Feb. 23, 2010 -- The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index hit the dreaded -50 mark for the first time in nearly four months this week, a mere four points from its record low in 24 years of weekly polls.
While the change isn't statistically significant from recent levels, -50 is a psychological barrier – and not a happy one – for the index. This marks just the 25th time in 1,260 weekly polls the CCI has been this low. Remarkably, 23 of them have occurred in the past 16 months.
Figure on a scale of 100 to -100, the index has averaged -48 so far this year, matching its 2009 average, its worst full year on record. Compare those to its long-term average, -13, much less its best year, +29 in 2000, and its best week, +38 in January that year. Those days seem far away.
The federal government has reported seasonally adjusted increases in initial jobless claims (up 31,000 to 473,000 last week) and wholesale prices (up 1.4 percent in January). Neither helps.
Another consumer confidence measure, by the Conference Board, startled Wall Street with a drop today, but it's done monthly rather than weekly. The ABC CCI hit a short-term peaklet, -41, the first week of January, then sharply surrendered ground.
CURRENT INDEX – The index is based on Americans' ratings of the national economy, their personal finances and the buying climate. As has been true since early 2008, the current economy gets the most negative assessment of the three: Only 8 percent rate it positively, 30 points below the long-term average and in single digits for 13 weeks straight.
Just 24 percent call it a good time to spend money, 13 points worse than the long-term average. And 43 percent rate their personal finances positively, 14 points below its long-term average. Half or more have rated their own finances negatively for 88 of the last 94 weeks.
TREND – The CCI's hovered in a 3-point range since a highly unusual 6-point, one-week drop in January. It's been below -40 for a record 96 consecutive weeks.
GROUPS – As usual, the index is higher among better-off Americans, but it's been negative across all groups for 52 weeks straight, the longest such run in available data since 1990.
It's -4 among those with the highest incomes, -65 among those with the lowest; -40 among people who've attended college vs. -66 among those who never finished high school; -44 among homeowners but -67 among renters (their lowest since October); and -43 among men vs. -55 among women (tied with last week for their lowest since November).
The usual racial gap has been smaller recently and essentially disappeared this week, with the index at -49 among whites and -48 among blacks; long-term, by contrast, blacks have been less positive by an average 28 points.
The Republican-Democratic gap likewise has been narrower than usual this year, but widened in the last two weeks; the index now is -39 among Republicans vs. -56 among Democrats and -50 among independents. The 17-point gap this week compares with an average 6-point gap this year and 18 points last year, vs. 41 points in 2008 and 32 points long-term.
Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:
NATIONAL ECONOMY – Eight percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good, for the third straight week. The highest was 80 percent Jan. 16, 2000; the worst, 4 percent Feb. 8, 2009.
PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-three percent say their own finances are excellent or good; it was 44 percent last week and 47 percent the week before. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 39 percent June 28 and 21, 2009.
BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-four percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things, same as last week. The best was 57 percent on Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 18 percent, last reached Oct. 19, 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 Feb. 21, 2010. 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.