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RBC Consumer Outlook Index Shows U.S. Consumer Confidence Declining In July

Post-recession, Americans continue to spend less, bargain-shop, according to RBC.

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NEW YORK — After improving last month to its highest level since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, U.S. consumer confidence resumed its roller-coaster ride and sagged in July, as measured by the RBC Consumer Outlook Index. According to the Index, consumer confidence declined to 43.7 for July, down 3 points from the 46.7 reading in June.

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Americans continue to be frugal – a trend that began during the last recession, according to a survey of 1,000 Americans conducted for the RBC Consumer Outlook Index. Overwhelming numbers of consumers say they are spending the same or less than they did last year – 42 percent say that they spent the same amount in the first half of the year as they did last year while 47 percent say that they spent less. Looking ahead, most (93 percent) plan to keep to the same spending patterns in the second half of 2011 or cut back even more (43 and 50 percent respectively).

More than one-in-four Americans (28 percent) shifted to shopping at lower-priced stores during the recession and are still shopping there, compared to only eight percent who shifted to discounters but have since switched back to their usual shopping sites. One-third (37 percent) say that they have always used lower-price stores and a quarter (27 percent) never shifted from their preferred stores.

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“The overall trend in consumer confidence since it bottomed out early in 2009 has been positive, but the improvements have been erratic. After a solid rally last month, the RBC Consumer Outlook Index for July saw across-the-board declines, with decreases in all of the sub-indices, indicating the continued fragility of the national psyche,” said RBC Capital Markets Chief U.S. Economist Tom Porcelli. “Americans continue to doubt the overall health of the economy, and we are unlikely to see a sustained, robust rebound in confidence until they have enough positive news to change their minds.”

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Despite the decline in the RBC Consumer Outlook Index, positive trends are present in the data, the firm indicated. The number of consumers expecting gas prices to rise in the next year has fallen to 67 percent, the lowest point since the survey started tracking this question. In addition, actual experience with job losses remains unchanged from last month, at 38 percent. This remains the best score on this metric observed since 2008.

Although actual job losses remained stable, the Jobs Sub-Index dipped to 52.8 this month, down 1.9 points from 54.7 in June, and has once again slipped below its historical mean of 53.9. The decline was partially driven by a slight decrease in the number of consumers (40 percent) who say that it is not likely that they or someone they know will lose their job in the next six months, compared to 44 percent last month.

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This month’s drop in the RBC Consumer Outlook Index is driven partly by a weaker Current Conditions Sub-Index, which dipped 3.4 points to 33.4, from 36.8 in June. Half of Americans (48 percent) say they are less comfortable making a major purchasing decision, such as a home or car, than they were six months ago.

The Investments Sub-Index dropped 4.7 points to 36.3, down from 41 in June. Only 14 percent of Americans think it is a good time to invest in the stock market over the next month and half (51 percent) do not think it is a good time to invest.

The Consumer Expectations Sub-Index also declined this month to 53.1, down 3.5 points from 56.6 in June. Looking ahead six months from now, just 23 percent of Americans expect their personal finances will be stronger than they are today, down from 30 percent in June.

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Consumers remain uncertain about the state of the U.S. economy overall. Roughly as many believe that the economy will improve in the next year (25 percent) as think it will get worse (28 percent). In addition, 63 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, compared to 62 percent last month, while 37 percent say it is headed in the right direction.

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