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Retail Therapy: Are Consumers Buying Their Way Out of Misery?

The Conference Board's latest read on consumer confidence was downright depressing.

Shopper with Bloomingdales Bags
AP
Shopper with Bloomingdales Bags

The Consumer Confidence index fell to 44.5 in August. The bigger-than-expected decline was the lowest reading since April 2009, when the economy was still in a recession.

However, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist John Dennerlein said there may be some good news about consumer spending buried inside the report.

"We find that consumers' buying attitudes do not reflect their confidence levels," he wrote in a research note.

Consider this:

  • More consumers—12.9 percent in August versus 11.9 percent in July—plan to purchase automobiles over the next six months.
  • For the first time since September 2010, more than half of the respondents plan to buy a major household appliance.
  • The number of respondents who plan to take a vacation rose noticeably to 46.8.

"There is clearly a disconnect between the headline consumer confidence figure and the other details in this report," Dennerlein said.

"We shouldn't be seeing more consumers planning to take more vacations or purchase large household items if they truly thought that another recession was on its way," he said.

So if you believe consumers are depressed, perhaps they are trying to exercise some "retail therapy" to lift their spirits.

Or perhaps, as Dennerlein argues, the sour mood reflected in the report is an outgrowth of the frustration over the political wrangling during the debt ceiling debate and Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Christina Cheddar Berk on Twitter @ccheddarberk.

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