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Home Sales, Consumer Sentiment Hit Lows

Americans are more pessimistic about the economy this month than at any time in the past five years, as tighter credit, rising prices and a troubled housing market battered consumer confidence, the Conference Board said Tuesday.

The Consumer Confidence Index, or CCI, plunged to 64.5 in March from a revised 76.4 in February, the Board, a business-backed research group, said. The March reading was far below what many analysts had forecast.

The Conference Board's research center said the latest number was the lowest since a 61.4 reading in March 2003, just ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The latest data came on the same day as more bad news for the nation's ailing housing sector.

U.S. home prices fell 11.4 percent in January, their steepest drop since data for the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index was first collected in 1987.

The CCI has been weakening since July; it is watched because it tends to result in American consumers buying less, which is a drag on the economy.

There were steep declines in two companion measures, the present situation index and the expectations appraisal, the Board said.

The present situation index, which looks at current conditions, slumped from 104.0 in February to 89.2 in March, its lowest reading since December 1973 when it registered 45.2 amid the Arab oil embargo and Watergate scandal, the Board said.

In the expectations appraisal, a growing number of consumers said they expected business conditions to worsen over the next six months.

The survey by the New York-based Conference Board is based on a sample of 5,000 U.S. households.

from NPR reports and the Associated Press.