Consumer confidence slouched along this week, on track for its worst quarter since Q1 of 1992. But things have been worse: The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is off the floor it hit last month, and has inched into the positive zone for the best-off Americans.
The index stands at -43 on its scale of +100 to -100, 33 points below its long-term average in 22 years of weekly polls, although 8 points up from the all-time low it hit a month ago and its best since April 27. It's been at or below -40 for 10 consecutive weeks.
The CCI has fallen sharply the past year and a half, particularly in the last two quarters. It averaged -2 in Q1 of 2007, -9 in Q2, -12 in Q3 and -18 in Q4. That accelerated to -31 in Q1 2008 and -44 this quarter. That it's worst since -47 at the start of 1992.
Consumers have good cause for concern. Gas averaged a record-tying $4.08 a gallon this week and the Case-Shiller Home Price Index dropped 15.3 percent, the biggest annual drop in its 21-year history. It's negative in all 20 metro areas measured, a first.
INDEX – The CCI is based on Americans' ratings of their current finances, the national economy and the buying climate. Even if off their recent record low, all three are in grave condition. Only one in seven rate the national economy positively, down 17 points from the beginning of this year and 26 points below the long-term average. About half rate the national economy as "poor," the worst since November 1992
Fewer than half rate their personal finances positively for the eighth straight week, the longest streak since the 15 weeks ending in August 1993.
Ratings of the buying climate are close to their all-time lows, hit just last month. Only 23 percent call it a good time to buy things, down 8 points this year and 15 points off the long-term average.
TREND – The index started this year at -20 and tumbled from there. It's dropped 23 points since the start of 2008 and has averaged -37 so far this year, the same as 1991 and 1993. The yearlong worst was -44 in 1992.
At -43, the CCI is 6 points off its 2008 average, and miles from its record high, +38 in January 2000.
GROUPS – As usual, the CCI is higher in better-off groups, but it is still negative for most Americans. Only the highest income bracket is positive at +5, the first time it's been positive since April, vs. -71 for those with the lowest incomes. It's -31 among people who've been to college while a dismal -73 among high-school dropouts, the lowest since -77 in July 1992. It's -39 among whites while -56 among blacks. Unusually, the index is lower among men, -45, than women, -39.
Partisan differences still are strong: The index is -17 among Republicans, compared with -39 among independents and -58 among Democrats.
Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:
NATIONAL ECONOMY – Fourteen 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-nine percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 48 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 23 percent last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000; the worst, 19 percent twice last month.
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 23, 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.