Still riding the holiday shopping high, Americans are feeling more optimistic about the economy than they have in almost a year, according to data released Friday. Yet with credit card spending on the rise and unemployment still high, it's unclear whether this cheer is anything more than blissful ignorance.
According to the most recent Thomson Reuters-University of Michigan survey, the consumer sentiment index rose to 74 in early January, up from 69.9 in late December, as Dow Jones reported. This is the highest level the index has reached since February 2011.
The index, which is calculated bi-monthly, surveys consumers' assessments about the overall state of the economy, as well as their own personal finance and spending habits.
One big reason people may be feeling optimistic is the recent dip in the unemployment rate to 8.5 percent in December. With the new-found security of a paycheck, it's easy to dream about all the things you will buy.
What's not clear is whether consumers will actually be able to afford these dreams. Unemployment is still high by any standard, and much of last season's happy holiday purchases were done on credit cards. Consumer borrowing jumped up $20.4 billion in November, the biggest monthly change in 10 years, according to data released Monday by the Federal Reserve.
In the upcoming months, it's possible that bliss will turn sour when bills start arriving.
December retail sales were also not spectacular. Overall sales were up only 0.1 percent from November, and usually-sparkling electronics and online stores were some of the lower performing categories. Many of the retailers who did see strong sales in December did so through deep discounting.
Such discounts are not likely to continue into the year, leaving even less reason for shoppers to spend money and boost the economy in 2012.