Consumer confidence advanced for the first time in three months in an unusual one-week gain this week, lifting from its all-time low in 22 years of weekly polls.
The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index moved up 6 points to -45 on its scale of +100 to -100; it's increased by 6 or more points only eight times before. But it's still dreadful: Last week the CCI set a record low, -51, and it's been at -45 or lower for five weeks straight.
Ratings of the buying climate led this week's gain; consumers might be encouraged by government rebate checks. At the same time tight credit, the housing crisis and, above all, rising gas prices continue; gas was up four cents this week to a new record, $3.98.
INDEX – The CCI is based on Americans' ratings of their current finances, the national economy and the buying climate. Twenty-three percent rate the buying climate positively, up 4 points from last week's all-time low.
Ratings of the national economy, just 12 percent positive, are down 19 points this year and 28 points below their long-term average. Personal finances generally do better; they're now rated positively by 47 percent, 10 points below the long-term average.
TREND – Even with this week's spike, confidence is in a dire situation. In early March the index gained 7 points in two weeks to -30, but the advance proved brief; since then it dropped 21 points until this week.
As noted, the CCI has been at -45 or below for five weeks, the longest since a seven-week stretch that ended in November 1992. It has much farther to go to catch its record at -40 or less – it's been there for seven weeks, compared to a 37-week run in 1991-92.
Although up 6 points from last week's record low, the index is 11 points off this year's average, 35 points below its long-term average and 83 points below its record high, +38 in January 2000.
GROUPS – The CCI is higher, as usual, in better-off groups, but still negative across the board, including an uncharacteristically low -13 among higher-income Americans, as well as a grim -85 among those with the lowest incomes. It's -40 among people who've been to college while -50 among high-school dropouts and -43 among whites but -61 among blacks. It's closer than usual among men and women, -43 and -48 respectively.
Partisan differences still are strong: The index is -11 among Republicans, compared with -51 among independents and -62 among Democrats. The partisan gap is its largest since the first week of this year.
Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:
NATIONAL ECONOMY – Twelve percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good; it was 10 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 45 percent last week. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 42 percent on March 14, 1993.
BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-three percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was a record low 19 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 June 1, 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.