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Varied data suggest the economy is healing

But fiscal cliff is still a potentially major threat

Americans appear to be more confident — and are shopping more — as hiring picks up.

Alex Slitz /Daily News via Associated Press

Americans appear to be more confident — and are shopping more — as hiring picks up.

WASHINGTON — Consumers are growing more confident about the job market, companies are ordering more equipment, and home prices are rising in most major cities.

The latest government data suggest the economy is improving as the holiday shopping season begins. The main threat is a package of huge spending cuts and tax increases, known as the fiscal cliff, that will kick in unless Congress strikes a budget deal by year’s end.

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Rising home values, more hiring, and lower gas prices pushed consumer confidence in November to the highest level in nearly five years. And steady consumer spending appears to have encouraged businesses to invest more in October after pulling back over the summer.

Those trends could boost economic growth slightly in the final months of the year. But the real payoff could be early next year if the fiscal cliff is avoided. Businesses that have postponed expanding could move forward. That could lead to more hiring.

‘‘Right now, households don’t seem to be letting the fiscal threat control their urge to spend,’’ said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. ‘‘The first weekend of holiday sales was great, vehicle sales are holding up, and housing is strong.’’

Reports on Tuesday showed:

 The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index rose to 73.7 in November, from 73.1 in October. Both are the best readings since February 2008. The index is still below 90, the level that is consistent with a healthy economy. It last reached that point in December 2007, the first month of the Great Recession. But the index has increased from the record low of 25.3 in February 2009.

 The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city index of home prices rose 3 percent in September, compared with the same month last year. Prices gained 3.6 percent in the July-September quarter, compared with the same quarter in 2011.

 Companies ordered more industrial machinery and other large equipment in October. Orders for core capital goods, considered a proxy for business investment, rose 1.7 percent,the Commerce Department said. That follows sharp declines over the summer.

One reason Americans are more optimistic is because they see the job market improving, the Conference Board survey showed. Employers added 171,000 jobs in October and more jobs were created in August and September than first thought.

The percentage of Americans who say jobs are ‘‘plentiful’’ rose to 11.2 percent from 10.4 percent in the previous month. That’s the highest level in four years.

Falling gas prices are providing another boost. Gas prices have dropped from an average of $4 a gallon in September to $3.42 Tuesday, AAA says.

There are signs consumer optimism is leading to more spending. Shoppers spent an average of $423 from Thursday through Sunday, up from $398 last year. Online sales jumped 30.3 percent on Cyber Monday.

‘‘Hopefully, their optimism is warranted,’’ said Joseph LaVorgna, an economist at Deutsche Bank.

But if the fiscal cliff isn’t avoided, they ‘‘could be in for a rude awakening.’’

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