Positive ratings of the buying climate edged up to their best in more than a year and a half this week, holding out a glimmer of hope for holiday retailers. But consumer confidence overall remains so low as to keep the shopping season's outlook deeply clouded.
The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -45 on its scale of +100 to -100, better than its all-time low last January, but not by a lot. Indeed the CCI, averaging -48 this year, is on pace for its worst year on record in 23 years of weekly polls.
Just 28 percent call this a good time to buy things they want and need, hardly an ebullient rating (the long-term average is 37 percent, the high 57 percent in 2000) but up 7 points since the end of October, 8 points better than at this time last year and its best since March 2008.
The other two components of the index – ratings of personal finances and the economy – haven't moved much since late October, and remain below their best of the year, as well as dismal in historical terms.
The CCI, based on these three gauges, has been mired at roughly its current level since April 2008; dipping as low as -54 in January, inching as high as –41 in September 2008, but never breaking out of the grim zone. Compare its level now to its long-term average, -12 since late 1985.
Actual spending in the crucial holiday season won't be entirely clear until federal retail sales data are available in January. In a positive sign, the government last week reported month-to-month and year-to-year increases in personal consumption expenditures and real disposable income. But the climate isn't good: In a separate ABC News poll last week, 50 percent said they intend to cut back on holiday spending – not quite so bad as a year ago, but still among the broadest levels of intended cutbacks in data back a quarter century.
INDEX – Just 45 percent of Americans now rate their own finances positively, 12 points below average and 6 points from the record low in June. It's been below a majority for 29 weeks straight and all but two weeks this year.
Positive ratings of the buying climate, at 28 percent positive, are still 9 points below average; they've been under 30 percent for a record 90 weeks.
Positive ratings of the national economy are by far the worst of the three measures; at 9 percent they're back in single digits after 10 weeks just over that mark, and a whopping 29 points below their long-term average.
TREND – At -45, the index matches its best since reaching its 2009 high, -42 May 10. But it is having trouble pushing above that point: Since May the CCI's been at -45 five times – most recently two weeks ago – without improving further.
Historically, as noted, the CCI's suffering. It's been below -40 for a record 84 weeks and hasn't seen positive territory since March 2007. It's miles away from its best yearlong average, +29 in 2000, much less its best week, +38 in January 2000.
GROUPS – The index is negative across the board for the 40th week straight, the longest such run in data since 1990, with – unusually – almost no partisan gap. The index is -38 among Republicans, only 4 points from their worst, and -40 among Democrats, their best since January 2008. (It's -53 among independents.) The average Democratic-Republican gap is 32 points; it was 41 points last year, but just 2 points now.