Washington — Cautious consumers, shaken by the turbulent stock market and a possible war with Iraq, tightened their belts in September and pushed down sales at the nation's retailers by the largest amount in 10 months.
That news from the Commerce Department along with a separate, preliminary report Friday that showed Americans' confidence in the economy sank to a nine-year low in October, raised new questions about people's willingness to spend in the months ahead, including the holiday shopping season.
Consumer spending is the economy's lifeblood, accounting for two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States. Throughout last year's recession consumers kept buying, and they have been the main force keeping the economy going so far this year.
While most economists don't believe consumers will cut back spending dramatically and throw the economy back into recession, some believe they will have considerably less energy in the current October-December quarter and slow down the economic recovery.
"Consumer spending is fragile," said Sal Guatieri, economist with Bank of Montreal.
The 1.2 percent drop in retail sales in September from the previous month represented the largest decline since November and came after a solid 0.6 percent rise in August.
Much of the weakness in September's retail sales reflected a sharp 4.8 percent drop in automobile sales, but consumers also trimmed spending on furniture, electronics and clothes.
"I think consumers were standoffish or tightfisted because of the uncertainties plaguing the U.S. economy as well as the financial markets," said Richard Yamarone, economist with Argus Research Corp.
In other news, a preliminary report from the University of Michigan showed that its consumer sentiment index dropped to 80.4 in October, the lowest level since the fall of 1993, from 86.1 in September, said economists.
"The nine-year-low reading ... will reinforce fears that consumers are about to stop spending," said Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS Warburg. "The weakness can hardly bode well for consumption this autumn, but the link between sentiment and spending is only approximate."