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Consumer Confidence Tumbles to 16-Year Low

U.S. consumer sentiment slid to a 16-year low in June while house prices suffered record annual drops in April, according to data on Tuesday that suggested a retrenchment in spending that will keep squelching economic growth.

The Conference Board's monthly survey of consumers showed the overall index of consumers' mood fell to 50.4 in June, the lowest since 47.3 in February 1992.

The index has now dropped by more than half since 111.90 last July, before the housing market troubles triggered the most severe credit crisis in at least a decade.

"To put it in perspective, that's a bigger decline than what we saw after the September 11 attack and Hurricane Katrina," said Dana Saporta, economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Securities.

"It sends out the signal that the consumers are not about to ramp up their spending," he said.

"We worry about the contraction in the economy once the tax rebates dissipate." In addition, the survey showed an index measuring consumer expectations for the future sank to a record low as inflation forecasts matched an all-time high this month.

The inflation threat has been highlighted in the past 24 hours by massive price increases announced by some of the world's largest basic materials conglomerates.

First, mining titan Rio Tinto secured an agreement with China's largest steel maker to nearly double the price Rio gets for iron ore, and rival producer BHP Billiton is expected to follow through with similar price hikes.

Then early on Tuesday, Dow Chemical said it would raise prices up to 25 percent, just weeks after the largest U.S. chemicals maker implemented a 20 percent across-the-board price increase .

U.S. home prices in April, meantime, extended their record annual slumpin April although the pace of decline subsided a bit in the month, according to Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller data.

S&P's 20-city index for April posted a smaller-than-expected 1.4 percent drop from March, but it also slumped by a record 15.3 percent annually and by 17.8 percent since hitting its peak in July 2006.

By another measure, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which gauges prices based on relatively low risk loans purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , said its home price index fell 0.8 percent in April from March for a 4.6 percent annual downturn.

Both housing reports suggest consumers will be less in the mood to ramp up spending any time soon.

However, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said on Tuesday he thought that most of the slump in U.S. housing prices would be over by year end and that growth should be stronger by then.

In an interview on Mexican television, Paulson said the global economy was being strained by costly energy but said U.S. economic fundamentals were sound.

"I feel moderately optimistic that at the end of the year we will have signs of an economic recovery," Paulson said. "Hopefully the biggest part of the housing decline will be over by the end of the year."

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