Nov 27, 2008

Business - Consumer confidence at record low

Mark Dolliver

NEW YORK With Black Friday and Cyber Monday nearly upon us, it's not a propitious time for consumer confidence to be at a record low. That's where it is, though, in this week's ABC News Consumer Comfort Index data. On a scale of -100 (dreadful) to +100 (wonderful), the overall index figure now stands at -52, matching its lowest level in 22 years of weekly polling on the subject.

It's all the more striking that this has occurred as gas prices -- usually a key element in consumers' collective mood -- continue to sink. According to AAA data, a gallon of regular gas now costs $1.22 less than it did a year earlier and $2.25 less than it did at its peak this past July.

One part of the ABC News polling looks at how respondents rate their personal financial situation. The trend is as bad here as it is in people's reading of the economy at large: "Positive ratings of personal finances are down 15 points on the year to a point from their record low in March 1993." Still, 43 percent of respondents gave their own finances a positive rating, while just 8 percent assessed the national economy in positive terms. Responses to a question about the "buying climate" -- i.e., whether this is a good or bad time to buy things -- fell in between the national and personal outlook, with 21 percent of respondents saying it's a good or excellent time to be buying.

In the overall index, men are typically much more optimistic (or much less gloomy) than women. There's little difference now, though, with men's responses averaging -48 and women's -56. A year ago, by comparison, the figure was -10 for men and -30 for women. Married respondents are somewhat less downbeat than singles (-46 vs. -67). There's a significant amount of regional variation, with the index figure ranging from a high (if you can call it that) of -45 in the South to a low of -62 in the Northeast.

It doesn't take remarkable powers of clairvoyance to guess that fears about the job market are a big factor in the gloom the ABC News figures embody. And, indeed, Gallup polling released earlier this week found just 12 percent of respondents saying this is "a good time to find a quality job." That's the lowest percentage saying so since Gallup initiated this series of polls on a monthly basis in 2001.

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