Colin Barr

Following the money in banking, economics, and Washington

Misery index hits new high

June 17, 2011: 1:11 PM ET

Feeling good about the economy?

Let's face it, probably not. The misery index – the sum of the unemployment and consumer price inflation rates – hit a 28-year high last month, notes Paul Dales of Capital Economics.

Headed higher?

At a recent 12.7, the misery index is at its highest level since 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president and the great bull markets in stocks and bonds were in their infancy. Yet as always, it's worth recalling that things can be (and have been) worse.

The 1983 peak was 14.1, which looks terrifyingly high now but at the time was the lowest reading in five years.

This is worth bearing in mind for those who drone on endlessly about "jobless stagflation." Yes, 9.1% joblessness and 3.6% inflation are both bad news. But hey, when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the November 1980 election, unemployment was 7.5% and inflation was, um, 12.7%, for a nifty misery score above 20.

That, fortunately, was the last time we reached that exalted level. It is certainly a stretch to say today's policymakers are nailing it, but it's equally hard to believe anyone can look at the data from the 1970s and claim what we have now is stagflation.

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About This Author
Colin Barr
Colin Barr
Senior Writer, Fortune

Colin Barr has covered finance for Fortune.com since November 2007. Previously he was a writer and editor for TheStreet.com, winning a 2006 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for "The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street," and for Dow Jones Newswires. He is a 1991 graduate of Penn State and lives in Port Washington, N.Y., with his wife Meena Bose and their two kids.

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