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Consumer confidence hits a two-year low

A shopper passes by a shop display in Hong Kong on Aug. 29, 2011. LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images

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Tess Vigeland: Here in Hollywood, folks like to say perception is reality. Well, let’s hope it isn’t.

Today, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence in this country has fallen to a two-year low. And when consumers are less confident, they tend to spend less, which is the opposite of what the economy needs right now.

Here’s the interesting thing: Our actual situation hasn’t changed much over the last few months. But perhaps thanks to the wild stock market and political gridlock, our perceptions have. And that is creating a new reality.

Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek Smith has more from New York.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Delphine Faye McIntyre lives in Charlotte, N.C. Her husband lost his job back in 2008, and it took him more than a year to find a new one. They’re both working, and their financial situation is solid now, but they’re still not buying like they used to. No more new clothes, dinners out or vacations.

Delphine Faye McIntyre: We used to rent a home on the beach and invite our whole family. We would go down to the Caribbean.

These days, when McIntyre and her husband spend, it’s on maintenance, not Mai Tais.

McIntyre: Say if we need a new roof or we need to replace our air conditioning unit. We’re going to spend money on things we know we’re going to need at some point anyway.

U.S. consumers are battening down the hatches. In many cases, it’s not that they are any worse off than they were a year ago — it’s that they think the U.S. economy is, says economist Lynn Franco with the Conference Board.

Lynn Franco: We think a contributing factor here has been the debt ceiling discussions and a lack of confidence in leadership.

That, coupled with an unemployment rate that won’t budge, has consumers spooked. And spooked consumers cut back on purchases small and big; data out today shows home prices keep falling. Add to that, people charging less on their credit cards.

Silvio Tavares tracks consumer spending for First Data.

Silvio Tavares: Certainly for the first part of this year, we did have pretty significant growth in consumer spending, but that’s starting to slow somewhat.

Tavares says the key to consumer confidence is jobs. And until there are more of those, consumers are going to keep on spending like it’s 2008.

In New York, I’m Stacey Vanek Smith for Marketplace.

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