US consumer sentiment rises (but it's really stalling)

Don Ryan/AP
As gas prices rise at this Chevron station in Beaverton, Ore., and around the US, consumers may trim their spending more, economists say.

American consumers' mood brightened in June, according to a new report, but the improvement was slight, mirroring the economy's own sluggishness.

Consumer sentiment, as measured by Reuters/University of Michigan, rose to 69 in June, its fourth monthly rise in a row and its highest level since September. As consumer mood swings go, the closely watched index suggests that Americans are a third of the way back from their plunge to pessimism between January 2007 to November 2008, when the index hit its low of 55.3.

But now that swing toward optimism looks to be losing momentum. June's 69 was barely above May's 68.7 and not that much improved from April's 65.1.

"While above its November low, this measure of consumer sentiment nonetheless remains severely depressed," wrote MFR economist Joshua Shapiro in an analysis Friday. "This is hardly surprising in view of all the headwinds facing the consumer, none of which are likely to abate anytime soon."

That's the big question mark for the economy, too. If all that's happening is a weakening of the recession, what will actually push the economy forward?Ominously, the survey's index of consumers' expectations about the future fell for the first time in four months, pointed out Paul Dales of Toronto-based Capital Economics.

"We fear that the rise in gasoline prices and the prospect of more falls in employment and incomes mean that households will need to further curtail their spending," he wrote in an analysis. "The danger is that confidence might already be suffering a double-dip."

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