Look who's getting financial satisfaction

The presidential campaign trail is littered with pronouncements about the economy, from doomsday warnings of chronic weakness to rosy forecasts of America's renewed might.

All the noise begs the question of just how much financial pleasure and pain consumers are really feeling. But a newly released study from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants provides some clarity — without the politics.

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Americans' financial satisfaction index for the fourth quarter rose 9.1 points, to 15.9, a nearly 134 percent increase from a year ago, the AICPA found, reaching its highest level since the third quarter of 2007.

The index has two main components — a gauge of financial pleasure and one of financial pain — and the association found that its financial pleasure index fell slightly but was more than offset by a sharp drop in financial pain.

"I would not use the word 'exuberance' at all, but I think you can see an overall improvement in the long-term outlook of the economy," said Jimmy Williams, a CPA and a member of the AICPA National Accreditation Commission.

If Americans are feeling better about their finances, it certainly is not because of the stock market. The AICPA's market index hit an all-time high in 2014's fourth quarter as the S&P 500 gained more than 11 percent for the year. It finished 2015 unchanged in the wake of year-end weakness in energy stocks.

But loan delinquencies have fallen markedly, with TransUnion forecasting the national mortgage loan serious delinquency rate at 2.5 percent for the end of 2015. Meanwhile, home-equity values have risen, the association found. Underemployment is also waning as strong jobs reports have piled up. And inflation worries have plummeted, with the inflation component of the financial pain index dropping 68 percent during 2015.

Williams predicted that the Federal Reserve, which raised rates in December for the first time in nearly a decade, would follow that move with additional gradual increases over the next several years, which should continue to keep inflation in check without dramatic moves.

"They're going to boil the frog slowly," he said.

The stock market's weakness at the beginning of the year could slow the rise of the AICPA index in the future. Indeed, its measure of personal financial satisfaction rose only slightly from the third to the fourth quarter of 2015.

Williams noted that the depressed energy sector could also weigh on financial satisfaction in the new year. At the moment, he said, consumers are enjoying filling their gas tanks with inexpensive fuel, but "it actually is not great" for the energy industry.

Still, for some, the new year is showing promise: PNC's 2015 survey of American millionaires found that 85 percent felt a lot of control over their financial future, up from 80 percent in the 2014 survey. In addition, 38 percent said they buy what they want when they want it, up sharply from 24 percent a year earlier.

The very rich may be different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said. But if the 2015 trend continues, their satisfaction should be rubbing off on all of us.