Q3 2009: Confidence Drags

Consumer Comfort Index Chart/ABC News
Consumer Comfort Index Chart.

Three-quarters of the way through 2009 consumer confidence is on pace for its worst full year in 23 years of weekly polls.

The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index stands at -46 on its scale of +100 to -100, same as last week. It's averaged -48 this quarter and the same for the year to date; those compare with -44 across 1992, its worst full year; and -12 on average since this poll began in late 1985.

Click here for PDF with charts and data table.

The quarter's average is very near the worst quarters on record, -50 both in Q4 2008 and Q1 2008. And the index remains within sight of its record low, -54 in January.

Dreary consumer views are countered by other more hopeful signs; the Fed last week said "economic activity has picked up following its severe downturn," new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly fell by 21,000 last week and home prices are reported up again – the sixth month of improved readings. But it could be a long road for consumers, especially with unemployment so high; it was three years after the technical end of the last deep recession in 1990 to 1991 before the CCI returned to its pre-recession level.

INDEX – The index is based on Americans' ratings of the national economy, their personal finances and the buying climate. For the second straight week 10 percent rate the national economy positively – far from good, but the first time in nearly a year that positive ratings have cracked double digits two weeks in a row. They're 28 points below the long-term average.

Twenty-six percent say it's a good time to buy things, the same as last week and a point from the year's best. But that's 11 points below average and below 30 percent for a record 81 weeks.

Ratings of personal finances, at 45 percent positive, also are the same as last week, below a majority for the 20th straight week and 12 points below their long-term average.

TREND – The CCI has spent the last 10 weeks above -50, hardly a grand achievement but the longest such stretch since summer 2008. It's been below -40 for a record 75 weeks and hasn't seen positive territory since March 2007.

Its current best yearlong average was +29 in 2000; its best week, +38 in January 2000.

GROUPS – The index is higher as usual among better-off Americans, but has been negative across the board for 31 weeks straight and all but two weeks this year.

It's -3 among those with the highest incomes (the best since February) while -73 among those with the lowest, -33 among those who've attended college vs. -78 among high school dropouts (3 points from the low set last week), -37 among homeowners (matching the best since last September) compared with -68 among renters (the worst since July), and -45 among whites vs. -60 among blacks (matching the worst since May). This week's 15-point racial gap again is narrower than usual – it's averaged 28 points long-term.

After reaching parity last week for only the second time in data since 1990, there is a slight gender gap this week, -43 among men and -48 among women. That 5-point difference compares with a long-term gap of 16 points. It's narrowed as men have moved farther below their long-term average.

Partisan differences also are smaller than usual, with the index at -41 among Republicans (1 point from the low) vs. -51 among Democrats (and -45 among independents). The Republican-Democratic gap was a vastly larger 41 points last year, and has averaged 32 points in available data since 1990. It's narrowed because Republicans have dropped farther below their norm.

Here's a closer look at the three components of the ABC News CCI:

NATIONAL ECONOMY – Ten percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good, the same as last week. The highest was 80 percent Jan. 16, 2000. The worst was 4 percent Feb. 8, 2009.

PERSONAL FINANCES – Forty-five percent say their own finances are excellent or good, the same as last week. The best was 70 percent, last reached in January 2000. The worst was 39 percent June 28 and 21, 2009.

BUYING CLIMATE – Twenty-six percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things, the 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 Sept. 27, 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.

ERRATA – A software problem at ICR created errors in crosstabulated results by income group and marital status in data Aug. 30 to Oct. 18. The CCI overall and in other crosstabulations was not affected. This report has been updated with corrected results by income group and marital status.