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Consumer sentiment at five-year high; inventories jump

By Leah Schnurr

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An increasingly upbeat view of the economy and jobs market drove U.S. consumer sentiment to a more than five-year high in early November, while a jump in wholesale inventories suggested the economy grew more than initially estimated last quarter.

It was the fourth month that Americans adopted a rosier economic outlook, even as financial markets show increasing anxiety about the approach of the "fiscal cliff" of spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in the new year, on fears they could push the country back into recession.

Separate data from the government also released on Friday showed wholesale inventories rose in September by the most in nine months, prompting economists to raise their forecasts for third-quarter growth. Inventories are a key element of the government's measure of economic growth and can highlight underlying strength or weakness.

The index of consumer sentiment from Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan rose to 84.9 in November from 82.6, topping economists' expectations for a reading of 83.

It was the highest level since July 2007. The measure of consumer expectations also hit a more than five-year high, rising to 80.8 from 79.0. Most interviews for the survey were done before Tuesday's presidential election.

"It shows that the U.S. economy is on a decent footing heading into the so-called fiscal cliff," said Joe Manimbo, market analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington.

"There's a lot at stake, and there's a lot of momentum that could be lost if lawmakers don't get their act together."

Survey director Richard Curtin said the re-election of President Barack Obama should not have an impact on overall expectations going forward, but if Washington does not act quickly to avoid the fiscal cliff, with its $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax rises, consumers could face a shock.

Friday's data came a week after the government's monthly labor market report showed job growth picked up in October. The unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent, though it held below 8 percent for the second month in a row.

But the chances of a comprehensive legislative solution to the fiscal cliff before January 1 are considered slight, and members of Congress have been looking for a temporary fix to buy time.

While a negative conclusion to the discussions poses a risk to confidence and spending, "uncertainty over the ultimate outcome doesn't appear to have troubled consumers unduly thus far," Barclays economist Peter Newland wrote.

Obama was expected to make a statement at 1:05 p.m. EST (1805 GMT).

The consumer sentiment survey is now consistent with a gain in consumer spending of 2.5 percent next year, the report said.

"Unless the congressional Grinch steals Christmas, prospects for the holiday shopping season have improved markedly," said Curtin.

U.S. stocks bounced higher after the data as equities tried to recoup some of the steep losses of the past two days.

INVENTORIES RISE

The Commerce Department reported that total wholesale inventories gained 1.1 percent to $494.2 billion, beating even the highest estimate in a Reuters poll of analysts.

JPMorgan and Barclays raised their estimates for third-quarter gross domestic product growth to 3.2 percent from 2.8 percent following the report.

The government's first reading of growth for the third quarter showed the economy expanded at a 2.0 percent rate, though other recent economic reports, including data on trade and factory orders, have suggested a faster pace of growth.

Still, some economists cut their expectations for growth in the fourth quarter, according to a separate survey released on Friday.

Economists expect to see growth at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the current quarter, down from the previous estimate of 2.2 percent growth, according to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank's fourth-quarter survey of 39 forecasters.

(Additional reporting by Edward Krudy in New York and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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