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Consumer sentiment in U.S. rises to almost 8-year high

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(Bloomberg) — Americans’ confidence rose in December to an almost eight-year high, pointing to a pickup in holiday-related purchases.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary December index of consumer sentiment increased to 93.8, the highest since January 2007, from 88.8 last month. The median projection in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for an increase to 89.5.

Gasoline prices approaching $2.50 a gallon on average are freeing up disposable income at just the right time for merchants during their busiest time of the year. Consumer optimism about the economy, also spurred by hiring and wage growth, indicates further spending gains after a November retail sales increase that was the strongest in eight months.

“Everything is pointing in the right direction for the consumer,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics NA in Toronto, who predicted the confidence index would rise to 94. “We expect a pretty good run for consumption growth in the fourth quarter. It is a big boost for the economy.”

The consumer sentiment index averaged 89 in the five years before December 2007, when the last recession began. And it averaged 64.2 in the 18-month contraction that followed.

The Michigan Index’s gauge of current conditions, which measures Americans’ views of their personal finances, increased to 105.7, the highest since February 2007, from 102.7, today’s data showed.

Consumer Expectations

The gauge of Americans’ expectations about the economy six months from now rose to 86.1 in December, also the strongest since January 2007, from 79.9 last month. It marked the biggest one-month gain since May 2013.

Consumers in the survey forecast the annual inflation rate will increase to 2.9 percent five years from now, rebounding from a five-year low of 2.6 percent in November.

Stocks fell, while commodity producers led European equities to their worst week since 2012 as crude oil extended declines below $60 a barrel. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.5 percent to 2,024.81 at 10:21 a.m. in New York.

Today’s figures corroborate Bloomberg’s measure. The weekly Consumer Comfort Index last week climbed to the highest level since 2007. Measures on the economy and buying climate were also the strongest in seven years.

The Conference Board’s gauge, which unexpectedly fell in November to a five-month low, also showed a pickup in purchase intentions as the holiday-shopping season got under way. Retail Sales

Data yesterday from the Commerce Department showed that retail sales rose 0.7 percent in November as consumers used some of the money saved at the gas pump to purchase electronics, clothing and furniture.

Last month’s gain was the biggest since March and followed a 0.5 percent advance in October that was larger than previously estimated. Demand improved in 11 of 13 major store categories.

“There aren’t many negatives,” Ashworth said. “Labor market conditions are improving rapidly. The unemployment rate is coming down. Gasoline prices are falling, which helps the consumer.”

Stronger demand has coincided with the largest advance in employment in almost three years. The 321,000 advance in November payrolls followed a 243,000 gain that was stronger than initially reported by the Labor Department. The gain in hiring extended from factories to retailers, while average hourly earnings climbed the most since June of last year.

Wholesale Prices

Falling energy costs are pushing down inflation pressures. Wholesale prices in November fell more than forecast, according to a Labor Department report today. The 0.2 percent drop in the producer-price index followed a 0.2 percent gain in the prior month. Costs were up 1.4 percent over the past 12 months, the smallest gain since February.

The figures come as Federal Reserve officials prepare to meet next week to weigh the timing of the first interest-rate increase since 2006.

The average nationwide cost of a gallon of regular fuel was $2.60 yesterday, the cheapest since 2009 and down from a high this year in April of $3.70, according to figures from AAA, the nation’s biggest auto group.

Cheaper gasoline will likely benefit lower-income households the most because they spend a larger share of their pay on fuel, said Xiao Cui, a U.S. economic research analyst at Credit Suisse Securities in New York. “We should be able to see a positive effect on consumer spending in other categories outside of gasoline,” Cui said.

–With assistance from Shobhana Chandra and Kristy Scheuble in Washington.