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Ahead of the Bell: Consumer confidence seen rising

Anne d'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Economists believe consumers' confidence ticked up between August and September during the roller coaster economic recovery.

They expect the private research group The Conference Board to report that its monthly consumer confidence index will be at 63.0 in September, compared with 60.6 in August, according to FactSet.

The indicator is watched closely because consumer spending, including major purchases like health care, accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

The Conference Board will release its report Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern.

The report is based on a survey conducted Sept. 1 to Sept. 13 with about 500 randomly selected people nationwide.

Despite several brief spikes, the index remains well below the 90 reading that indicates a healthy economy — a level it hasn't reached since the recession began in December 2007. But it's far above the level of 40 reached in October 2011 and the all-time low of 25.3 reached in February 2009.

Since the beginning of the year, the index has wavered, falling in January and rising in February, before falling for four straight months. It rose again in July. The reading dropped in August to the lowest level since last November.

The yo-yo confidence comes as the U.S. economy is struggling to grow and add jobs

One piece of encouraging news: a jump in the stock market and rising home prices are bringing Americans closer to regaining the wealth they lost in the recession, according to the latest report on household wealth.

U.S. household net worth dipped in the April-June quarter, according to a Federal Reserve report released this month. But gains in stocks and home equity since the last quarter ended have likely raised total household wealth to within 5 percent of its peak before the Great Recession.

The increased overall wealth could give many people and businesses the confidence to increase spending particular during the crucial holiday season.

The housing market is becoming a bright spot in the economic recovery. Sales of previously occupied homes jumped in August to the highest level in two years, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. The market has been helped by steady price increases and rock-bottom mortgage rates, which fell again last week. The latest report offers more evidence of steady progress in the housing market after years of stagnation. New-home sales are up, builder confidence is at its highest level in more than six years, and increases in home prices appear to be sustainable

But hiring, which has languished since this past winter, has been a big concern. American employers cut back sharply on hiring last month, dousing hopes that the job market was improving. According to the recent report from the Labor Department, employers added just 96,000 jobs in August, down from 141,000 in July and too few to keep up with population growth. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent, but only because many people gave up their job search, so they were no longer counted as unemployed.

Another worry is that gas prices, which had fallen sharply from a peak of $3.94 in early April, started to surge again during the summer. Prices have started declining again, but motorists shouldn't expect the numbers at the pump to drop quickly this fall. The average price for gasoline slipped about 2.5 cents over the weekend to $3.808 per gallon, according to a daily survey from AAA, Wright Express and the Oil Price Information Service.

Against this background, shoppers are buying when they see a big bargain or when they need something.

Merchants generally had a good August, but spending was fueled by buying necessities like backpacks and jeans to outfit their children for the back-to-school shopping season. Analysts see shoppers taking a pause before the holiday period officially kicks off in November.