Confidence Runs Out of Gas in May

Consumer Confidence Index Chart.ABC News Photo Illustration/ABC News
Consumer Confidence Index Chart.

Rising gasoline prices have cut short an advance in public ratings of the current economy, pushing consumer confidence back near its record low in nearly a generation.

The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index has dropped 7 points below its mid-May high. No wonder: The average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline has gained 48 cents since the end of April. Rising gas prices historically have depressed consumer views.

Click here for PDF with charts and data table.

The CCI now stands at -49 on its scale of +100 to -100, worsening in the last three weeks after hitting -42 on May 10, its best of the year. The index now matches its 2009 average and is just 5 points from its record low in 23 years of weekly polls, -54 on Jan. 25.

The index is based on Americans' views of current economic conditions. Expectations for the future, which ABC measures separately, improved last month to their best in five years. Current sentiment, though, is the measure more firmly rooted in today's reality.

INDEX – The CCI's changes stem mostly from ratings of personal finances, which have swung from 45 percent positive in early April to 52 percent May 10, then back to 45 percent now – 12 points below their long-term average.

Positive ratings of the other two other elements of the CCI – the national economy and the buying climate – are steadier, and as usual, much lower. Twenty-four percent say it's a good time to buy things, stuck in a tight 2-point range the last seven weeks, 13 points below average and just 6 points above the record low in October and August.

In the worst of the three measures, only 7 percent rate the economy positively, in single digits for 32 of the last 34 weeks and 31 points below the long-term average.

TREND – The CCI advanced, in fits and starts, from a recent low of -51 in mid-April to its mid-May level, then took its sharpest three-week decline since October.

That extends a rough ride for confidence this year. The index's 2009 average so far, -49, is 37 points below its long-term average and 7 points below its 2008 average – itself the second worst on record, after 1992's -44.

The CCI has been below -40 for a record 58 weeks and hasn't seen positive territory for over two years. It's far below its record high, +38 in January 2000.

GROUPS – The index is higher as usual among better-off Americans, but still negative across the board for the 14th straight week – all but two weeks this year. It's -11 among those with the highest incomes but -80 among those with the lowest (the worst since February), -37 among those who've attended college vs. -58 among high school dropouts, -43 among men while -53 among women, -45 among homeowners compared with -56 among renters and -48 among whites (2 points from the low) vs. -56 among blacks.

Partisan differences remain, with the index at -35 among Republicans vs. -54 among Democrats and -52 among independents. That 19-point Republican-Democratic gap is smaller than last year's average difference, 41 points, and the long-term difference in data since 1990, 33 points.

In the past three weeks the index has dropped most sharply in the West, among men and independents.

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

PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-five 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-four percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 25 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 May 31, 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.