Falling Consumer Spending Weighs on the Dow

Blue-chip stocks are marginally lower this afternoon after a series of economic reports released today painted a conflicting picture of the financial health of the American consumer. With roughly an hour left in the trading session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) is off by 71 points, or 0.46%.

To start with the bad news: the Department of Commerce released data today suggesting that the economic recovery is still proceeding in fits and starts. According to its report, consumer spending fell by 0.2% in April -- the weakest reading since last May. Economists had forecast a decline of only 0.1%.

Now to the good news: A separate report showed that consumer confidence is at the highest level since 2007. The University of Michigan/Thomson Reuters Consumer Sentiment Index advanced to 84.5 this month from 76.4 in April. The consensus estimate called for a reading of 83.8.

These conflicting views provide fodder to bears and bulls alike, particularly as they relate to the Federal Reserve's ongoing analysis of QE3. "The surge in consumer confidence is exactly the type of economic jump-start the Federal Reserve intended to result from its aggressive policies," an economist noted about the University of Michigan survey.

"On the flip side, when the data comes in a little bit weak," a market strategist told Bloomberg News, "people start to wonder, 'well, maybe the Fed is going to stand there a bit longer.' The end result of that is increased volatility."

And increased volatility is exactly what we've experienced over the last few days. On Tuesday, the market shot up by roughly 100 points, only to then lose that ground on Wednesday and then oscillate between positive and negative yesterday and today.

In terms of individual stocks, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) is leading the Dow higher this afternoon, up by 1% at the time of writing. Yesterday evening, Reuters broke the story that Samsung has chosen an Intel processor to power an updated version of its top-tier Galaxy tablet. After Intel got behind the proverbial eight ball with regard to mobile computing, the news that a major phone and tablet manufacturer like Samsung has selected its chips is a huge step in the right direction.

On the downside, shares of Proctor & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) are the worst-performing component on the blue-chip index, down by 2.3% in mid-afternoon trading. As my colleague Dan Carroll discussed here, the consumer products giant is currently in the midst of a leadership change at the top, as former CEO A. G. Laffley just stepped back into the position after his successor-turned-predecessor and resigned earlier this month. Most recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company is looking to restructure its operating and reporting segments into four separate segments, each of which will report directly to Laffley.

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