Economic Outlook Weakens

Ratings of current economic conditions are holding steady, but the number of Americans who think the economy is getting worse has reached its highest level in seven months.

Forty-two percent of Americans in this week’s ABC News/"Money" magazine poll say the economy’s worsening, the most since March and matching the most since March 2003. It was 38 percent last month, and 36 percent in July.

Gasoline prices might be a factor. The average price for a gallon is now $2.04, up 19 cents in the last month to its highest level since May. Rising economic pessimism could indicate Americans are bracing for further increases.

Nevertheless, two weeks before Election Day George W. Bush is in a better position than his father was in the deep economic doldrums of 1992. At that time there was a 46-point gap between economic pessimists and optimists. It’s a much narrower 15 points today.

INDEX -- Pessimism about the future has not dragged down consumer views of current conditions, at least not yet. The ABC/"Money" index stands at -11 on its scale of +100 to -100. Last March, by contrast, when economic pessimism was last at this level, the index was -22.

The ABC/"Money" index is based on Americans’ views of the national economy, their personal finances and the buying climate (optimism or pessimism about the future are measured separately). This week, 37 percent rate the economy positively, three points below the long-term average in weekly polls since late 1985; 41 percent call it a good time to buy things, two points above average; and 56 percent say their own finances are in good shape, one point from its average.

TREND -- The index has had an up-and-down year: It peaked this year at -3 in mid-January; dropped to its worst of this year, -22, in mid-March; bounced back throughout the spring; fell to -20 in mid-June; and then recovered again. It’s unchanged from last week, after a monthlong slide from -7.

The index has ranged from a high of +38 in January 2000 to a low of -50 in February 1992. Its worst annual average was -44 in 1992. Last year it averaged -19, much worse than the best yearly average of +29 in 2000. The 2004 average so far is -12.

At this time in 1992, the ABC/Money index stood at -48 -- a whopping 37 points below its current standing.

GROUPS -- As has been the case throughout this election season, confidence varies widely by partisanship. Republicans are the most sanguine, +39, while Democrats are the least, -44. The index among independents, a key swing voter group, is -20.

As usual, confidence is stronger among better-off Americans. The index is +42 among high-income people while -42 among those with the lowest incomes, 0 among college graduates while -45 among high-school dropouts, -4 among whites but -39 among blacks and +3 among men but -24 among women.

Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News/"Money" index:

NATIONAL ECONOMY -- Thirty-seven percent of Americans rate the U.S. economy as excellent or good; it was 35 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 -- Fifty-six percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 58 percent last week. The best was 70 percent on Aug. 30, 1998, matched in January 2000. The worst was 42 percent on March 14, 1993.

BUYING CLIMATE -- Forty-one percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; 40 percent said so last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 20 percent in fall 1990.

METHODOLOGY -- The ABC News/"Money" magazine Consumer Comfort Index represents a rolling average based on telephone interviews with a random sample of about 1,000 adults nationwide each month. This week's results are based on 1,000 interviews in the four weeks ending Oct. 17, 2004, and have an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points. The expectations question was asked of 500 respondents Oct. 6-17; that result has a 4.5-point margin of error. Field work was conducted by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

The ABC News/"Money" index is derived as follows: The negative response to each index question is subtracted from the positive response to that question. The three resulting numbers are then 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.

Click here for PDF version with charts and data table.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.