Consumer confidence unexpectedly deteriorated in December, while prices of single-family homes fell almost double the expected pace in October, tempering growing optimism on the economy's recovery.
The latest data was at odds with other signs suggesting the economic recovery is accelerating and a separate report last week showing consumer sentiment in December at its highest level since June.
Concern about the jobs market pushed an index of consumer attitudes to 52.5 in December from 54.3 in November, the Conference Board said on Tuesday. That was below the median of forecasts from analysts polled by Reuters for a reading of 56.0.
U.S. consumers are still worried about high unemployment, housing market stagnation and the generally meager growth they've seen so far, said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at GFT in New York.
Consumers' assessment of the labor market worsened in December after data at the start of the month showed the unemployment rate jumped in November to a seven-month high of 9.8 percent.
The jobs hard to get index of the sentiment survey rose to 46.8 percent in December from 46.3 percent last month, while the jobs plentiful index dropped to 3.9 percent from 4.3 percent.
Financial markets showed a muted reaction to the consumer and housing data, with traders citing very thin post-Christmas liquidity.
Despite the overall drop in confidence, Troy Davig, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital in New York, said confidence rose for individuals earning more than $50,000, which likely reflects the recently passed tax extension package.
The tax deal has helped fuel optimism about the recovery, with economists expecting it to lift growth next year by as much as 1 percentage point. The economy is also getting monetary support from the Federal Reserve's planned purchases of $600 billion in government debt.
Another report on Tuesday showed U.S. single-family home prices fell for a fourth straight month in October, pressured by a supply glut, home foreclosures and high unemployment.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas declined 1 percent in October from September on a seasonally adjusted basis, much steeper than the 0.6 percent decrease economists expected.
The housing market has been struggling since home-buyer tax credits expired earlier this year. With the number of foreclosures expected to top a million in 2010, many economists expect the index to drop further in the coming months.
HOLIDAY SALES ROBUST
Some economists cautioned against reading too much into one month's figures and said the surprising drop in consumer confidence does not signal a meaningful shift in the outlook for spending.
We stress that month-to-month changes in consumer confidence are not well-correlated with those in consumer spending, Barclays' Davig said. Retail sales and real consumption expenditures have been gaining momentum going into the holiday shopping season, and reports from retailers on holiday sales have been generally upbeat.
U.S. retail sales rose in the week before Christmas, putting holiday sales on track to hit the high end of estimates. Data released on Tuesday by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs showed retail sales rose 4.8 percent for the week ended December 25 compared with the year-earlier period. Optimism about the economy has grown after recent reports on jobless claims, durable goods and consumer spending suggested the economy perked up a bit in the fourth quarter and appears to be entering the new year with a relatively decent amount of momentum.
(Editing by Dan Grebler)