Why Many Americans Aren't Spending More This Holiday Season
Despite the public being more upbeat on the economy than it was a year ago, the CNBC All-America Economic Survey found holiday spending will be virtually flat as uncertainty and "fiscal cliff" concerns weigh on consumers.
Americans plan to spend $742 on average buying gifts, compared with actual spending of $740 in 2011 reported by the National Retail Federation. The number remains muted even though Americans are as optimistic about expected pay hikes as they've been since just after the recession began.
The percentage of Americans who said the economy is poor fell to 44 percent from 61 percent a year ago; most of that change ended up in those saying the economy is just fair, which grew to 41 percent of the public from 30 percent. Only 14 percent said the economy is excellent or good, up from 8 percent.
Americans look for 4.3 percent wage gains over the next year, more than double what they expected last Christmas and as high as it's been since February 2008. Those believing their wages will go up will spend 60 percent more than those who believe their paychecks will stay the same or decrease. (Read More: Planning for Your Taxes Next Year? Good Luck.)
Another bright spot: Americans believe their home prices will rise for the third quarter in a row, the first time that's happened since 2007. The gains, however, are muted with an average expected increase of just 0.1 percet expected over the next 12 months.
On the fiscal cliff, 70 percent of Americans said they have heard about the issue, compared with 91 percent who told pollsters in April 2012 that they were aware of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Just about as many Americans have heard of the Facebook initial public offering as have heard of the fiscal cliff. (Read More: Geithner: We Will Fall Of 'Cliff' If Taxes Don't Rise.)
Some 48 percent of Americans said there will be an agreement to avoid the automatic spending cuts and tax increases with 43 percent saying it is unlikely. A year ago, 73 percent said an agreement on the deficit issue was unlikely. More Independents and Republicans think a deal is unlikely now; the overall number is driven by the 60 percent of Democrats who think the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled for January will be avoided.
The survey found Americans will blame both parties equally if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff. Among the 805 Americans polled nationwide, raising taxes and capping deductions for those who earn more than $250,000 were the most acceptable ways to cut the deficit. Reducing Medicare spending and raising the retirement age were the most unacceptable. (Read More: All America-Survey: Who's to Blame If 'Cliff' Talks Fail?)
America's attitudes towards the stock market remain stuck in the mud. Just a third of the public believe this is a good time to invest, virtually unchanged for almost 18 months. Before the recession, it was nearly half. And only about half of the financial elite, those with incomes above $75,000 or more than $50,000 in the market, said it's a good time to invest, down from 70 percent before the recession.
Meanwhile, Americans come into the holiday season with about as much debt as they had a year ago. About half the public said they have a lot or some debt, and about half respond that they have little or none. Among those with the least debt: retirees, people with income below $30,000 and those with more than $50,000 in the stock market. Those with the most: the middle class who report that they do not own stocks. (Read More: What Investors Should Do If We Go Over the 'Cliff'.)
The more a person believes they have in debt, the less they are likely to spend on holiday shopping. Those who say they have lots of debt say they will spend $584 on average; those who say they have no debt will spend $910. About 14 percent of the public said they have "a lot of debt," unchanged from a year ago.
—By CNBC's Steve Liesman; Follow him on Twitter: @steveliesman