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US consumer sentiment index slides in February as wintery weathers chills consumer spirits

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WASHINGTON — Harsh winter weather left U.S. consumers feeling a bit less confident this month, the University of Michigan says. But confidence levels still remain at the highest level in eight years.

The University of Michigan says its index of consumer sentiment slid to 95.4 in February from an 11-year high of 98.1 in January.

"It is hard not to attribute the small February decline to the temporary impact of the harsh weather," said Richard Curtin, chief economist of the surveys. Consumer confidence sank dramatically in the hard-hit Northeast and Midwest and rose in the South.

PHOTO: In this Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015 photo, shoppers walk along the retail, dining and entertainment area of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. The University of Michigan issues its monthly index of consumer sentiment for February on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
In this Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015 photo, shoppers walk along the retail, dining and entertainment area of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. The University of Michigan issues its monthly index of consumer sentiment for February on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Overall, consumers' assessment of current economic activity and their expectations for the future both fell.

Earlier this week, the Conference Board, a business research group, said that its consumer confidence index fell a bit this month but remained at the highest levels since before the Great Recession began in late 2007.

A big drop in gasoline prices — which left money in consumers' pockets and contributed to their improving outlook — has reversed in recent weeks: Gasoline prices have risen to an average $2.37 a gallon nationwide from $2.04 a gallon a month ago, according to AAA.

"Consumers remain sensitive to any hint of decreased spending power, " Terry Sheehan, senior analyst at Stone McCarthy Research Associates, noted in a report, "and the rise in gasoline prices starting in February after seven months of declines was unwelcome." Still, it noted that confidence "levels remain among the strongest since before the financial crisis and recession."

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