October 15, 2008

Public Not Desperate About Economy or Personal Finances

Section 2: Causes and Consequences of the Financial Crisis

Americans place the blame for the current problems with financial institutions and markets squarely on people who took on too much debt and banks that made risky loans. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) say that people taking on more debt than they can afford contributed “a lot” to the current situation, and 72% say the same about banks making risky loans. By comparison, fewer than half (46%) see weak government regulation as having a lot to do with it, and even fewer blame the complexity or the growing globalization of the financial system.

Republicans are most likely to point to banks offering risky loans and people taking on excessive debt as the leading contributors to the current financial problems. About nine-in-ten (91%) say people taking on too much debt contributed a lot, while 80% say the same about banks making risk loans.

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (74%) also cite people taking on too much debt, while about seven-in-ten (69%) cite banks making risky loans as a major factor. But Democrats are more likely than Republicans to see weak government regulation playing a significant role in current financial problems. More than half of Democrats (56%) say weak regulation contributed a lot to these problems, compared with 45% of independents and 38% of Republicans.

People in all income levels cite people taking on too much debt and banks making risky loans as significant factors in the financial problems. Yet wealthier people take a different view of causes of the crisis than do people with low annual incomes. For instance, 86% of those with an annual family income of $75,000 or more cite risky loans made by banks as having a lot to do with the recent
financial problems; that compares with 60% of those making less than $30,000 annually. More than half (52%) of those in the high income category say weak regulation contributed a lot to current problems, compared with 40% for those earning less than $30,000.

Those with lower incomes are more likely to point to the complexity of the financial system and growing global financial ties as major causes for the crisis. More than four-in-ten of those with annual family incomes below $30,000 say each of these factors has had a lot to do with current financial problems (46% financial system too complicated; 45% growing global ties); this compares with only about a quarter of those with annual incomes of at least $75,000 (27% and 26%, respectively).

Greed Is … More Prevalent

With so much attention focused on the risky practices of financial institutions as a factor in the economic crisis, many Americans see the leaders of those businesses as greedier today than they were in the past. Some six-in-ten say those executives are greedier, while 37% say they are about the same as they have always been. There are only slight partisan differences in these opinions, but those who say they are struggling in this economy are significantly more likely to see more greed today.

Solid majorities of Republicans and Democrats (62% each) say they see financial leaders as more greedy today than in the past; 60% of independents share this view. Significant differences, though, are evident among those who describe themselves as professional class, working class or struggling. Slightly more than half of those who define themselves as professionals (54%) say that leaders of financial institutions are greedier today. That increases to 61% of those who describe themselves as working class and nearly three-quarters (74%) of those who see themselves as struggling.

Rising Concern about Troubled Financial Markets

When asked to assess their own financial situations, Americans continue to put rising prices at the top the list. But worries about problems in the financial markets are not far behind, and have increased significantly since March. Close to four-in-ten (38%) cite higher prices as their top economic concern, down from nearly half (49%) in March. On the other hand, 31% now cite problems in the financial markets, more than twice the amount that cited the same concern in March (14%).

Roughly equal percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents say that rising prices are their top concern about their own financial situations, but significantly more Republicans than Democrats point to problems in the financial markets as the economic issue that concerns them most (38% vs. 28%). Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely than Republicans to cite the job situation (22% vs. 10%).

African Americans are twice as likely as whites (31% vs. 14%) to cite the job situation as their top concern. Meanwhile, whites are twice as likely as African Americans to say they are most concerned about the financial markets (35% vs. 17%).

Of those who identify their households as professional, close to half (49%) point to the financial markets as their top financial worry. Some 24% cite rising prices. Among those who say they are working class, more than four-in-ten (43%) list rising prices as the top concern, while a quarter cite the financial markets. About half (49%) of those who identify their families as struggling say rising prices are the top concern, followed by 28% who list the job situation and just 14% who cite the financial markets.

Biggest Economic Problem

As might be expected, the financial crisis is now viewed as the dominant economic problem facing the nation. More than a quarter (27%) mention some aspect of the crisis – including problems with financial institutions (8%), corporations or corporate greed (6%), or the recent government bailout (6%). None of these issues registered significantly on the public’s list of top economic problems in February and July.

By contrast, far fewer volunteer prices as the most important national economic problem than did so earlier this year. Just 16% mention prices, with energy prices (at 10%) cited most frequently. In July, 45% pointed to prices as the top economic problem facing the country (with 38% specifically citing energy prices), which was far more than the percentage citing any other problem; prices were also the most frequently mentioned problem in February (at 24%).

Government’s Power to Fix the Economy

As the economy continues to struggle and problems with the financial markets prove more global, a smaller majority than in July says the federal government has the power to fix the economy. During the summer, nearly seven-in-ten (68%) said that the government still had that power. Currently, 56% express that view. Meanwhile, those saying the government cannot fix the economy so easily have increased from 26% in July to 37% in the current survey.

The declines come across the political spectrum, with 56% of conservative Republicans now saying the government has the power to fix the economy, compared with 65% in July. Among liberal Democrats, that percentage has dropped even more: from 73% in July to 58%. More also are saying that the government cannot fix the economy “so easily these days.” That is the view of 36% of liberal Democrats, up significantly from 19% in July. Among conservative Republicans, 38% say government cannot fix the problems easily, up slightly from 31% in July.

Meanwhile, voters who say they are certain they will vote for Obama are more optimistic than certain McCain voters or swing voters that the government has the power to fix the economy. Close to six-in-ten certain Obama voters (59%) say the government has that power, compared with 50% each for certain McCain and swing voters.