Americans Are Getting Optimistic About the Economy, Survey Finds

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – A new report from Citibank (Stock Quote: C) suggests that American consumers are starting to feel chipper about the economy. Is it legit – or just another case of wishful thinking?

Citibank surveyed 2,003 American adults from Nov. 14-21 for the report, and almost half of the respondents (48%) said they expect local business conditions to improve during the next year.

In addition, the Citibank report shows that the mindset of American exceptionalism is alive and well, as 59% of survey respondents said the U.S. is well-positioned and likely to regain its premier post as a global economic business leader.

That’s quite a dose of optimism from the American public, which hasn’t had a lot to cheer about over the past few years. But employment conditions are starting to look up. Just today, the government reported that its weekly jobless claims index is down to its lowest levels since 2008 (there were 366,000 claims this week, down 19,000 from the first week in December).

That’s just the beginning: The National Retail Federation is out with new estimates on the 2011 holiday shopping season. The NRF has revised its original estimate upward, reporting today that American consumer holiday spending will be up 3.8% over the last 10-year average – that’s up from a 2.8% estimate in October.

In addition, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee came out with a new statement on Dec. 13 noting that the U.S. economy was “expanding moderately,” even as signs crop up that the global economy is slowing.

The Citibank survey, conducted by Hart Research, found that although 69% of Americans believe that the U.S. economy has not yet “hit bottom,” Americans are feeling better about the future. A sign of that sentiment: 32% of the study respondents say that their children’s generation will fare better economically than the present generation – up from 27% in August.

“While consumers’ outlook on the economy today remains gloomy, it is encouraging to see their future outlook improving,” explains Michelle Peluso, global consumer chief marketing at Citibank, in a statement. “The survey shows a resilience among the vast majority of Americans, who believe the future will be better despite the tough economic conditions they are facing today, and see investing in education, innovation, and job creation as keys to recovery and long-term competitiveness.”

The study is chock-full of data that does show, incrementally at least, that the American economy is on the rebound. Here are some other conclusions from Citibank – not all of them exactly rosy in their outlook. The results seem to indicate that Americans’ optimism is reserved for the future – and not the present:

  • Current local economic conditions unchanged: Just 22% of Americans rate their local economy as good, while 77% rate their local business conditions as either only fair or poor, nearly identical to levels in January and August.
  • Just getting by: Nearly one in five Americans (19%) indicate they are coming up short on monthly income, while 39% indicate they are just getting by and 40% are making enough to save.
  • Savings and debt: Comfort with current level of savings (47%) and debt (62%) are relatively unchanged since August.
  • Local employment opportunities: A full 83% rate local employment opportunities as only fair or poor, up two points since August.
  • Poor time to buy: Only 30% of Americans continue to believe this is a good time to buy a major household item, such as an appliance or automobile, virtually unchanged since August.
  • Room for optimism: 59% believe America has lost this status but can regain it in the future. Only 20% believe America has permanently lost its place as the global economic leader and is now one nation among many.

It’s heartening to see that Americans haven’t lost hope that the country can regain its standing as a world economic leader – even if that process would likely take a while, if it happens at all. But optimism is contagious, and any more of it can only help the economy gather some strength.

“The unwavering optimism that defines the American character is clearly evident in the survey’s results,” notes Jonathan Clements, a director of financial education at Citi. “The vast majority of consumers believe America can regain its status as an economic leader. Consumers are anxious for signs that the economy is improving and are watching the deficit and the employment rate in particular for movement that could indicate recovery.”

To a long-suffering American public, stronger signs of recovery won’t come a moment too soon.

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