NEW YORK — Americans' confidence in the economy has suffered a sudden relapse, dimming hopes that they will start spending – and spurring job growth – any time soon.
The Consumer Confidence Index figures released Tuesday were much worse than analysts had expected and showed that Americans are morose about the job market and their economic prospects. That bodes ill for the sort of uptick in consumer spending that normally powers economic recovery, and could raise pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to create jobs themselves.
The index fell almost 11 points to 46 in February, down from a revised 56.5 in January and the lowest level since a 40.8 reading in April 2009. It erased three consecutive months of improvement, according to the Conference Board, the research group that releases the monthly index.
Analysts were expecting only a slight decrease to 55. Economists watch the confidence numbers closely because consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
Outside of the Great Recession, the index hasn't been this low since December 1974.
"It still feels like a recession" to consumers, said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center.
Confidence has been recovering fitfully since hitting a historic low of 25.3 in February 2009. Many economists believe it will remain well below healthy levels for at least another year or two. A reading above 90 indicates an economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth.
Dana Huskey of Chattanooga, Tenn., said she's being very cautious with her spending – limiting her trips out to eat and her drives around town. The 26-year-old lost her job at Ann Taylor in July and has lined up a job at a yarn store, but it won't open until this summer. Her family has been helping her since then.
"I try not to go out to eat unless I have to," said Huskey. "I got a subscription to the local paper for the weekend edition, to do coupons."
Some economists say Americans won't start to feel better and spend more until they see clear evidence of sizable job growth. In past recessions, however, the employment picture didn't improve dramatically until after a recovery in consumer spending and confidence.
Many economists say business investments and exports can help drive the nascent turnaround in the short term, but a rise in consumer spending is essential to keep it going.
"Without a sustained acceleration in consumption growth, this recovery will eventually fade," said Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics Ltd.
The consumer confidence report put a scare into the stock market, overshadowing retailers' reports that showed stronger holiday profits but also offered cautious sales outlooks. There were also signs that the U.S. housing market is continuing its bumpy recovery: A key index showed home prices rose for the seventh straight month in December.
Executives at discount chain Target Corp. said they expect the recovery to continue – slowly – as shoppers grapple with high rates of unemployment and pay down debt.
"I think we're going to see two steps forward, one step back," said Gregg Steinhafel, Target's chairman, president and CEO, in a conference call with investors Tuesday.
The Dow Jones industrials were off 100 points. Interest rates also fell as investors moved money out of stocks and into the safety of Treasury bonds.
The confidence index is based on a sample of 5,000 U.S. households surveyed between Feb. 1 and Feb. 17.
A surprising aspect of the report was that the index's key gauge – consumers' expectations over the next six months – took a big hit. The gauge had been on the rise since last October. Consumers' assessment of the current economy slipped to a 27-year low.
Several factors may have aggravated the decline. Heavy snowstorms in many areas of the country may have dampened confidence as they shut down businesses and thwarted job searches. Worries about Greece's national debt hammered the U.S. stock market.
The unemployment picture has become a full-time preoccupation in Congress. The Senate cleared a key hurdle Monday on its way to passing a $15 billion package that includes tax breaks to encourage hiring. Final passage on that measure is scheduled for Wednesday. The measure, however, is likely to boost hiring only modestly.
A second measure for broader and longer-term assistance was under discussion as well. Such a package could include a full-year extension of unemployment insurance and a 65 percent health insurance subsidy for the unemployed through the federal COBRA program. States could also get direct assistance to help them with their straining Medicaid budget.
The overall economy expanded at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter, but only about one-fourth of that growth came from consumers. Most of the growth came from companies replenishing low inventories.
For those out of work, the economy's recent improvement has been invisible.
"The jobs aren't coming fast enough," said Jim Fox, who was laid off from a steel mill in Sharon, Pa., last August. "The jobs that I do see pay less than what I was making."
Many economists expect new jobs to be created in coming months. Unemployment fell to 9.7 percent in January from 10 percent in December, and employers shed 20,000 jobs. Economists believe the unemployment rate fell because many unemployed people gave up on their job searches, and worry that it will climb back up by summer as those without jobs start trying again.
Gary Thayer, chief economist at Wells Fargo Advisors, believes big improvements in jobs, confidence and spending will be "marching together."
"This is going to be a year when people are waiting to see what happens rather than assuming the best going forward," he said.
AP Economics Writer Chris Rugaber, AP Retail Writer Emily Fredrix and AP Real Estate Writer Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.