Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Despite a strong showing on Wall Street, consumer confidence crumbled in April as rising gasoline prices and a slumping housing market undermined prospects for economic growth.
The New York-based Conference Board this week **said its Consumer Confidence Index dropped in April to its lowest level since August.
There was troubling news for the beleaguered housing sector too** as the Commerce Department reported Sales of Existing Homes plunged nearly 8-and-a-half percent in March... their largest decline in 18 years. **Sales of New Homes increased modestly, but not enough to offset large declines the previous two months.
** The government also reported orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods rose nearly 3-and-a half percent in March... their fastest clip in three months.
** That news, coupled with stronger-than-expected earnings reports, was welcomed on Wall Street where the Dow roared past 13,000 for the first time Wednesday, suggesting to investors that corporate America is successfully weathering the cooling economy.
The fortunes of rural America, on the other hand, often are influenced, in large part, by government largesse. And as Congress begins work on the next Farm Bill, leaders of major rural advocacy groups aired their concerns this week to the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Ken McCauley, National Corn Growers Association: "This Congress has a rare opportunity to consider major reforms at a time when prices are strong for most crops and exports are expected to reach a record $77 billion in 2007."
Despite a favorable outlook, farm interests still are concerned over the next farm bill's potential impact on the bottom line. This week's testimony varied widely on how to improve proposed legislation while preserving the so-called "farm safety net."
John Hoffman, American Soybean Association: "We believe the "three-legged stool" that includes the marketing loan, the counter-cyclical program, and direct payments, combined with crop insurance and disaster assistance, can provide an adequate safety net for farmers."
Reforms to the "safety net" varied by interest group, but a recurring theme appeared to be how to change the Counter-Cyclical Payment program, which compensates farmers when prices are low. The remedy proposed involves changing from a model based on price-per-bushel to one based on revenue-per-acre.
Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation: "We recommend that the current counter-cyclical payment program should be modified to be a counter-cyclical revenue program using state crop revenue as the trigger rather than the national average price."
But even on this point there was no agreement on whether or not to use a county, state or national average to as a way to base payments.
While there was difference of opinion on the government's role on price supports there was broad support for the Conservation title of the bill.
Bill Flory, American Farmland Trust: "I urge this Committee to re-commit itself to finding a workable "green payment" program as an additional stream of income to reward and inspire producers across the landscape for their stewardship of our nation's resources."
But there was no general consensus on the structure of conservation programs. The American Farm Bureau, for example, is calling for reform of the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The Farm Bureau recommends easing restrictions so that CRP acres could be used for either hay or energy crops like switchgrass.
Overall, those who testified did agree the upcoming Farm Bill must to take into account dramatic changes in the global marketplace.
Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation: "...we're still in a very unlevel playing field with respect to the world."