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How Miserable? Index Says the Worst in 28 Years

When it comes to measuring the combination of unemployment and inflation, it doesn’t get much more miserable than this.

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ct, misery, as measured in the unofficial Misery Index that simply totals the unemployment and inflation rates, is at a 28-year high, reflective of how weak the economic recovery has been and how far there is to go.

The index, first compiled during the soaring inflation days of the 1970s by economist Arthur Okun, is registering a nausea-inducing 12.7—9.1 percent for unemployment and 3.6 percent for annualized inflation—a number not seen since 1983. The index has been above 10 since November 2009 and had been under double-digits from June 1993 through May 2008.

The good news, of course, is that the Paul Volcker-led Fed embarked on a highly successful inflation-slaying campaign that brought the level of misery down sharply through the rest of the ’80s recovery decade.

The bad news, of course, is all the bad news.

Put another way, by Paul Dales at Capital Economics:

“The good news is that other measures suggest conditions aren't quite that bad and over the next 18 months the gloom should lift a little,” the firm’s chief US economist wrote in a Misery analysis. “The bad news is that households won't be in the mood to boost their spending significantly for several more years.”

Dales says all the misery may not be as bad as it appears. An alternative measure, put forth in 1999 by Robert Barro, encompasses a wider swath of misery, measuring employment against the so-called “natural rate” and compares inflation against the previous 10 years. The Barro measure also looks at whether gross domestic product is below its “potential” and compares yields on the 10-year Treasury note against the yields of the previous 10 years.

With all that rolled in, Dales says the Barro index is indicating that while things aren't expected to get dramatically better, the level of misery is probably at a peak and should roll back over the next 18 months.

“The upshot is that Americans might not be quite as miserable as the Okun misery index appears to suggest,” Dales said. “And as inflation falls back, some of the gloom will lift.”

Still, the level of misery, whatever the measure, is high, with many unconvinced that inflation is, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke suggests, transitory, or that the economy is in a mere soft patch that will fade.

Investor sentiment continues to fall. The latest Investors Intelligence survey, a weekly poll of newsletter authors, points to bulls outnumbering bears by just a 37 percent to 26 percent margin. Yes, it does indicate more people believing the market is heading higher than lower, but the bullishness is around financial crisis levels.

The survey includes a smattering of comments from participants.

One of the more common that represents the bearish perspective looks at how much optimism there had been in the market prior to the May 2 highs.

“Frankly, we have been stunned by the disconnect that we see between these optimistic calls over the past six to nine months and the reality of what is occurring in the global economy,” wrote Boston-based Hans P. Black in the Interinvest Review & Outlook.

Conversely, misery is not universal, with Elliott F. Gue’s Personal Finance Newsletter making the case for the optimists that one should not “fall prey to the panic fanned by the usual fear-mongering doomsayers,” a group that presumably includes those unemployed or bewildered by inflation and, thus, in misery.

Jeff Cox is co-author of the recently released Debt, Deficits and the Demise of the American Economy (Wiley).

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