While the unemployment rate is lower that it was last year, job creation has slowed to a crawl.
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.
|Economic Indicator||March 2011||Sept. 2012|
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.
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.)
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.
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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