Unhappy with the economy? Here's why

  @Money August 30, 2012: 6:05 AM ET
summer discontent

While the unemployment rate is lower that it was last year, job creation has slowed to a crawl.

(MONEY Magazine)

For the third year in a row we've experienced a thaw in the economy only to be followed by some real dog days. The U.S. is barely growing, and a lot of the reason is that you aren't spending.

So it seemed like an opportune time to take a new look at a set of measures I wrote about in March of last year -- the economic indicators that have the greatest effect on how you feel about the economy. As before, I rank the current level of each indicator on an ascending scale of 1 to 10 based on past performance.

Ali's Scorecard
Three of the five indicators have improved over the past year and a half, but the bottom line isn't pretty.
Economic Indicator March 2011 Sept. 2012
Unemployment 2.8 4.3
Personal Income 4.2 1.5
Personal Savings 4.0 3.3
Home Appreciation 2.8 3.5
Industrial Production 6.7 7.6
Average 4.1 4.0
Note: On a scale of 1 to 10. Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Federal Reserve.

And they tell an interesting story: Three of the five indicators show improvement, but you've nevertheless got very good reasons to feel like the economy remains stuck in a rut.

Jobs and income: A mixed bag

At 8.2%, the unemployment rate is almost a full percentage point lower than it was a year and a half ago. Two problems: First, that number is still high. Second, it's stopped declining as the rate of job creation has slowed to a crawl.

Related: Where the jobs are

The income numbers are even worse: The inflation-adjusted median wage fell 2% in 2011, after ticking down 0.5% in 2010. So our income score declined from 4.2 to 1.5. (The March 2011 score was even higher, but that was based on a data set that hasn't been updated. These scores are based on Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.)

The data so far for 2012 show wages are flat, which isn't exactly cause for celebration.

Savings down, homes up

That's a problem in an economy where the consumer accounts for about 70% of all activity. The more cushion you feel you have, the more you're likely to spend.

We seem to be sitting on the springs right now. Gas and food prices bounce up and down, and consumer confidence and discretionary spending go with them.

Credit, while cheap, is readily available mainly to low-risk borrowers. What little increase in spending there is seems to be coming at the cost of a savings rate that, after rising in the financial crisis and its aftermath, has fallen back. (Here, too, the prior score was higher than what's shown in the chart above due to revisions in the data.)

Homes in Best Places: What $500k buys

Meanwhile, the outlook for real estate is brightening, but after some very dark years in which foreclosures soared, prices fell by a third, and builders pretty much stopped building.

Now, sustained record-low mortgage rates are nudging even skittish buyers to make the leap. That's helped long-suffering sellers improve their position.

Related: Take advantage of near record-low mortgage rates

Steady growth in home sales creates contractor jobs. And price appreciation, which is starting to occur in some areas, may be the silver lining in our economic cloud.

Manufacturing still bright

The industrial production indicator measures the change in output of tangible goods. It mattered more when the U.S. really was a manufacturing economy, but it still provides a look at world demand for U.S.-made stuff.

Perhaps almost as important is that seeing trucks and trains and factory workers (as opposed to mothballed plants and empty highways) makes you feel as if the economy is humming.

Right now the IP number is showing strength, although the rising value of the dollar against the euro could hurt U.S. exporters.

The average of our scores? A 4.0, almost exactly where we were in early 2011.

Subpar, but not 2008 either. Keep that in mind as we head into the political mean season, when candidates of all stripes will paint bleak pictures that they say can be improved -- if only you'd put (or keep) them in charge.

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