Economy

Weekly Economic Wrap: Mixed Consumer Messages

by Lydia Saad

Perceptions of one’s standard of living is up while hiring reports are down

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup Poll Daily tracking for the week spanning Monday, April 6 through Sunday, April 12 (with no interviewing on Easter Sunday) finds conflicting indications of the direction in which consumer attitudes moved in the past week. Americans' overall impression of the U.S. economy is unchanged. At the same time, the Gallup Standard of Living Index is sharply improved, while consumer spending is down and employees' perceptions of hiring conditions where they work are the worst Gallup has recorded since January 2008.

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Gallup Consumer Mood Index
(Maximum possible value of 200; minimum possible value of -200)

The Gallup Consumer Mood Index remained at -75 for the week ending April 12, exactly the same as for the week ending April 5.

Although still mired in deeply negative territory, the Index has leveled off at the highest point seen in over a year, after four consecutive weeks of improvement. The Index stood at just -116 in early March. However, the lowest weekly reading for the Index since the start of Gallup Poll Daily tracking in January 2008 was -129, recorded in October 2008.

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The Consumer Mood Index is based on Americans' answers to two questions -- one asking about current economic conditions in the country and the other about the direction of the economy. Consumers' negativity has diminished significantly on both dimensions compared with early March; however, this has been most pronounced with respect to the direction of the economy.

Consumer perceptions about the economy's direction moderated from a net -59 in early March to a net -30 the week ending April 5. This past week, the figure was essentially unchanged, at -29 (based on 32% of Americans saying the economy is getting better and 61% saying it is getting worse).

Consumer perceptions of current economic conditions remain much more negative than positive, with 9% calling them "excellent" or "good" versus 55% "poor," resulting in a net current conditions score of -46. This is statistically unchanged from the -45 recorded March 30 through April 5, but is still improved over the -57 in early March (though not by as much as the economic direction measure).

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Gallup Monitor of Consumer Spending
(Unlimited maximum possible value; minimum possible value of $0)

Americans last week reported spending an average of $55 per day in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online. This is down from $71 in average daily spending the week prior, and puts the measure back in line with the lower spending recorded in the first half of March.

Gallup's spending data are based on Americans' self-reports of the total amount of money they spent the prior day on purchases other than a home, a motor vehicle, or their normal monthly bills.

Part of the reason for the lower spending observed last week could be the interruption in Gallup's daily polling caused by Easter Sunday. Because the Gallup spending question asks respondents to recall the total amount of money they spent the prior day, this means that spending on Saturday, April 11, is not captured in last week's spending average. With Saturday typically being the highest spending day of the week, this could account for some of the drop in consumer spending between last week and the week prior. However, Gallup also found spending off sharply last Monday and Tuesday, April 6 and 7.

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Gallup Net New Hiring Index
(Maximum possible value of 100; minimum possible value of -100)

Despite the sustained recovery in the Gallup Consumer Mood Index in recent weeks, employees' reports on hiring patterns at their own workplaces show no signs of improvement. In fact, Gallup's Net New Hiring Index for the week ending April 12 was at -11, down from -8 the previous week, and from -4 in the last two weeks of March.

Net New Hiring was in positive territory for most of 2008, descending below zero for the first time in mid-December. It has been in negative territory throughout 2009 thus far, and the current -11 is the lowest reading seen yet, breaking the previous week's record-low -8.

The Gallup Net New Hiring Index for last week is based on the finding that 20% of full- and part-time workers said their employers were hiring people and expanding the number of employees in their workforces, while 31% reported their companies were letting people go and shrinking the size of their workforces.

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Gallup Standard of Living Index
(Maximum possible value of 200; minimum possible value of -200)

The Gallup Standard of Living Index took a marked jump in the past week to 57, up from 46 the week prior, and from 39 for the week ending March 22. This marks the highest level for the Index since last summer.

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The Standard of Living Index is based on two questions -- one asking about respondents' satisfaction with their current standard of living and the other about the perceived direction of their standard of living. Last week's results mark the first time since last September that more consumers said their standard of living is getting better (42%) than said it is getting worse (36%). The "getting better" figure is up four points over the previous week. At the same time, 75% of consumers said they are satisfied with their standard of living -- up slightly from 73% last week and 72% in mid-March.

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Gallup Consumer Worry Index
(Maximum possible value of 100; minimum possible value of 0)

The Gallup Consumer Worry Index is at 35 for the week ending April 12 -- essentially the same as the previous week. On this measure, the higher the score, the more negative the consumer attitude. The high point for the Consumer Worry Index since it was launched by Gallup in January 2008 was 45 last October, near the start of the banking and U.S. financial crisis. Thus, the Index -- which measures the percentage of respondents who worried about money "yesterday" -- has moderated along with consumer perceptions about the economy since the peak of those concerns last fall.

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Commentary

The week leading into Easter Sunday provided a mixed bag of indications of whether consumers' sense of financial security improved or worsened compared to the prior week. At the same time that Gallup found no change in the percentage of Americans saying they worried about money, consumers expressed heightened confidence in their personal standard of living. Simultaneously, the subset of Americans who work full- or part-time provided the worst picture of hiring conditions Gallup has seen all year, and consumers may have pared back their spending after two weeks of more robust outlays.

Against this complex set of findings about Americans' personal finances and perceptions about employment at their companies, Gallup finds no change in consumers' overall views about the U.S. economy, as reflected in the Consumer Mood Index.

Survey Methods

For Gallup Poll Daily tracking, Gallup interviews approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, each day. Gallup's consumer series includes the Gallup Consumer Mood Index (evaluating public perceptions about the U.S. economy), the Gallup Monitor of Consumer Spending (a measure of how much money Americans are spending each day on mainly retail purchases), the Gallup Net New Hiring Index (a measure of employee perceptions of hiring conditions where they work), the Gallup Standard of Living Index (evaluating the public's perceptions about its own standard of living), and the Gallup Consumer Worry Index (a measure of the degree to which Americans are worried about their finances).

The Standard of Living Index is based on questions asked of all respondents; the Gallup Consumer Mood Index, the Gallup Monitor of Consumer Spending, and the Gallup Consumer Worry Index are based on random half-samples of approximately 500 national adults, aged 18 and older, each day. The Gallup Net New Hiring Index is based on a sample of approximately 250 current full- and part-time employees each day.

The sample sizes and associated margins of error for weekly results for the week of April 6-12 are:

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Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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