Consumer confidence unexpectedly retreated this month to 52.5 from a revised 54.3 in November, according to a release today from the Conference Board, a private industry group. Economists, likely looking at the same data as the President’s economic advisors, were expecting an uptick to 56, according to a survey by Reuters. Falling home prices and uncertainty about unemployment caught the blame for the surprise.
No sitting U.S. President was ever re-elected with this particular reading of consumer confidence in the 50s, points out Andy Busch of BMO Capital Markets. The survey, which neared a record 150 amid the technology bull market and Bill Clinton years in the late 1990s, was in the 50 to 60 range ahead of George H.W. Bush’s failed re-election and Jimmy Carter’s failed bid.
This makes President Obama’s choice for his top economic adviser all the more important when he returns from vacation next week. To be fair to the President and his departing top adviser Lawrence Summers, the consumer index has come a long way on their watch, having reached an abysmal reading of 25 at the start of this year. Still, this unexpected retreat in confidence should concern the President as he makes his decision for his next economic guru, investors said.
"He can pick someone to replace Summers who is pro-business with real world experience to continue to help guide policy towards job creation or he can send the wrong message," said Busch, BMO’s global currency and public policy strategist. "Obama’s made excellent strides with the tax plan, now he needs to be bold with tax reform."
This month, President Obama took the lead on pushing a tax package through Congress that included an extension of President Bush’s tax cuts on income, capital gains and dividends for all taxpayers, as well as a payroll tax cut and incentives for business spending. On Dec. 15, he met with various CEOs at the White House to discuss ideas that would jumpstart the economy in the New Year and get companies to start spending again.
The stock market, often considered the ultimate barometer for the economic health and confidence of a nation, is up big during President Obama’s tenure so far. The S&P 500 has climbed more than 40 percent since Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009. Still, the benchmark remains 20 percent below its record close posted in 2007.
But if history is any guide, it will take more than just getting the stock market moving to get re-elected. That’s because the equity market influences just one segment of the population, while employment and housing affects the whole country.
"The ‘haves’ are greatly outpacing the ‘have-nots’ because confidence for the ‘haves’ is being lifted by stock market gains, while confidence for the ‘have nots’ is being hampered by an unemployment rate that is much higher than the national average," wrote Ellen Beeson Zentner, economist for The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York, after the confidence release.
"For households making less than $24K a year, which are more likely to have less than a high school diploma, the unemployment rate was 15.7 percent in November."
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John Melloy is the Executive Producer of Fast Money. Before joining CNBC, he was an editor for Bloomberg News, overseeing the U.S. Stock Market coverage team.