SYDNEY (REUTERS) - A measure of Australian consumer sentiment held steady in March as worries over family finances were offset by optimism over the longer-term economic outlook, a survey showed on Wednesday.
The survey of 1,200 people by Melbourne Institute and Westpac Bank found consumer sentiment edged up by 0.1 per cent in March, from February when it climbed 2.3 per cent.
That left the index at 99.7, just below the level where the number of optimists matches pessimists.
The sub-indices in the survey showed respondents judged recent news on the economy as much more favourable than at the end of last year, perhaps reflecting surprisingly upbeat data on economic growth released early in March.
Expectations for the economic outlook over the next 12 months rose 1.6 per cent, and the assessment of economic conditions for the next five years jumped 3.9 per cent.
However, people were more concerned about household finances amid news that wage growth slowed to record lows in the December quarter. The measure of family finances compared to a year ago dropped 5.3 per cent, while that for finances over the next 12 months dipped 0.2 per cent.
The measure of whether this was a good time to buy major household items eased 0.1 per cent.
Westpac's chief economist, Bill Evans, noted consumers had become more risk averse in the saving habits.
The proportion favouring paying down debt as the best way to save jumped five percentage points to 25.7 per cent, while buying real estate sank to the lowest since the survey began in 1974, at just 11.6 per cent.
Concerns over housing affordability have ballooned in recent years as home prices climbed in Sydney and Melbourne.
Yet the survey's measure of whether it was a good time to buy a dwelling still rose 7 per cent in March, though that was down on the same month last year.
The index of house price expectations also rose another 2.2 per cent to be a hefty 26.7 per cent higher on a year ago.