WASHINGTON — Consumer confidence climbed in March to the highest level since 2008 as more Americans grew optimistic about the outlook for the world’s largest economy.
The Conference Board’s index increased to 82.3 this month, the highest since January 2008, from a revised 78.3 in February that was stronger than initially estimated, the New York-based private research group said Tuesday.
The share of Americans projecting business conditions would get better over the next six months rose to the highest level since September. A pickup in hiring that drives wage growth would provide a bigger boost to the expansion at the same time warmer temperatures help persuade consumers to return to retailers.
“The weather does naturally lift our spirits and we’re hoping that that also parlays through into consumer spending patterns,” Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc. in Detroit, said before the report. “The consumer-related data, particularly unemployment, has not been quite as bad as maybe some were thinking because of the weather, so I think consumers are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Conference Board’s measure of consumer expectations for the next six months rose to 83.5 in March, the highest since September, from 76.5 a month before. Some 18.1 percent of respondents were more optimistic about business conditions, up from 17.3 percent a month earlier.
While more Americans said they expected more jobs to become available in the next six months, fewer anticipated their incomes would pick up.
“While consumers were moderately upbeat about future job prospects and the overall economy, they were less optimistic about income growth,” Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said in a statement. “Overall, consumers expect the economy to continue improving and believe it may even pick up a little steam in the months ahead.”
Tuesday’s figures stand in contrast to other recent data on consumer sentiment. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of confidence unexpectedly dropped to a four- month low in March.
The Conference Board’s present conditions measure fell for the first time in five months, to 80.4 this month from 81. Consumers were less upbeat about the current labor market.
Some reports last week showed improvement in the economy as temperatures warmed. Fewer Americans sought jobless benefits in March, manufacturing started to rebound and retail sales climbed 0.3 percent.
At the same time, other data showed housing was struggling to pick up. Purchases of previously owned homes declined in February as higher mortgage rates and prices made properties less affordable.
The labor market in February began to rebound from weather- related setbacks as employers added a better-than-expected 175,000 workers to payrolls after a 129,000 increase the prior month, according to data from the Labor Department.
Signs the economy is making progress after the temporary weather-related slowdown early in the first quarter help explain why Federal Reserve policymakers last week reduced monthly asset purchases by another $10 billion beginning in April.