Economy Plays Grinch

In this year's Christmas gala, the economy's playing the role of Grinch. And the reviews are not good.

Consumer confidence is mired in its worst stretch in 23 years of weekly polls, with hardly a merry Who in sight. The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -51 on its scale of +100 to -100, easily within reach of the record low, -54, it hit Dec. 1.

Click here for PDF with charts and data table.

The CCI's been at or below -50 for six weeks straight, matching or setting record lows three times in that period. It's seen -50 or worse only 11 times in nearly 1,200 weeks of continuous polling – 10 of them this year.

Slumping confidence accompanies a range of negative indicators – rising unemployment and jobless claims, retail troubles and continued upheaval in the financial world. While gas prices have eased to their lowest since February 2004, other concerns have moved in. ABC News and The Washington Post will report tomorrow on an extensive survey of Americans' anxieties about current economic conditions.

INDEX – The CCI is based on Americans' ratings of the economy, their personal finances and the buying climate. Just 7 percent now say the economy's good, matching the low of two and four weeks ago and, previously, late 1991 and early 1992.

That rating is down 24 points on the year and 32 points off the long-term average; it's been in single digits for six weeks, the longest stretch since early 1992.

Just 22 percent rate the buying climate positively, down 9 points on the year and 16 points below the average. Twenty-five percent or fewer have rated the buying climate positively for 37 straight weeks, the longest such run on record.

At 44 percent, positive ratings of personal finances, typically the strongest measure, are down 14 points this year and 13 points off their average. Fewer than a majority have rated their finances positively for 21 weeks, the longest such stretch since 1992-93.

EXPECTATIONS – In a separate measure, views of the economy's future are hardly encouraging: Sixty-four percent think it's getting worse, up 9 points from last month, although down from an extraordinary 82 percent in October.

Only 9 percent think the economy is getting better, down from 16 percent last month.

Expectations have been muted all year; only in November and September did positive views crack double digits. An average of 67 percent this year have said the economy's worsening, compared with 40 percent in polls since 1981.

TREND – Since starting the year at -20, the CCI's hit hard times. It tumbled to a then-record low of -51 in May, recovered to -41 in July and September, but has been at -50 or below since mid-November – as noted, an unprecedented six weeks at this level.

The index has averaged -42 this year, surpassed only by its -44 in 1992. Those compare to its best year, +29 in 2000, and its best week, +38 in January 2000.

GROUPS – The CCI has been negative across demographic groups for 25 straight weeks; differences – mostly influenced by income levels – are smaller than usual, apparently given the level of agreement about the economic conditions.

It's -24 among people with the highest incomes compared with -58 among those with the lowest incomes; -48 among those who've been to college vs. -53 among high-school dropouts; -55 among blacks vs. -48 among whites (matching their low); and -59 among women (a new low) vs. -41 among men. The index is -66 among renters vs. -46 among homeowners.

Partisan differences a;so are much narrower than usual, with the index -39 among Republicans (a point from the low), -49 among independents and -58 among Democrats.

Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:

NATIONAL ECONOMY – Seven percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good, matching the worst set in late 1991 and early 1992, and matched this Nov. 16 and Dec. 1; it was 8 percent last week. The highest was 80 percent on Jan. 16, 2000.

PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-four percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 43 percent last week. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 42 percent two weeks ago and March 14, 1993.

BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-two percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 21 percent last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 18 percent this Oct. 19, Aug. 10 and Aug. 24.

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 Dec. 15, 2008. The results have a 3-point error margin. The expectations question was asked of 500 respondents Dec. 3-15, 2008; that result has a 4.5-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.