Confidence Inches Up, Still in the Deep Woods

cciABC News

Consumer confidence moved up this week to match its best of the year – but it remains deep in the woods, with Americans' ratings of current economic conditions still within sight of their all-time lows.

The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -47 on its scale of +100 to -100, 4 points higher than last week. While that matches the 2009 high a month ago, it's not all that far from the index's worst in 23 years of weekly polls, -54 in late January.

Click here for a PDF with charts and data table.

The gain comes from better positive ratings of personal finances and the buying climate, returning to six-week highs of 48 and 25 percent, respectively. But neither is good, and the third component of the CCI – ratings of the national economy – remain particularly dismal, only 7 percent positive.

Another factor in improved confidence is a decreased partisan gap. The CCIs for Republicans and Democrats are only 4 points apart, the smallest gap in more than eight years. It's occurred because attitudes have worsened among Republicans – at -42 their CCI is its worst in data back 18 years – while improving among Democrats, whose CCI of -46 is its best in a year.

President Obama recently said the economy was showing "glimmers of hope," but added, "We've still got a lot of work to do." The Federal Reserve's quarterly "Beige Book" seconded that sentiment on Wednesday, showing a deteriorating commercial real estate market, declines in employment and weak manufacturing activity.

INDEX – The CCI, as noted, is based on Americans' ratings of the national economy, their personal finances and the buying climate. Only 7 percent rate the economy positively, in single digits for a record 24 weeks and 32 points below average.

Twenty-five percent say it's a good time to buy things, the most in six weeks but just 7 points above the all-time low in October and August. A quarter or fewer have rated the buying climate positively for 14 weeks straight.

Ratings of personal finances, typically the best of the three measures, are also their best in six weeks. But fewer than a majority have rated their own finances positively for 39 weeks straight, a week away from the 40-week stretch at that level, in 1992-93.

TREND – Even with this week's gain, 2009 has been rough on confidence. The index's average for the year so far, -50, is 39 points below its long-term average and 8 points below its 2008 average – itself the second worst on record, after 1992.

At -47, the index is back above -50 for the first time in three weeks. But it's been remarkably consistent: between -47 and -54 for 28 weeks since mid-October, the longest such slump on record; and below -40 for the past year, another record.

The CCI is far below its record high, +38 in January 2000.

GROUPS – The index is negative across the board for the eighth consecutive week, with, as noted, the smallest partisan gap since September 2000. Today's 4 points compare with an average 33-point partisan gap in polling since 1990, and 41 points in 2008 alone.

The index customarily is higher among better-off groups (which includes Republicans). It's -16 among those with the highest incomes but -66 among those with the lowest, -33 among those who've attended college (the best since September) vs. -70 among high school dropouts, -42 among men while -50 among women, -44 among homeowners compared with -54 among renters (also the best since September) and -46 among whites vs. -53 among blacks (the best since December).

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; it was 5 percent last week. The highest was 80 percent Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 4 percent Feb. 8.

PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-eight 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 41 percent Jan. 25.

BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-five percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 22 percent last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 18 percent Oct. 19, Aug. 10 and Aug. 24, 2008.

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 April 19, 2009. 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.