Federal Reserve keeps trying to talk us into an economic recovery.

"You will not need lower interest rates to feel better," Chairman Ben S. Bernanke tell us in so many words -- something he and his fellow Fedsters are likely to repeat again today as they gather and, almost certainly, hold their benchmark rate at the current 2%.

But the latest survey of consumer confidence shows that the Fed's relatively hopeful message isn't registering. Americans feel downright terrible about the economy as it is, and their expectations for the near future are even more depressed, according to the Conference Board's June consumer confidence report, issued Tuesday.

The overall confidence index, derived from questionnaires sent to 5,000 families, fell to 50.4 this month, down from 58.1 in May and the lowest since 1992.

Nixon Worse, the expectations index in the survey -- how people figure things will look in six months -- dropped literally off the chart, to 41.0. That was the lowest figure in the 40 years of the survey, and broke through the previous low of 45.2 reached in December 1973 -- just as the economy was beginning to plunge into recession from the effects of the surge in oil prices that followed the Arab embargo announced that fall.

But something else in the latest survey really disturbed Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's consumer research center in New York, she tells me: The percentage of people who expect their income to drop in the next six months jumped to a record 15.9%. Even in December 1973, when consumers' overall expectations for the economy were dismal, only 10.8% expected their income to decline in the following six months.

Just 12.3% of consumers are expecting a rise in income over the next six months, compared with 19.4% a year ago.

It's true that consumer spending hasn't collapsed in recent months, thanks in large part to the federal tax rebate checks most families received. But once that money is gone, how do you have a consumer-led economic recovery in the second half with so many people feeling so bad about the big picture and about their personal financial situations?

Would lower interest rates help at this point? Maybe not. But in times of serious trouble it's always better for the Fed to have more bullets in the gun than fewer -- and right now, with its key rate at 2%, there aren't many bullets left.

What's more, with energy and food price inflation showing no signs of abating, Bernanke and other Fed officials have been talking in recent weeks about the need to begin raising interest rates as early as this fall to beat back price pressures.

Hike rates on consumers who are struggling to fill their gas tanks and have enough cash left over for groceries? It's true that quite a few other central banks around the world already have taken that unpopular policy route this year. But they're operating in economies that, for the most part, still are growing at a healthy pace.

The U.S. economy, by contrast, may not officially be in recession, but as Franco put it, never mind the terminology -- "to the consumer right now it feels like a recession."

Photo: And they thought they had it bad! President Nixon, right, listens to his energy policy advisor, John A. Love, in November 1973, one month after the Arab oil embargo was announced. Credit: John Duricka / Associated Press