Consumers More Upbeat, but Surveys See Trouble Spots

Consumers are feeling a bit more upbeat, according to several new surveys. But will the good vibes last?

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Both Principal Financial's Well Being Indexand Consumer Reports' Consumer Sentiment Index showed consumers were less worried about their finances. However, it should be noted that there remains a risk that the unrest in the Middle East and the subsequent surge in gasoline prices will reverse this trend.

Through Harris Interactive, Principal Financial conducted its research for the Principal Well-Being Index between Jan. 26 and Feb. 4, and found financial concerns eased among the consumers they polled.

The number of workers expressing concern about their long-term financial future dropped 11 percentage points from 72 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 61 percent this quarter.

Retirees also were more upbeat, with 43 percent saying they are extremely happy about their current financial well-being, up from 36 percent in the prior quarter.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports' index posted its most positive results in two years. The index broke into positive territory at 50.3, up from 48.7 a month ago. This was the first time sentiment was positive since Consumer Reports began tracking it in October 2008.

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What's encouraging is that the Consumer Reports study is a fresher look at consumer feelings, with the survey conducted between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27. By that time, it was already clear that Libyans were revolting against their leader Muammar Gaddafi, and oil prices had started their upward push.

The survey also looks at a number of financial issues consumers can face, and it found broad improvement in most areas, and the two trouble spots they turned up weren't that surprising—the lack of new jobs and an increase in missed mortgage payments.

These surveys, coupled with measures of what consumers actually are doing, are encouraging even in the face of stubbornly high unemployment and a shaky housing market.

For example, US consumer credit rose for a fourth straight monthin January as households took on debt to pay for big ticket items such as cars. That likely means consumers are feeling more confident about their ability to pay off these longer-term loans.

Also, so-called revolving, or credit-card credit, fell. This showed that consumers have gone back to deleveraging after splurging during the Christmas holiday period.

The Principal survey also focuses on attitudes and plans regarding retirement savings, and the findings there raise a few concerns. Less than a third of the employees surveyed say they are saving enough money in order to live comfortably in retirement.

A separate survey, also released Tuesday, showed Americans are very anxious regarding their retirement. That study, released by the National Institute of Retirement Security showed that 73 percent of Baby Boomers feel that stock market volatility makes it impossible to predict how much they will have in their retirement nest egg. And 78 percent believe the average worker cannot save enough on their own to guarantee retirement.

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