Consumer Finances

February's Consumer Reports Index, a measure of overall consumer financial health, showed that conditions improved, but gains were uneven. Consumer Sentiment is up; however, employment wavered and retail activity was lackluster in what is usually a light shopping month. Financial difficulties fell disproportionately on those in households making less than $50,000, who make up about half of all adults.

The Consumer Reports Employment Index slipped back into negative territory (49.5) after inching above 50 in January (50.6), with past 30-day job losses (5.7%) outpacing job gains (4.7%). Some of this is likely associated with the loss of positions created for the holiday season.

January's drop in retail was led by weak sales in personal electronics, major home electronics and small appliances. The Past 30-Day Retail Index for February, reflecting January activity, was 11.8 down from 15.0 in December and unchanged from January 2011.  The Next 30-Day Retail Index, reflecting planned spending for February, was down to 7.1 compared to 7.9 in January.

"Despite improving jobs data released by the government Friday, employment concerns weigh heavily on consumers," said Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center. "This uncertainty surrounding employment is likely suppressing retail activity, further exacerbating the problem."

February's Consumer Reports Sentiment Index, which measures how consumers are doing financially versus a year ago, rose to 49.6, up from January at 48.2. The most optimistic consumers were ages 18 to 34, and households earning $50,000-$99,999. The most pessimistic consumers were those in households earning less than $50,000 and people ages 65 and older.