It's the perfect storm of economic malaise: Surging fuel and food prices, declining home values, a stock market waltzing back and forth into bear territory and job cuts combined with stagnant wages.

No wonder consumers are so gloomy.

But while consumer-confidence surveys are watched closely for clues about the country's fiscal health, shifting tides in the economy and society at large have made them less relevant and less accurate.

One prominent index was recently pegged at 56.4 -- the third-lowest reading on record since the poll was first conducted in 1952, according to Reuters and the University of Michigan. The last time people felt quite so bad about the economy was during dramatic recessions in the 1980s.

At that point, inflation was three times as high as it is today, loans were five times as expensive and a larger swath of the population was unemployed.

While no one is arguing about whether things have gotten bad, are they really that bad? In short, the answer is no -- but that doesn't mean things won't get worse. And just because consumers think the economy is headed south, it certainly doesn't mean that a recession is imminent.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

While consumers have been saying they plan to spend less, they have continued to consume at a relatively healthy rate. And while they have been casting gloomy statements about the economy, U.S. output has remained relatively strong.

"Thus far, the economy has shrugged off the shock," according to a weekly report by Lehman Brothers economists. "Consumption has slowed, but seems to be defying the laws of economic gravity."

Not all of that can be attributable to a robust shopper -- economic stimulus checks issued by the government starting in May have supported a good deal of the spending. Many of those dollars have gone to discounters like

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

,

Target

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,

Costco

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and

BJ's

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where consumers are piling up on low-cost goods, as well as local

Exxon

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,

BP

(BP) - Get Report

and

Hess

(HES) - Get Report

stations where they're filling up with costly gasoline.

In addition, some of the 2% GDP growth over the last four quarters is attributable to the export sector, which has been booming thanks to the devalued dollar.

The Lehman report notes that while correlation between consumer sentiment and consumption has historically been strong, it "does not necessarily imply a causal relationship." They developed an index that combines consumer expectations with other factors like income, wealth, unemployment and the

Federal Reserve's

targeted interest rate, to get a more accurate picture.

Historical Comparisons

While it seems like consumers are saying things are as bad as they were in the slumping 80s, making historical comparisons can be tricky.

The first problem is media saturation. Even those who managed to avoid the financial firebombs of the past year have surely been informed about how bad things have gotten, and then reminded of it repeatedly. The inundation of negative economic news starts with the morning newspaper and continues throughout the day on the Web, handheld devices, the radio and 24-7 cable news networks that weren't so pervasive in decades past.

The correspondence is evident when looking at how consumers characterized the type of news they had heard about the economy over the past few months in the Reuters and the University of Michigan survey.

The most recent data show that twice as many respondents were hearing "unfavorable" news about business conditions by December than a year earlier. Over the same period, the index of consumer expectations -- which the surveyors say is "noted for its ability to foreshadow recessions" -- had already dropped more than 19%. That was before the credit crunch accelerated earlier this year and foreclosure rates spiked higher.

Also, today's consumer is jaded and less hopeful that things will improve than those who were surveyed in past decades, according to Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Baker notes that in the 1950s and 1960s, people had "real expectations that things will get better year after year." That was followed by two decades of stagflation, and then the recent peaks and dips from the stock-market and housing bubbles.

"This decade, I don't think people take

economic prosperity for granted in the same way," he says.

A top adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain went as far as to say earlier this week that the country is only in a "mental recession," and has "sort of become a nation of whiners," according to the Washington Times. The comments ruffled some feathers, but rang a note of truth; the adviser, former Senator Phil Gramm, noted that the economy is still growing and there is no telling when or whether it will begin to contract.

Better Benchmarks

Despite the resiliency so far this year, many are predicting a further slowdown ahead, once the rebate checks are cashed and spent and the housing market continues to vacillate. Others are questioning when -- not whether -- the U.S. will officially enter a recession.

Most economists polled recently by the

Wall Street Journal

said the economy is either in a recession or headed there over the next year. They expect a "substantially weaker" second half of 2008.

If one were to consider consumer sentiment alone, things would appear bleaker than they actually are. Still, Lehman's projections show that through 2009, "without

a drop in confidence, consumer spending is weak -- with it, it is very weak."

With the economy shifting tides from consumer-driven to consumer-dragged, other indicators that are picking up the slack will gain more significance. Data on exports, inflation and, of course, housing, are most prominent.

The Purchasing Managers Index, which shows whether the manufacturing sector is expanding or contracting, has also become more important: If we're relying on exports, for growth, we need to know how the producers are doing . Still, Baker notes, "Us exporting more means that other countries will have to import more - it's not necessarily easy for us to increase our exports in a substantial way."

Regardless of how much it expands, the export sector won't be a panacea for the economic woes of the average American consumer.

"You may have a job and may be producing stuff but you're shipping it overseas," says Lincoln Anderson, chief economist at LPL Financial. "It doesn't feel as good as a consumer-led economy."