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Nov 25, 11:30 AM EST

More optimism among middle class buoys US consumer sentiment

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Americans were more optimistic about their incomes and personal finances this month, particularly among lower and middle-class households, lifting consumers' outlook.

The University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index, released Wednesday, rose to 91.3 in November from 90 in the previous month. That is close to the average for the past six months of 91.6.

Steady hiring and rising wages and salaries are slowly lifting Americans' confidence in the economy, though it remains muted by historical standards. The modest increase suggests consumers could spend more over the coming holiday shopping period.

Among lower and middle-income households, 38 percent expect their personal finances to improve in the coming year, compared with just 29 percent of higher-income households. The outlook for wealthier families appears to have been tempered by recent swings in the stock market.

The report included some cautionary signs for retailers as the winter holiday shopping season gets under way. Consumers at all income levels appear intensely focused on discounts and bargains.

"The insistence of consumers on discounts in prices has rarely been greater in the more than half-century history of the surveys," Richard Curtin, chief economist of the survey, said. The data "indicate the indelible impact that the Great Recession has had in making consumers more cautious spenders."

The University of Michigan survey conflicts with data from the Conference Board, released Tuesday, that showed a sharp drop in confidence in November. The Conference Board's consumer confidence index dropped to 90.4, from 99.1, its lowest level since September 2014.

"Consumer sentiment and confidence indices have been erratic in recent months, but they remain at comparatively healthy levels," Joshua Shapiro, chief economist at MFR Inc., said in a note to clients.

Still, job growth has been healthy and there are signs wages have begun to pick up. Employers added 271,000 jobs in October, the most this year, and the unemployment rate fell to 5 percent from 5.1 percent.

Consumer spending has increased at a healthy pace of 3 percent or above in the past two quarters, though it slowed in October, according to government data released Wednesday.

Yet that also pushed up the savings rate to a healthy 5.6 percent last month. That suggests consumers are in better shape to boost spending over the holidays.

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