Consumer confidence remained in a slump this week, down amid rising energy prices, a volatile stock market and the still-burgeoning credit crisis.
The ABC News/Washington Post Consumer Comfort Index stands at -17 on its scale of +100 to -100, not far from its low for the year, -20 in mid-August. It's been in a tight two-point range for four weeks, and in negative double digits for 14 weeks, its longest run at that level since just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
And relief may not be in sight: U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress last week that the credit and housing markets may get worse before they get better. Gasoline is more than $3 a gallon for the first time since July; and oil is approaching $100 a barrel just as the weather turns cold. None of this is good news with the holiday shopping season approaching.
INDEX -- The ABC/Post CCI is based on Americans' ratings of personal finances, the national economy and the buying climate. Ratings of the national economy are furthest from their usual level; 33 percent rate it positively, 7 points below both the 2007 average and the long-term average in weekly polls since late 1985. About as many, 34 percent, rate the buying climate positively, compared with a long-term average of 38 percent. Ratings of personal finances, as usual, are much higher -- 58 percent positive, within a point of their long-term average.
TREND -- The CCIs averaged -9 this year, matching its long-term average but more of that came in the first half of 2007 (-6) than in the second half to date (-13). It's inched into positive numbers only twice this year, Feb. 19 and March 11.
Since then the index has suffered several sharp drops -- down 9 points in four weeks from March to April, down 12 points in May to June, and then down again in August, when it had its largest ever one-week drop of 9 points, bottoming out at -20.
The CCI has ranged as high as +38, in January 2000, and as low as -50, in February 1992. Despite its current difficulties, it's on pace for its best overall year in six years; it averaged +4 in 2001 before dropping with the dot-com bust.
GROUPS -- As usual the CCI is higher in better-off groups. It's +20 among higher-income people while -70 among those with the lowest incomes, -7 among those who've been to college while -31 among high-school dropouts and -11 among whites but -47 among blacks. Unusually, there's no significant gender gap for the second straight week.
Partisan differences remain: The index is +9 among Republicans but -20 among independents and -31 among Democrats. That partisan gap, though, is usually larger; it's averaged 53 points this year. The main change is among Republicans, who are at a 2007 low.
Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News/ Washington Post CCI:
NATIONAL ECONOMY -- Thirty-three percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good; it was 33 percent last week. The highest was 80 percent Jan. 16, 2000. The lowest was 7 percent in late 1991 and early 1992.
PERSONAL FINANCES -- Fifty-eight percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 58 percent last week. The highest was 70 percent last reached in January 2000. The lowest was 42 percent on March 14, 1993.