US consumer confidence unexpectedly falls to lowest since August as COVID-19 restrictions escalate

  • The Conference Board's index of consumer confidence fell to a four-month low of 88.6 this month, from 92.9, according to a Tuesday press release.
  • Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expected the gauge to rise to 97.
  • The organization's Present Situation Index plummeted to 90.3 from 105.9, with soaring COVID-19 cases and stricter lockdown measures weighing on economic outlooks.
  • "Consumers do not foresee the economy gaining any significant momentum in early 2021," Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said.
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US consumer confidence dashed expectations in December as soaring COVID-19 cases and warnings of full lockdowns cut into economic outlooks.

The Conference Board's index of consumer confidence fell to 88.6 this month from 92.9, according to a Tuesday press release. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expected the gauge to climb to 97. The reading is the lowest since August. November's reading was also saw a downward revision.

The organization's Present Situation Index — which measures consumers' assessment of current economic conditions — plunged to 90.3 from 105.9. A gauge of consumer expectations rose to 87.4 from 83.4 but failed to offset the dive in present-day confidence. 

"It appears that growth has weakened further in the fourth quarter, and consumers do not foresee the economy gaining any significant momentum in early 2021," Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said in a statement.

Read more: Brian Barish's mutual fund crushed the market for 8 straight years and is in the top 2% after reinventing value investing for the digital age. Here's how he pulled it off.

The index's latest reading comes as daily coronavirus cases remain at elevated levels. The US reported 178,191 new cases on Monday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Virus-related hospitalizations rose to 115,351 and deaths neared 311,000.

The Conference Board's bleak update follows similarly gloomy readings from other economic indicators. Weekly filings for unemployment benefits unexpectedly climbed to a 14-week high for the week that ended December 12, extending a climb that's left claims hovering at elevated levels.

Separately, US retail sales fell 1.1% in November, according to Census Bureau data published on December 16. The dive places the country on track for a second, albeit shallower, economic downturn, as consumer spending counts for roughly 70% of US economic activity.

Still, the distribution of Pfizer and Moderna's coronavirus vaccines stands to lift sentiments, as does the new stimulus package Congress passed on Monday. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill on Tuesday.  The measure includes $600 direct payments, $300 expanded federal unemployment benefits, and funding for the Paycheck Protection Program.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday that direct payments will start reaching Americans' bank accounts next week.

The Conference Board's latest reading of its confidence index reflects survey results through December 14. The next release is scheduled for January 26 at 10 a.m. ET.

Read more: Brooke de Boutray has beaten 99% of her peers over the last 5 years and runs a fund that is up 148% in 2020. She shared with us 4 stocks she's most bullish on heading into 2021.

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