By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer spending growth ground to a halt in May as auto purchases flagged, while confidence ebbed to a six-month low in June, the latest signs of trouble for the economy.
Although manufacturing activity in the Midwest picked up this month, it offered little cheer for an economic recovery that has been hit by turbulence from the debt crisis in Europe and a lack of clarity on the course of fiscal policy at home.
"We are at a stall speed expansion here," said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We have a consumer who is sort of losing steam."
Spending was unchanged in May, marking the first time in six months it had not risen, the Commerce Department said on Friday. It also lowered its gauge of April's spending to show a rise of just 0.1 percent.
The weak data prompted economists to lower forecasts for second-quarter economic growth. Goldman Sachs trimmed its estimate to an annual pace of 1.6 percent from 1.7 percent. That would mark a slowdown from the first quarter's already anemic 1.9 percent pace.
The change in the economy's fortunes - most visible in a sharp deceleration in job growth and manufacturing activity - closely mirrors the pattern seen last year and poses a challenge for President Barack Obama ahead of November's election.
With the outlook darkening, consumer morale has tumbled. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's sentiment index fell to 73.2 in June from 79.3 in May, a separate report showed.
The drop came even though gasoline prices have fallen about 51 cents from their April peak, slowing inflation sharply. A price index for consumer spending fell 0.2 percent in May, the first decline in a year.
But even when adjusting for inflation, spending rose a scant 0.1 percent last month, the same as in April.
"The consumer is under pressure from the weak jobs market and falling gas prices are simply not enough," said Paul Edelstein, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
But the economy is not collapsing. A third report showed factory activity in the Midwest ticked up in June, with manufacturing employment rising to its highest level since February. New and unfilled orders, however, edged down.
"Things are not spiraling down out of control," said Dean Maki, chief economist at Barclays in New York.
The reports had little impact on U.S. financial markets, with investors focused on developments in Europe.
Euro zone leaders agreed to allow a rescue fund to be used to pump money directly into the region's banks. The agreement fueled a rally on Wall Street, while prices for U.S. government debt fell and the dollar weakened.
With the economy struggling to generate enough jobs to cut into high unemployment, income rose a tepid 0.2 percent in May.
While falling gasoline prices left households with more disposable income, consumers opted to save for a rainy day and the saving rate rose to 3.9 percent from 3.7 percent.
"The big problem is wages, which are simply flat-lining. If you don't have more money to spend, you either don't spend more or you take it out of savings," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.
"With confidence fragile, the willingness to draw down on the nest egg is not great."
Last month, spending on long-lasting goods, like autos, fell 0.4 percent after dipping 0.2 percent in April.
Auto sales had been boosted by pent-up demand after last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan left showrooms bereft of popular models. That demand now seems largely exhausted.
Spending on nondurable goods fell 0.8 percent, while services spending advanced 0.3 percent.
In the 12 months through May, the price index for consumer spending was up 1.5 percent, the smallest increase since January last year. It rose 1.9 percent in April.
A core measure that strips out food and energy costs also slowed, slipping to 1.8 percent from 2.0 percent in April.
The Federal Reserve, which last week expanded its efforts to spur the economy, aims for inflation of 2 percent, and May was the first time since February 2011 that both the headline and core inflation readings were below that level. Analysts said that with inflation slowing, the door to further action by the U.S. central bank remains open.