POLL: Pessimism Spikes, Confidence Low

Economic pessimism spiked this week to its highest level in 17 years, with 68 percent of Americans saying the economy is getting worse -- up a sharp 13 points from last month to its highest since November 1990, shortly after the economy fell into a recession.

Confidence in current economic conditions, meanwhile, has slipped to a point away from its 2007 low, and remains in its longest trough since just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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The results are troubling with Black Friday, the traditional start to the holiday shopping season, just days away. With gas holding at $3.10 a gallon, rocky credit and housing markets and an unstable stock market, retailers' prospects seem highly uncertain.

EXPECTATIONS -- Economic pessimism in this poll echoes a result from an ABC/Post poll earlier this month, in which 69 percent of Americans called it at least somewhat likely that there'll be a recession in the year ahead.

Now, as noted, about the same number, 68 percent say the economy is getting worse, up from 55 percent last month, far higher than its average, 39 percent in ABC/Post polls since 1981. Pessimism was higher twice before, 77 percent in October and November 1990, amid both a recession and climbing oil prices after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Just 7 percent of Americans say the economy is getting better, 13 points below its overall average and its lowest since it hit 6 percent in October 1992. There's a sharp regional difference in pessimism -- highest in the South, with significantly more optimism in the West.

INDEX -- The ABC/Post Consumer Comfort Index, based on ratings of current economic conditions rather than expectations, stands at -19 on its scale of +100 to -100, a point from its 2007 low in mid-August. It's held within a four-point range the last month and has been in negative double digits for almost four months, its longest stretch at that level since the period after Hurricane Katrina. The CCI is based on Americans' ratings of their personal finances, the national economy and the buying climate. Thirty-two percent call it a good time to buy things, the lowest percentage since August 2006; 33 percent rate the national economy positively, same as last week, and 7 points below the 2007 average. Ratings of personal finances, as usual, are the strongest of the three measures -- 56 percent rate them positively, about matching the long-term average in weekly CCI polls since late 1985.

TREND -- The CCI has averaged -9 this year, matching its long-term average, but with a better first half of the year than a second half. The index approached positive territory from January to March, then it reeled from a nine-point drop in four weeks from March to April, a 12-point drop in May to June and then its largest ever one-week drop of 9 points in August.

Even with its recent trouble, the CCI's average so far this year is its best since +4 in 2001. In weekly polls since 1985, it has ranged as high as +38, in January 2000; and as low as -50, in February 1992.

GROUPS -- As usual the CCI is higher in better-off groups. It's +11 among higher-income people while -69 among those with the lowest incomes, -9 among those who've been to college while -24 among high-school dropouts and -16 among whites but -51 among blacks. The gender gap has widened slightly from last week, although still narrow at -15 among men vs. -22 among women.

Partisan differences remain: The index is +4 among Republicans, but -28 among independents and -29 among Democrats. That gap, however, is usually bigger; it's averaged 53 points this year. The main change is among Republicans, who are at a 2007 low.

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

NATIONAL ECONOMY -- Thirty-three percent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good; it was 33 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 highest was 70 percent last reached in January 2000. The lowest was 42 percent on March 14, 1993.

BUYING CLIMATE -- Thirty-two percent say it's an excellent or good time to buy things; it was 34 percent last week. The highest was 57 percent Jan. 16, 2000. The lowest was 20 percent in fall 1990.

METHODOLOGY -- Interviews for the ABC News/Washington Post 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 Nov. 18, 2007. The results have a three-point error margin. The expectations question was asked of 500 respondents Nov. 4 - 18; that result has a 4.5-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.

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