Are American consumers financial Pollyannas or are Washington policymakers economic Cassandras?
A Gallup poll on consumer finances last week revealed that government officials are consistently more pessimistic about individual's spending and saving habits than are those who control the pursestrings.
The response of 1,537 consumers, collected last September, were matched against those recorded this January and February of 50 Washington public servants, including 11 congressmen, 21 staff aides and 18 from various agencies concerned with consumer financial policy. The survey was conducted for the Credit Union National Association, a trade group of credit unions.
On the question of their overall confidence, slightly more than half (52 percent) of the people polled declared themselves "pretty well satisfied" with the way things were going for them financially, contrasted to 31 percent who weren't satisfied. Yet, 82 percent of the Washington economic pundits said Americans were not satisfied; only 16 percent agreed with the majority of their countrymen.
(In a similar Washington Post consumer poll conducted in January, 60 percent of the people said they have had to make some sacrifices in the way they live because of inflation. At a news conference last week Jay Schmiedeskamp, director of the Gallup Organization's economic services, was asked if the consumer section of the Gallup poll was not outdated by the sharp increases in inflation that occurred between September and January. He replied that Gallup conducts monthly economic surveys and that basic attitudes toward credit have not changed that much in the interim.)
Four of five consumers (83 percent) in the Gallup poll think they are living within their means, but only one in five (22 percent) policymakers believe they are. Similarly, 84 percent of federal officials believe people are borrowing more than they should; half of those said the amount was excessive. By the same margin, the officials are "somewhat" concerned that the debtors will become delinquent in their payments or default, whereas 28 percent are "very" concerned. Three out of four blame inflation, while just one in five says credit is too easy to obtain.
Economist Schmiedeskamp takes the latter view, that inflation is not to blame. The average person, he observed, has become so used to inflation (now running at an annual rate of 18 percent) that it no longer acts as a brake on spending. Noting that there are four times as many bank credit cards in circulation and billions of dollars more in pre-authorized loans now than at the time of the 1974-75 recession, he said consumers nevertheless don't regard revolving credit as debt. "But you can't buy a car with a Visa card; you have to go out and ask for a loan. So the auto industry is in trouble."
The lack of alarm about their own financial situation -- neatly divorced in the average mind from the national economy which is considered to be awful -- led Americans to continue spending in 1979. Capital analysts showed considerably more unease in the survey about the decreasing savings rate (which fell to 3.3 percent in late 1979) than did savers, 86 compared with 60 percent.
But the vox apparently thinks the populi are more worried than they are about not saving enough. Fully 92 percent of the policymakers can see furrowed brows across the land, though only three people in five said they were fretting.