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U.S. consumer sentiment stalls ahead of Black Friday

A woman walks out of Macy's department store with shopping bags as the busy holiday shopping season begins in New York, November 17, 2012.

CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

U.S. consumer sentiment weakened in November as the holiday shopping period was getting underway amid growing uncertainty over federal tax and spending programs next year, a survey released on Wednesday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final reading on consumer sentiment came in at 82.7, a touch up from 82.6 in October but down from a preliminary reading of 84.9 released earlier this month.

It was also below the median forecast of 84.5 among economists polled by Reuters.

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The softening in sentiment comes as the holiday shopping season kicks off with the so-called Black Friday shopping day after this week's Thanksgiving holiday. The period is critical for retailers, who often see their books turn from loss to profit at the end of the year.

"This holiday season might be softer than last year," said Conrad Dequadros, senior economist at RDQ Economics in New York, citing the late October storm that crippled the Northeast and the ongoing impasse in Washington over budget talks.

But Mr. Dequadros added: "Even with the pullback, we are sitting near the high of the recovery."

The main culprit behind the index's softening came in how consumers see the future. The survey's gauge of consumer expectations slipped to 77.6 from 79.0 in October and was lower than the forecast of 80.1.

"The late-month retreat was accompanied by more economic uncertainty about future federal taxes and spending programs and the inability of the political parties to reach a settlement," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

The survey's barometer of current economic conditions faired better. The gauge, which measures how consumers view their present situation, rose to 90.7 from an October final reading of 88.1 and just above a forecast of 90.6.

U.S. retail sales should rise 4.1 per cent this holiday season, slower growth than in the past two years as mixed economic data and political uncertainty weigh on consumers, the National Retail Federation said in October.

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Peter Boockvar, a portfolio manager at Miller Tabak, said the confidence numbers in themselves are not a reliable indication of how holiday sales will shape up.

"In terms of holiday spending, confidence is a coincident indicator and thus won't tell us much about how much spending we'll see relative to the same time last year," he said in an e-mail.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey's one-year inflation expectations were steady at 3.1 percent, while the survey's five-to-10-year inflation outlook was at 2.8 percent from 2.7 percent.

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