They Should Rename It the Consumer Discomfort Index

The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index measures Americans’ economic confidence on a scale from +100 (wonderful) to -100 (terrible). Right now, people at the network’s polling unit must be wondering whether -100 will be a low enough number to capture the continuing decline in confidence. The latest reading shows the overall index at -46, “its lowest in 15 years and just 4 points from its all-time low in early 1992.”

Consumer confidence wasn’t exactly robust at the beginning of this year (the index stood at -20 on Jan. 6, 2008’s first reading). It’s all the more striking, then, that confidence has managed to fall so steeply in the past few months.

Within the polling components that make up the index, 20 percent of Americans said it’s “now a good time to buy things they want and need.” which ties the record low set in October and November 1990. Fourteen percent gave the national economy a positive rating (the fewest since August 1993). Forty-seven percent rated their own finances positively, which sounds like good news, comparatively speaking. But this measure has fallen 10 percentage points in the past four weeks and is just five points above its record low of November 1993.

Readers hoping to find some silver lining in the figures will focus on the dates when the previous lows were set. These mostly came not when the economy was going into recession but as it was emerging from one and heading toward the boom years of the later 1990s. But one could also see this as pointing to another sort of bad news: Even when the economy is picking up, it can take years for consumers to believe that things are getting better.

Among other tidbits from ABC’s report: Even among consumers in the $100,000-plus income bracket, the overall index figure was in negative territory, at -10 — though that’s miles better than the -74 among people with income under $15,000. There’s a good deal of regional variation, at least some of which is likely related to variations in costs for gasoline and home heating. The figure is least awful in the South (-38) and most dreadful in the West (-53). As usual, the index figure is worse among women (-53) than among men (-39).