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RISMEDIA, March 16, 2011—(MCT)—U.S. consumer sentiment declined in March 2011 at the fastest pace since the financial crisis began in 2008, according to survey results released by Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan.

The gauge fell to 68.2 in March from 77.5 in February, marking its biggest decline since October 2008, after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

The March reading surprised analysts. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected a level of 75.8, with gains from an improving labor market offset by rising gasoline prices.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan gauge of consumer expectations plunged to 58.3 in March from 71.6 in February, while the current-conditions index declined to 83.6 from 86.9. One-year inflation expectations jumped to 4.6% from 3.4%.

“The price of gasoline at the pumps has shot up to $3.67 a gallon, from $3.25 only a month ago,” wrote Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics, in a research note. “That surge not only dampened confidence, but also generated a big jump in households’ inflation expectations.”

Meanwhile, five- to 10-year inflation expectations increased to 3.2% from 2.9%.

The rise in long-term expectations will make officials “nervous” before the Federal Open Market Committee’s meeting next week, wrote Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts in a research note.

“But it will take broad-based and sustained rises in inflation-expectation measures to get the Fed closer to tightening policy,” the analysts wrote. If inflation expectations keep rising,” the Fed will have no choice but to react,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak.

(c) 2011, MarketWatch.com Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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