MONEY

Walletnomics: Will confidence run out of gas?

According to two leading surveys of our collective financial mood we have been feeling less pessimistic these days. The latest Reuters/University of Michigan consumer survey for June shows a slight uptick to 69 from 68.7. And at the end of May the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index clocked in with another strong gain, rising to 54.9 from 40.8 in April. Now of course, that’s still far from optimistic; back in October 2007 when the stock market hit its peak, the Conference Board survey registered 95.2; so we’re still about 45% below our most recent confidence high.

Given that our spending is a key green shoot, our confidence matters big time. And though well off the highs, the trend toward more confidence is good news. But we could be in line for a relapse. Just in time for summer drive time, the average price of gas is up to $2.69 a gallon (for regular) , a 65% rise from its Jan ’09 level, and a full 10% more than what we paid over Memorial Day weekend. Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, noted in a recent blog post that we’re now spending $1.01 billion a day for gas, compared to $600 million or so at the beginning of the year. The question of whether that starts to impact consumer confidence and spending depends on your frame of reference. Yes, prices are a lot higher today than they were in January, but they are also way below the July 2008 peak of $4.11 a gallon. No one is predicting $4 a gallon — at least not anytime soon — but nor are we going to see a return to $1.65 a gallon (the average winter low) either.

The recent uptick in mortgage rates is also causing wallet pain for potential refinancers (the bulk of the market right now). Two weeks ago, when the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage suddenly spiked from 5.23% to 5.45%, the hope was that the Federal Reserve would kick into high gear to
push rates back down.
) So far, no go on that front. The 30-year fixed rate has yet to fall back much; after hitting 5.7% last week it has now eased a bit to 5.5%; but that’s still about 70 basis points higher than in April. Refinance at today’s rate and you’ll end up owing about $1,500 more a year in mortgage costs (on a $300,000 loan) than someone who closed the deal back in April.

And it’s not as if we’re banking on rising incomes to cover these rising costs; according to that recent Conference Board survey, just 10% or respondents said they expect their income to increase in the coming months. So how’s your confidence faring these days?

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