Consumer confidence hits 4½-year record

WASHINGTON — U.S. consumer confidence rose this month to its highest level in almost five years, helped by a better outlook for hiring over the next six months.

The Conference Board said Tuesday that its consumer confidence index rose to 73.7 in November from 73.1 in October. Both are the best readings since February 2008.

The index is still below the level of 90 that is consistent with a healthy economy. It last reached that point in December 2007, the first month of the Great Recession. But the index has increased from the all-time low of 25.3 touched in February 2009.

Higher consumer confidence could translate into a more robust holiday shopping season and stronger economic growth. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic activity.

The report also supported the findings of a separate survey from the University of Michigan released last week, which showed consumer sentiment at a five-year high. Still, both surveys increased at slower rates than the previous month.

Americans are growing more optimistic because they see the job market improving, the Conference Board said. Employers added 171,000 jobs in October and more jobs were created in August and September than first thought.

The Conference Board surveyed approximately 2,500 households in the first two weeks of the month. Those surveyed were asked how they felt about the economy and job market now, as well as where they see both going in six months. They were also asked if they planned to make a major purchase or take a vacation in the next six months.

The survey found that most people viewed current conditions the same as in October. But the percentage of Americans who expect more jobs to be available in the next six months rose to 20.3 percent, from 19.7 percent in October.

And the percentage of Americans who say jobs are “plentiful” rose to 11.2 percent from 10.4 percent in the previous month. That’s the highest level in four years and a good sign for hiring this month.

More Americans said they plan to buy a home, an appliance or take a vacation, the survey found. About 6.9 percent said they planned to buy a home, the highest on record. But the percentage expecting to buy a car fell.

Confidence among households earning $50,000 and higher slipped to 88 from 91.7 in October. But among the poorest households, those earning less than $15,000, confidence jumped to 56.2 from 50.2.

Many of the participants in the Michigan survey said they expect the unemployment rate to drop over the next six months. Still, some expressed concerns about the “fiscal cliff,” a package of sharp tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect next year unless Congress and the White House can replace them. The tax increases would leave consumers with much less money to spend.

A better housing market may also be contributing to consumers’ better mood.

Standard &Poor’s/Case-Shiller reported Tuesday that its 20-city index of home prices rose 3 percent in September compared with the same month last year. Prices also gained 3.6 percent in the July-September quarter compared with the same quarter in 2011.

Across the nation, prices increased in 18 of 20 cities over the 12-month period.

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