Americans remain confident in economy

The Labor Department reports that the economy added 200,000 jobs in December and the unemployment rate dropped to 8.5 percent. Anthony Mason discusses the encouraging economic news with CBS Moneywatch.com editor-at-large Jill Schlesinger.

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(CBS/AP) NEW YORK — Americans' confidence in the economy held steady in April from the previous month despite rising job cuts and falling home values.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said on Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index is at 69.2, down slightly from a revised 69.5 in March. Economists were expecting a reading of 70, according to a FactSet poll of analysts. The current level is below February's 71.6, which is the highest level it's been in a year.

Consumer confidence is widely watched because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity. The current level is significantly below the 90 reading that indicates a healthy economy. But it's well above its all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009.

"Consumer confidence was virtually unchanged in April, following a modest decline in March," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, in a statement. "Overall, consumers are more upbeat about the state of the economy, but they remain cautiously optimistic."

Economists are paying close attention to consumers' behavior because the U.S. economy is at a critical juncture. New reports that show rising layoffs and slowing home sales are raising concerns that the economic recovery is facing a spring slowdown for the third straight year. The stock market rally also has lost steam in recent weeks amid renewed worries about the European financial crisis and the economy at home.

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The Conference Board's report, which is based on a survey conducted from April 1 through April 12 with about 500 randomly selected people nationwide, underscored how Americans' views of the job market remains cautious.

Those stating jobs are "hard to get" declined to 37.5 percent from 40.7 percent, while those stating jobs are "plentiful" decreased to 8.4 percent from 9 percent. Americans who are anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined to 16.9 percent from 17.4 percent.

The lack of confidence comes as the average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month has risen to a three-month high. According to the April jobs report, employers added 120,000 jobs last month - half the December-February pace and well short of the 210,000 economists were expecting. The unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent in February to 8.2 percent in March - the lowest since January 2009 - but that was mainly because many Americans stopped looking for work.

Meanwhile, the home market remains weak, according to the latest data released Tuesday. Sales of new homes fell in March by the largest amount in more than a year, according to a report released by the Commerce Department. A widely-watched report on home prices showed a drop in February in most major U.S. cities for a sixth straight month, according to Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home-price index.

Still, retail sales have been solid. Gas prices also are beginning to fall, after a four-month surge pushed gas to nearly $4 per gallon earlier this month. The price of gasoline in the U.S. has dropped by nearly 8 cents per gallon since the first week of April following a decline in oil prices and gasoline consumption. Gasoline, on average, now costs about as much as it did a year ago.

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