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National Consumer Confidence Grows, Floridians Remain Wary

Consumers in Florida remained wary this past month despite a growing optimism nationally, according to separate measures of consumers’ moods released Tuesday.

Florida’s overall consumer confidence remained unchanged at 69 in December, according to a survey from the University of Florida. Despite a rosier view of things to come, Florida respondents remain spooked by high unemployment and falling housing prices, making them increasingly pessimistic about personal finances, the survey found.

Nationally, the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index rose 2.3 points in December to settle at 52.9, its highest level in two years, the board said Tuesday. The survey, based on interviews with 5,000 households, showed respondents are particularly more hopeful about the future but also remain pessimistic about their current state of affairs, with that indicator remaining at a 26-year low.

The two scales are similar, but not directly equivalent.

Florida economists credit Florida’s stagnant mood to a number of factors, including a continued housing slump and a less dramatic impact from federal efforts to boost spending.

Unemployment also remains a major concern. Continued sluggishness in the building sector pushed Florida's unemployment up to 11.5 percent in November, its highest level since May 1975.

With 284,800 jobs lost over the year, November's rate was 1.5 percentage points higher than November 2009 and 0.2 percentage points higher than October. Adding discouraged workers and those being forced to work part-time, the rate jumps to 18.7 percent, or just over one in five.

Economists predict that Florida’s unemployment rate won’t bottom out until mid 2010 as the state recovers more slowly than others because of its dependence on retail growth, tourism and housing.

Meanwhile, housing sales remain weak, though they are steadily improving. The increase is due in large part to lower prices, though. The median price of a single family home in Florida declined over the past few months from a 2009 high of $148,000 in June to $139,000 in November.

“There are some indications that other parts of the country, particularly those areas surrounding Washington, D.C., are improving while Florida appears to be lagging the economic recovery,” said Chris McCarty, survey director at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “Some states are simply better equipped to benefit from the stimulus dollars; it is far from an equal distribution.”

Nationally, respondents were more optimistic about the next six months than they had been in November, with a growing number saying things will either stay the same or get better. More Americans also feel that the job market will improve in the months ahead as the nation digs its way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“A more optimistic outlook for business and labor market conditions was the driving force behind the increase in the expectations index,” said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board research center. “Regarding income, however, consumers remain rather pessimistic about their short-term prospects and this will likely continue to play a key role in spending decisions in early 2010."

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