WASHINGTON -- Consumer confidence plunged in November to its lowest level since the recession of 1982, according to a survey by the Conference Board released yesterday, renewing bond market expectations that the Federal Reserve will move again soon to trim short-term rates.
The board's widely watched index of consumer confidence tumbled from 60.1 in October to 50.6, more than three points below the lowest reading recorded during the 1982 recession.
A separate survey produced by the University of Michigan that circulated in financial markets yesterday also showed consumer confidence took a spill in November.
Private economists said the reports, along with other recent government statistics, reinforced their view that the U.S. economy is close to foundering again and will require further assistance from the Fed. There was also renewed speculation that sooner or later the Fed will have to slash the discount rate again as a public sign of support for reluctant consumers.
"We're headed into the fourth quarter with virtually no momentum in the industrial sector or in consumer spending," said Lyle Gramley, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. "Further declines in interest rates, perhaps significant declines, are needed to sustain the recovery, and it's up to the Fed to lead the way."
Mr. Gramley said he expects the Fed will move before Christmas to trim the federal funds rate from 4.75% to 4.5%, and he said there is a better than ever chance Fed policymakers will follow with a reduction in the discount rate from 4.5% to 4%.
Mr. Gramley estimates U.S. gross national product in the current quarter will be up between zero and 1% -- virtually no growth at all.
"We're seeing some shocking numbers on the economy," said Michael Moran, chief economist for Daiwa Securities America Inc. Mr. Moran estimates current-quarter GNP will be up only 0.7%, and he predicts one and possibly two more moves by the Fed to trim short-term rates.
Economists and Fed officials attach a lot of importance to consumer confidence as a sign of what will happen to personal spending, which accounts for two-thirds of total GNP. The only caveat in the latest figures, several said, was that they may have overstated the case for weakness in the economy by also reflecting public disgruntlement over the political scrapping between Congress and the Bush administration.
Even routine legislation such as extended jobless benefits, highway transportation, and banking have been caught up in partisan politics, said Mr. Gramley. "People are fed up with what they see as ineptitude in Washington, and that is part of the mood among consumers and in financial markets."
The drop in the Conference Board index to 50.6 was the second steep monthly fall in a row, following a decline from 72.9 to 60.1 in October. Before then, the index generally held steady throughout the summer as the economy appeared to be on the mend with the conclusion of the war in the Persian Gulf.
"The sharp decline in consumer confidence over the past two months cuts across all segments of the population -- all age groups, all income brackets, and all regions of the country," said Fabian Linden, executive director of the Conference Board's consumer research center. "This is the classical profile of recession."
The drop in the November index apparently stemmed from growing worries by consumers about job security, said Mr. Linden. "On the survey questions concerning employment, pessimists outnumber optimists by an increasingly wide margin. The recent surge in unemployment insurance claims lends credibility to this assessment."
Last week the Labor Department reported initial jobless claims rose to 493,000, the highest level since April 20. Economists said they expect the November unemployment report, due out Dec. 6, to show continuing stagnation in labor markets.
In the Conference Board survey, 49% of all respondents agreed that present business conditions are "bad," up from 40.7% in October. Only 4.8% reported that jobs were "hard jobs as "plentiful," and 48% reported that jobs were "hard to get."
In looking ahead to the next six months, expectations for business conditions, job opportunities, and growth in income all showed marked deterioration, the survey says.
In discussing buying plans, only 6.1% of those surveyed said they plan to buy a car in the next six months, down from 7.5% in October. And despite lower interest rates, only 2.7% of the respondents said they plan to purchase a home, down from 3.3%. Plans to buy a major appliance remained essentially unchanged at 28.2%.