Thu, Feb 22, 2001 EST
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Confidence Down, But Not Out
By John Cunniff   Associated Press
NEW YORK — The confidence of the American household is something to behold.

Even if it did slip in December on the cold reality of an impending sharp economic slowdown, it remains high as a kite in spring.

This in spite of a stock market that since last March has subtracted $1.9 trillion from household wealth, a sum that in earlier years would have been incomprehensible, even in terms of the federal budget.

The blow hasn't exactly been shrugged off, but in other years it might have been a fatal blow. In 2000, however, there were few if any signs of panic. And only in December did the worries clearly manifest themselves.

The wealth decline began last March, but sales of new and existing homes continued at record-high levels. For the second year in a row car and light truck sales exceeded 17 million units.

And investors kept investing.

The public did pull back some in December, when retailer expectations weren't met. But what could retailers have expected, when the stock market decline alone had taken nearly $50 billion out of consumer spending.

That $50 billion sum was a huge bite out of the so-called wealth effect, the factor that, as so many economists explained, allowed people to feel secure about borrowing and spending even as they failed to save.

The $50 billion figure, calculated by Standard & Poor's economist David A. Wyss, is based on what he estimates is the propensity of households to consume wealth at a 2.5 percent rate. And even with that much cut out, retail sales didn't decline — only failed to meet hopes.

Even today, Wyss points out, consumer sentiment is at a higher level than at any time before 1999. Currently, the University of Michigan survey is in the high 90s. In the past, pre-recession readings were in the 70s.

And now, perhaps as unrealistically optimistic as the earlier beliefs that the economy would expand indefinitely, ordinary folks are looking for signs of an upturn. Even before a soft landing is achieved.

Specifically: expectations of a tax cut, confidence that the Federal Reserve will lower interest rates, signs of bottom-fishing in stocks, continued interest in real estate, and borrowing to sustain life styles.

And those consumers who delve deeply into the economic numbers might even be encouraged by the realization that, while the economy has lost its bullish power, it may still be expanding, albeit at a slowed rate.

Wyss, for one, cites a slowdown from a 5.1 percent expansion rate in 2000 to perhaps 2.7 percent in 2001 as enough to cause real pain.

But others might prefer to observe that such a slowdown would still be an expansion rather than a contraction. And that what we call a slowdown today is about the average expansion that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.

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