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.

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