Consumer Confidence: Watching the Wallow

cci/ABC News

Consumer confidence reached its best since early October this week and pessimism about the future matched the five-year low it set in August. Whether it's recovery is another question.

The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -45 on its scale of +100 to -100, up 6 points in three weeks to its best since Oct. 4. The problem: The CCI has matched this mark three times since late August, only to fall back.

Click here for PDF with charts and data table.

So far, then, it's been a wallow, one that hasn't lifted confidence out of its historic lows. The CCI's average so far this year is -48, 4 points below the worst annual average on record, -44 in 1992, and well off its 23-year average, -12 in weekly polls since late 1985.

Expectations for the future, though, add a little spice – albeit just a little. In a separate, forward looking measure, 31 percent say the economy's still getting worse – hardly an inspiration, given how bad it already is, but matching the mid-August level for the fewest since January 2004. (It was just a point off this number last month.)

The "getting worse" number, moreover, has been below a majority for 10 months, the best such run since 2005. On the other hand, just 28 percent say the economy's improving; that tapered off after a 2009 peak of 33 percent in May. And that leaves 38 percent who think the economy's holding steady – again not a happy outlook given its condition.

With jobs a clear element of the public's economic discontent, the Obama administration has announced a "job creation summit" Dec. 3 – a day before the next unemployment report is to be released.

INDEX – Of the three components of the current sentiment index, 46 percent of Americans now rate their personal finances positively, the best since late August and 7 points higher than its record low in June. But it's still 11 points below average, and has languished below a majority for 27 weeks straight and all but two weeks this year.

Twenty-six percent rate the buying climate positively, up 5 points in three weeks – the best such gain since September 2008. But this gauge remains 11 points below average and under 30 percent positive for a record 88 weeks.

Positive ratings of the national economy, at 11 percent, are the same as last week, 27 points below their long-term average.

INDEX TREND – The index, while still struggling, is its best in six weeks, having elbowed its way up 6 points since hitting -51 three weeks ago. It hasn't moved that far that fast since last spring, on its way to the year's best, -42 May 10.

Still, the CCI's been below -40 for 82 consecutive weeks, a record, and hasn't seen positive territory since March 2007.

Its best yearlong average was +29 in 2000; its best week, +38 in January 2000.

GROUPS – The index, as usual, is higher among better-off Americans but has been negative across the board for 38 weeks straight, the longest such run in data since 1990.

It's -24 among those with the highest incomes but -74 among those with the lowest, -37 among people who've attended college vs. -53 among high school dropouts (the best since March), -39 among men (the best since July) while -48 among women, -40 among homeowners compared with -52 among renters, and -41 among whites (the best since May) vs. -56 among blacks. The last is far different from the usual 28-point racial gap.

Partisan differences remain, with the CCI at -30 among Republicans (the best since February), compared with -47 among Democrats (the best since May) and -42 among independents. The Republican-Democratic gap has been narrower than usual this year, averaging 19 points, compared with 41 points last year and 32 points long-term.

Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:

NATIONAL ECONOMY – Eleven percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good, the same as last week. The highest was 80 percent Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 4 percent Feb. 8, 2009.

PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-six percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 45 percent last week. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 39 percent June 28 and 21, 2009.

BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-six percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 25 percent last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 18 percent, last reached Oct. 19, 2008.

METHODOLOGY – Interviews for the ABC News Consumer Comfort Index are reported in a four-week rolling average. This week's results are based on telephone interviews among a random national sample of 1,000 adults in the four weeks ending Nov. 16, 2009. The results have a 3-point error margin. The expectations question was asked of 500 respondents Nov. 4-16, 2009; that result has a 4.5-point error margin. Field work by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

The index is derived by subtracting the negative response to each index question from the positive response to that question. The three resulting numbers are added and divided by three. The index can range from +100 (everyone positive on all three measures) to -100 (all negative on all three measures). The survey began in December 1985.