NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Consumer confidence stabilized last week, pausing after a steep, two-month decline that erased the gains derived from an end-of-the-year rally.
The ABC News/Money magazine Consumer Comfort Index, based on views of current economic conditions, stands at -21 on its scale of +100 to -100. That's essentially unchanged from the previous week when the index hit a 10-month low of -22 and 12 points off its historical -9 average.
Consumer confidence may face further pressures, at least in the short term. Major stock indexes hit new lows for the year on Monday and gasoline prices, which are hovering around $1.74 a gallon, are only a penny shy of their record high. The Energy Department predicts a peak of $1.83 a gallon later this spring. The index has been sensitive to rising gas prices in the past.
Falling ratings of the national economy had been dragging the overall index down before the score steadied last week. Twenty-nine percent of Americans now rate the nation's economy as good or excellent, unchanged from the week prior. The highest level of confidence for this category, 80 percent, was set in January 2000 while the lowest, 7 percent, was recorded in late 1991 and early 1992.
The personal finance gauge also held steady as 53 percent of those polled rated their own finances as excellent or good, unchanged from the previous week. Consumers reported their highest level of confidence in this category, 70 percent, in August 1998 and Jan. 2000, while the lowest level was recorded in March 1993 with 42 percent.
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The survey's spending gauge boosted the overall index as 37 percent of those surveyed said it's an excellent or good time to buy things they want or need, up from 35 percent the week prior. The highest level of confidence for this category was recorded at 57 percent in January 2000 and the worst, 20 percent, in the fall of 1990.
Confidence, as usual, is higher among better-off Americans. The index is +7 among higher-income people and -63 among those with the lowest incomes.
The index is +36 among Republicans. But, in a possible sign of trouble for President Bush this election year, consumer confidence is essentially as bad among independents, -36, as Democratic voters, -39. The index fell 16 points for independents--the classic swing voters--in only one month.
The ABC News/Money magazine Consumer Comfort Index represents a rolling average based on telephone interviews with a random sample of about 1,000 adults nationwide each month. This week's results are based on 1,000 interviews in the month ending March 21, 2004, and have an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.