Clouds Part, Sun Shines On Economy

Economy on the Rise, Generic
American consumers felt a lot better in April after the quick victory in Iraq, the Conference Board said Tuesday.

The consumer confidence index jumped to 81.0 in April from 61.4 in March, the largest one-month gain since March 1991, when the first Gulf War concluded.

Attitudes about both the present and the future improved markedly.

"The swift outcome in the Middle East has helped quell consumers' short term concerns," said Lynn Franco, an economist at the board.

The present situation index rose to 75.3 in April from 61.4 in March.The expectations index jumped to 84.8 in April from 61.4 in March, also the largest one-month gain since the first Gulf War.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush "welcomes" the consumer confidence report but remains worried about "mixed" economic signals.

Fleischer said the president is concerned about unemployment and other "lagging" indicators, CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer reports.

In a related development, U.S. workers' wages and benefits rose by a brisk 1.3 percent in the first three months of 2003, the biggest increase in nearly 13 years, even as businesses struggled with the lackluster economy.

The increase in the employment cost index for the January to March quarter was nearly twice as big as the 0.7 rise posted in the fourth quarter of 2002, the Labor Department reported.

Although companies have been keeping work forces lean to deal with the uneven economy, they are providing workers who are still on the payrolls more generous compensation packages. That's good news for the ranks of the employed but can be a potential strain on some profit-pressed companies.

Tuesday's report showed employment costs growing more quickly than the 0.8 percent advance that economists expected.

The 1.3 percent rise registered in the first quarter was the largest increase since the second quarter of 1990, when compensation went up by the same amount.

The costs of benefits, such as health insurance and vacations, continued to outpace wage gains.

Benefit costs rose by a sizable 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2003, following a 1.3 percent advance in the prior quarter. The increase in benefit costs in the first quarter was the largest in 15 years.

Wages and salaries rose by a solid 1 percent in the first quarter, twice as fast as the 0.5 percent increase recorded in the fourth quarter. It marked the largest gain in wages and salaries since the first quarter of 2001, when they rose by the same amount.

That's encouraging because income growth is the fuel for future spending by consumers, the main force that has been keeping the economy going.

Consumers have been keeping their pocketbooks and wallet sufficiently open to support economic growth, but businesses have been cautious amid the muddled economic climate.

Coping with lackluster profits and uneven demand from customers, businesses have been reluctant to increase capital spending and go on a hiring spree, major factors restraining economic growth.

Economists believe the nation's unemployment rate will nudge up to 5.9 percent in April, from 5.8 percent in March. The government releases the employment report for April on Friday.

Even if the economy starts improving a bit later this year, the jobless rate probably will creep up because job growth won't be strong enough to accommodate the expectation that an improved climate will attract a lot more job seekers, economists say.