Positive ratings of the buying climate have reached their worst in 22 years of weekly polls this week, with consumer confidence overall a point from its own record low.
The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -49 on its scale of +100 to -100; its all-time low was -50 in February 1992. The CCI has fallen by 29 points in the 19 weeks since the start of the year, its steepest drop on record in that time period.
Eighty-one percent of Americans call it a bad time to buy things they want and need. Even more, 89 percent, say the economy's in bad shape, the worst assessment on that score since November 1992.
Surging gas prices correlate strongly with falling confidence, and gas is up another 7 cents this week to a new high of an average $3.79 a gallon with the holiday weekend approaching. The weakened economy more generally, along with the ongoing credit and housing market crises, are adding to the damage.
INDEX – The CCI is based on Americans' ratings of their current finances, the national economy and the buying climate. Personal finances customarily do better, and they're now rated positively by 47 percent – down 11 points this year and 10 points off its long-term average in weekly polls since December 1985.
Far fewer, only 19 percent, rate the buying climate positively, down 12 points this year and just half its long-term average. Ratings of the national economy, just 11 percent positive, are down 20 points this year and 29 points below their average.
TREND – Confidence has been spiraling down all year long, with the index losing 8 points in the last month. Its slide this year has now surpassed the 19-week record of 28 points in fall 1990.
The CCI had been at -40 or lower for five weeks, a stretch unseen since a nine-week spell in late January to late March 1993. At -49, it's been this low or lower only seven times previously, not since November 1992.
It's averaging -35 for the year, a 25-point difference from its long-term average, -10, and on pace for its worst year since 1993, when it averaged -37.
The index as noted is just 1 point shy of its record low, and 87 points from its high, +38 in January 2000.
GROUPS – The CCI as usual is higher in better-off groups, though it's negative across the board. It's -7 among higher-income Americans while -77 among those with the lowest incomes, -37 among those who've been to college while -58 among high-school dropouts, -45 among whites but -69 among blacks and -43 among men while -53 among women.
Partisan differences remain: The index is -21 among Republicans, compared with -50 among independents and -64 among Democrats.
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; it was 13 percent last week. The highest was 80 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The lowest was 7 percent in late 1991 and early 1992.
PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-seven percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 46 percent last week. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 42 percent on March 14, 1993.
BUYING CLIMATE – A record-low 19 percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 20 percent last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000.
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 May 18, 2008. The results have a 3-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.