The CNBC All-America Economic Survey paints a contradictory portrait of consumers and of their finances, and willingness to spend ahead of the critical Christmas shopping season.
On the other hand, the survey of 800 people nationwide (with a margin of error of 3.5 percent) predicts a sharp, 9.4 percent drop in holiday spending this year compared with actual outlays a year ago as measured by the National Retail Federation. Americans plan to spend just $681 this holiday season, about on par with 2009, when the nation was clawing its way out of a deep financial crisis.
Behind this drop is a sharp falloff in spending by the wealthy. Those with incomes above $100,000 plan to lay out $300 less than they did last year, undoing two years of strong gains. But more broadly, overall sentiment about the economy remains muted and incomes severely challenged. There’s even evidence that the imbroglios in Washington had a depressing effect on holiday spending.
Just 15 percent of the public rate the economy as excellent or good, a substantial gain from 4 percent during the recession that began in 2008 but still well below the 26 percent who thought the economy was in good shape in 2007.
Meanwhile, 83 percent rate the economy fair or poor. A quarter of those who will spend less this year say it’s because their income is lower; 22 percent report that it’s because the economy is in bad shape.
(Read more: US consumers tapped out as holidays approach)
But 13 percent say it’s because of concerns about recent battles in Washington over the shutdown and the debt ceiling. A full 26 percent say that their spending plans for the year have been reduced in just the past month, a possible sign of Washington’s impact on spending.
(The survey’s record: In four of the past six years, the All-America forecast has been within $13 of the actual holiday spending number calculated from government data by the National Retail Federation. But it had big misses of about $100 in 2009 and 2010, the spending seasons following the recession.)
While people plan to spend less this holiday, other AAES indicators are up. For the first time since 2007, the percentage of Americans who expect their homes to decline in value is just 10 percent. The percent of respondents who see housing prices rising, at 34 percent, is double what it was in 2010.
Meanwhile, Americans expect some of the smallest gains in the prices of everyday goods registered in the seven years of the survey. And expected wage gains seem to have fallen into a post-recession range of 3 percent to 4 percent—not as good as the 6 percent to 7 percent before the recession but better than the 1 percent to 2 percent of the past several years. That could all suggest better spending next year.
(Read more: Merry Christmas: Millions to lose jobless benefits)
The financial elite, those with more than $50,000 in the stock market or incomes of at least $100,000, seem to finally believe in the stock market rally. By an overwhelming 7-to-2 margin, this group says it is a good time to invest in stocks.
Those with little in the market remain doubtful, about evenly split on the question.
And those with no money in the stock market by a 5-to-2 margin say this is a bad time to invest, unchanged from a year ago. This could, of course, be a contrarian signal. The last time the elite were this optimistic on stocks was October 2007.
But overall optimism on the economy remains subdued. Just 26 percent say the economy will get better next year. A year ago, attitudes were more buoyant, with 37 percent thinking the economy would improve.
But only 30 percent say it will get worse, down from 35 percent last Christmas. And about the best you can say is 40 percent of Americans expect the economy to stay the same in the next year.
—By CNBC’s Steve Liesman. Follow him on Twitter: @steveliesman