Survey: As Shutdown Memories Fade, Financial Optimism Grows

CBA and AOL Finance Optimism Index Shows How Unemployment, Gas Prices and the Government Affect Consumers' Outlook on Personal Finances
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesA LATEXTRA edition of the Los Angeles Times, published Oct. 16, 2013.
Last October's 16-day government shutdown affected the lives of millions of Americans as federal offices closed, paychecks and federal assistance were put on hold, and popular tourists spots were shuttered.

But Americans have shaken off much of the doom and gloom they felt during the shutdown, results of the new Financial Optimism Index released Tuesday show.

The survey, produced jointly by Consumer Bankers Association and AOL (AOL) -- publisher of DailyFinance -- shows that Americans are significantly less concerned about their personal finances than they were when the shutdown ended Oct. 16.

The monthly survey of consumer attitudes noted these findings:
  • In October, Americans' level of financial optimism was low, with the index at -24, indicating that pessimistic views outnumbered optimistic ones by 24 percentage points. The news about the government shutdown was negative, and Americans were worried about how the political and economic situation would affect their personal finances.
  • In November, the index increased by 16 points to -8. News became more positive, and Americans grew less worried about how the big picture issues would affect their personal finances.
  • December: The index remained flat at -8.
  • In January, the index increased again to +4 -- the first time the newly created index was positive. The increase was driven by Americans seeing more upbeat news about personal finances. The results could also reflect the impact of rising stock prices and a declining unemployment rate.
  • February: The index fell to -2.6, a drop of 6.6, mainly driven by a perception that news about Americans' personal finances wasn't as positive. Possible factors include the slow start to the month in the stock market and rising prices for gasoline.
The Finance Optimism Index tracks optimism through agreement with four statements in a survey:
  1. I am optimistic about my personal financial future.
  2. I am worried about my current financial situation.
  3. The news I've been hearing in the past few weeks about Americans' personal finances has been generally positive.
  4. I am worried that the current economic and political situation is going to affect my personal finances.
(The index is calculated using the percentage of optimistic responses given by U.S. adults minus the percentage of those who are pessimistic. A value above zero indicates more respondents felt optimistic, while a negative number means more felt pessimistic. About 1,600 adults are polled each month.)

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Together with the CBA, AOL has been conducting research over the past year to better understand consumers; attitudes about their finances, the companies said.

"This new project with AOL represents an opportunity to understand the current personal finance attitudes of American consumers," Richard Hunt, president and CEO of CBA, said in a statement. "No other index is providing this unique information which will help our members and the retail banking industry anticipate consumer needs and concerns."

The companies said they will follow Americans' level of financial optimism over time, delving into what influences the ups and downs of this attitude, including economic and political events and the news cycle.

9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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Survey: As Shutdown Memories Fade, Financial Optimism Grows
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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