US consumer confidence likely stayed at high levels in March

Markets Associated Press

The Conference Board releases its March index on U.S. consumer confidence Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern.

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HIGH SPIRITS: Economists expect the consumer confidence index to rise slightly to 96.5 in March from 96.4 in February, according to a survey by FactSet. The results can't match January's 103.8 but remain near the highest levels since before the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

Healthy confidence reflects improvements in the economy. Over the past year, employers have added nearly 3.3 million jobs, fastest 12-month pace of hiring since 1998. The Commerce Department reported Monday that American incomes rose a solid 0.4 percent in February, matching January's uptick, a sign that wages may be beginning to grow again after long period of stagnation.

Consumers are certainly acting more confident: Their spending rose at a 4.4 percent annual rate from October through December, fastest pace in eight years.

LEVELING OFF: Still, confidence has leveled after rising sharply at the start of the year. Pressing down a bit on consumers' spirits: nasty winter weather and rebounding gasoline prices. The University of Michigan reported last week that its consumer sentiment index slipped in March from February, partly because gasoline prices have risen from a low of $2.03 a gallon in late February to $2.42 a gallon, according to AAA. Still, gasoline prices are still down from $3.55 a gallon a year ago.