By Susan Fenton
LONDON (Reuters) - Consumers in most countries globally look set to keep a tight grip on spending in coming months as they worry about job security and rising inflation, a survey by the Nielsen Company showed on Sunday.
U.S. consumer confidence in the fourth quarter held steady from the third quarter but 45 percent of Americans see a weak economic environment this year, compared with 38 percent of Europeans and 19 percent of consumers in the Asia Pacific.
"The U.S. jobless rate remains at the heart of the issue for Americans," said James Russo, vice president of The Nielsen Company. "It has topped 9 percent for 20 months straight, which is the longest streak on record."
Consumer confidence was positive at the end of last year in only 14 out of 52 countries surveyed worldwide. The Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index's average score, however, was unchanged from the third quarter at 90, helped by sharp jumps in confidence in Norway, Turkey and Switzerland as well as the Philippines.
A reading below 100 signals pessimism about the outlook.
India came top, improving on its third quarter reading. Still, India's index reading of 129 was well below the country's record 137 index reading in the second half of 2006, the highest reading for any country since the Nielsen consumer confidence index was launched in 2005.
Confidence was lowest in Croatia followed by Portugal, which has imposed austerity measures as it struggles to slash high debt.
Consumer confidence in Greece slumped from the third quarter as the country continued to grapple with its debt burden while Ireland, which was forced to follow Greece and seek an international bailout late last year was also in the 10 least optimistic markets.
"Global consumers -- especially in the West, are bracing themselves for another year of flat to sluggish growth in 2011," said Venkatesh Bala, chief economist at The Cambridge Group, a unit of The Nielsen Company.
"Job creation and employment numbers have fallen below expectation and even though many countries are officially out of recession, many consumers are still living - and expect to continue living - a cautious recessionary lifestyle which is restricting domestic spending and demand."
Rising inflation threatened consumer confidence in previously bullish emerging markets, he said.
"Going forward, rising prices in several emerging markets such as China and India have potential to dent consumer confidence and spending, especially if their governments decide to expand policy actions to combat higher inflation," Bala said.
China's index reading dipped 4 points to the 100 level whereas Brazil was in the top 10 most confident markets and its score rose 5 points from the third quarter to 108.
The survey was taken in mid-November, covering 26,000 consumers in 52 countries. The survey is based on consumers' confidence in the job market, status of their personal finances and readiness to spend.
Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index in the fourth quarter, 2010 (Change from Q3 survey in brackets):
Top 10 index readings Bottom 10 index readings
India 131 (+2) Ireland 65 (-3)
Philippines 120 (+6) Hungary 59 (+5)
Norway 119 (+18) S. Korea 58 (-1)
Indonesia 116 (+1) Latvia 58 (-5)
Australia 112 (-3) Lithuania 57 (-6)
Switzerland 110 (+10) Japan 54 (+2)
Singapore 109 (-4) Romania 54 (-1)
Brazil 108 (+5) Greece 48 (-9)
Malaysia 107 (+4) Portugal 45 (+1)
Saudi Arabia 107 (-8) Croatia 45 (-13)
Global consumer confidence average 90 (90)
United States 81 (0)
China 100 (-4)
Germany 83 (-4)
Source: The Nielsen Company
(Editing by Ron Askew)