Dec. 15: Confidence Above Average

Consumer confidence is approaching the close of 2004 at the high end of an up-and-down-year -- both within sight of its best this year, and better than its 19-year average.

The ABC News/Money magazine Consumer Comfort Index stands at -6 this week on its scale of +100 to -100. It was -8 last week and -9 the week before, after dropping from -4 near the end of November.

With less than three weeks left in 2004, the index is just about where it started the year, -7. It's had a rocky time since then, buffeted by spiking gasoline prices, a weak job market and high levels of election-year partisanship. It peaked at -3 in mid-January, bottomed out at -22 in mid-March, bounced back through the spring, fell to -20 in mid-June, then recovered again.

Across 2004, the index has averaged -11. That's better than last year's average, -19, and just a touch below its overall average, -9.

Better-than average confidence could help retailers this holiday season. An ABC News poll last week found Americans planning to spend an average of $843 on gifts this year, compared with an inflation-adjusted $803 last year. The increase was centered on the three in 10 shoppers who do at least some of their purchasing over the Internet.

INDEX -- The ABC/Money index is based on Americans' ratings of the current economy, the buying climate and their personal finances. Forty-two percent rate the national economy positively (the long-term average is 40 percent), 40 percent call it a good time to buy things (the average is 39 percent) and 59 percent say their personal finances are in good shape (the average is 57 percent).

EXPECTATIONS -- Expectations for the direction of the economy, measured separately, are essentially unchanged from last month. A third of Americans think the economy is getting worse, matching the fewest since January. About three in 10 think it's getting better, and nearly four in 10 think it's holding steady.

While not very optimistic, expectations are better than average: Since 1981, just 21 percent of Americans on average have said the economy is improving, while more, 38 percent, have said it is worsening.

TREND -- At -6, the ABC/Money index is well off its all-time high, +38 in January 2000, but also far from its all-time low, -50 in February 1992. As noted, the index has averaged -11 so far this year. Its best yearly average was +29 in 2000; its worst: -44 in 1992.

GROUPS -- As usual, confidence is stronger among better-off Americans. The index is +51 among higher-income people while -46 among those with the lowest incomes; +10 among college graduates but -31 among high-school dropouts; +1 among whites but -42 among blacks; and +4 among men but -14 among women.

The index is worst in the Midwest (-14) and best in the South (+1). And as has been the case all year, the index is far higher among Republicans (+30), than independents (-8) or Democrats (-34).

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

NATIONAL ECONOMY -- Forty-two percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good; it was 41 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-nine 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 percent say it is an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 39 percent 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 Dec. 12 and have an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points. The expectations question was asked of 500 respondents Dec. 1-12; that result has a 4.5-point margin of error. Field work was conducted by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

The ABC/Money index is derived by subtracting the negative response to each index question 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.