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In our opinion: Confident consumers?

Published: Monday, Dec. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Shoppers get a jump start on their Christmas shopping at Toys R Us in Salt Lake County Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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The stars appear to be lining up for a coming upswing in the Utah economy, just as the critical holiday retail season gets underway.

Reports indicate shoppers began browsing early and in earnest, giving credence to a recent report showing Americans in general, and Utahns in particular, are feeling more secure in their finances. Proof of such an attitude swing may be visible in the crowds prowling the gleaming new City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, opened for its first holiday season.

There is other economic data of a positive nature, not the least of which is the trend toward a lower unemployment rate, which in Utah has now dropped to about 5.2 percent. That is still a number that is uncomfortably high, but viewed another way, still offers a measure of a spectacular rebound. Since the peak of the recession less than three years ago, Utah's jobless rate is now down a remarkable 35 percent.

Of course, there remains a dark star on the horizon, threatening like a black hole to absorb all of the brighter economic news. Should Congress and the White House be unable to fashion a way to avoid a plunge over the so-called "fiscal cliff," all bets on an imminent upswing are off.

But there are at least as many signs of optimism as there are bearish views of a continuing swoon. Most critical are the attitudes of average people who check their savings balances on a regular basis, and see reasons to turn pessimism into optimism.

Among the most detailed metrics for assessing that perspective is the Economic Security Index, a Yale University data set that details the percentage of households seeing a loss of their financial resources. Recently released, the current data indicates a peak of "insecurity" on a national level has been reached, and is falling.

In Utah, the drop in the percentage of households that have suffered significant declines in net worth is ahead of the national pace. The data is important because economists contend that an upswing in the economy won't happen without an upswing in the confidence of average consumers.

That such confidence may be building can only be good news, albeit tempered by the realities of the coming debate over the short-term and long-term course of the nation's fiscal policies.

In that context, the holiday season of 2012 marks a critical pivot point in the direction of the economy. A binge of profligate spending is certainly not a prudent course for families feeling more comfortable in their finances. But what appears to be the nascent return of a confident consumer is, for the economy, the best kind of holiday greeting.

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