A weak employment picture hit lower-income households the hardest this month, and the budget impasse in Washington created a drag on consumer outlook among the more affluent, according to the Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure of Americans' personal financial health.
"Poor employment levels for the lower-income households and fears of fiscal uncertainty for more affluent households were the perfect storm to sink the significant gains seen last month," says Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
More Americans are losing rather than starting jobs. The employment measure dropped to 49.7 this month from its high last month of 51.5, and job starts fell to 5.4 percent from 5.7 percent a month earlier, while job losses jumped to 5.9 percent from 2.7 percent. The decline in employment most severely affected those in households earning less than $50,000, where the index dropped to 47.8 from 51.8 last month.
Although consumer sentiment was unchanged overall from last month, it did drop among Americans earning $100,000 or more: For the first time, their strongly positive sentiment fell in line with other income groups, all hovering around the 50 mark—half feel their financial condition is better, and half worse compared to a year ago.
The Trouble Tracker, a measure of the financial difficulties faced by Americans, rose this month to 45.5, up from its record low last month of 38.7. Mounting financial difficulties were not broad based but instead centered on those earning $100,000 or more. However, the level of financial difficulties among this segment of Americans is still far lower than those earning less than $50,000. The level of difficulties reported by other income groups was stable compared to last month.
The past 30-day retail measure was up to 11.1 from 9.6 last month, reflecting the expected holiday jump, but lagged last year's performance of 13.9. Anticipated spending over the next 30 days was also down vs. last year. The next 30-day retail measure stands at 10.1, down from 12.7 last year at this time.
The level of stress that consumers feel was up slightly from last month (59.1 vs. 57.8). The most stressed Americans were those in households earning $50,000 to $99,999 (63.6) and 35- to 64-year-olds (61.1).
The Consumer Reports Index, a monthly telephone poll of a nationally representative sample of American adults, is conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. It comprises five measures: Employment, Retail, Sentiment, Stress, and the Trouble Tracker. A total of 1,007 telephone interviews were completed between November 29 and December 2, 2012. The margin of error is +/-3.2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.