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Bullish but thrifty U.S. consumers present puzzle

People cross Broadway with shopping bags in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 27, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. consumers, the bedrock of the world's largest economy, are presenting a puzzle for economists and policymakers.

Two gauges due in the coming week are expected to give contrasting signs of their economic health - the University of Michigan's survey on Thursday likely to show sky-high sentiment and retail sales the next day set to reveal only sluggish spending.

"People may be very confident, very happy, but they're not spending their money. That could be an interesting conundrum for the Fed," said senior ING economist James Knightley.

"If the retail sales continue to disappoint you've got to think expectations of, say three Fed hikes from here will start to fade," he added.

U.S. retail sales growth, due out on Friday, is expected at a seven-month low of zero after 0.1 percent in February, when delayed tax refunds and the biggest rise in annual inflation in nearly five years eroded consumer spending.

In an early indication that the weakness extended into March, U.S. automakers' sales figures missed market expectations and gave early evidence that America's long, robust boom cycle for cars may be losing steam.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan survey peaked in January to its highest since 2004 and has dipped only slightly since. A separate gauge from the Conference Board hit a 16-year high in March.

Commerzbank Bernd Weidensteiner said the discrepancy between sentiment or "soft" indicators and "hard" data was also visible among businesses, with high confidence but only very muted order intake.

"Sooner or later the gap will close and the question is from which side... In principle you'd expect hard data to improve in the next couple of quarters given the very robust labour market. Sooner or later it should persuade U.S. consumers to open their wallets more," he said.

Consumer sentiment may be strong partly on expectations of tax cuts from President Donald Trump, although his failure to push Congress into reversing his predecessor's healthcare reforms a week ago shows a major tax reform is not a given.

Commerzbank's own "Trump-o-meter", an assessment of proposed Trump measures, turned negative thereafter.


GERMANY CLOSES HARD/SOFT GAP

The hard/soft discrepancy is not unique to the United States.

In Europe, business sentiment readings for industry and construction in particular have implied annualised growth of some 3 percent and far outstripped real economic performance.

However, data on Friday showed German industrial output surged in February.

"What we got today is a probably faster convergence than we had expected. At least for Germany the hard and soft data are now pretty much aligned," said Christian Schulz, economist at Citi, which responded by raising its forecast for German first quarter economic growth to 0.7 percent from 0.5 percent.

By contrast in the France, industrial output dropped unexpectedly in February, tempering the country's outlook after surprisingly strong business confidence surveys.

Industrial output data for the euro zone will be released on Tuesday, the same day that the April series of sentiment indices begins with the ZEW's gauge of German investor morale.


BRITISH REAL WAGE SQUEEZE

Meanwhile in Britain, more than a week after its Brexit notification, economists are busy looking for signs of softness after unexpected resilience shown since the vote to leave the European Union last June.

Industrial output dipped by 0.7 percent in February, data showed on Friday, worse than all forecasts and suggesting manufacturers are not making up for a consumer spending slowdown with exports driven by the weaker pound.

The coming week brings inflation data on Tuesday and average earnings figures on Wednesday. Average earnings growth, excluding bonuses, has exceeded inflation since mid-2014, but data released a month ago showed the gap dropped to zero.

"We suspect we're going to start to see inflation overtake wage growth. That could be the first real evidence that Brexit is going to be acting as a brake on the economy," said ING's Knightley.

Inflation could jump above 3 percent by the end of the year, with wage growth more like 2-2.5 percent. Knightley sees a risk that an income squeeze will rein in consumer spending, which makes up some two-thirds of the British economy.



(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by John Stonestreet)