December 18, 2022
By Stephen Stofka
This week’s letter is about a measure of economic discomfort that economist Arthur Okun developed in the 1960s. In the early 1980s President Reagan renamed it the “misery index.” Weather forecasters calculate a misery index of temperature and humidity. Okun’s measure of discomfort added the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. How reliable is this weathervane of human misery? Let’s focus on those points where the index touched a medium term low.
We can begin in the mid-60s as society began to rupture. Young people protested the restrictive norms of the post-war society when employers regarded a man whose hair was longer than “collar length” as unkempt. Polite women wore white gloves to church and formal affairs. In northern cities black people rioted over the prejudice that prevented them from access to business loans in their own neighborhoods. By law, federal home loans were not available to people who lived in “redlined” majority black neighborhoods. The courts and Indian agencies disregarded the property and civil rights of Native American families. There was a lot of misery that was not measured by the misery index.
The late 1990s – another relative low in the misery index – were a heady time. The internet and Windows 95 was but a few years old and investors were exuberant about the “new internet economy.” Fed chairman Alan Greenspan warned of “irrational exuberance” and economist Robert Shiller (2015) wrote a book of that same name, introducing his cyclically adjusted price earnings, or CAPE, ratio. Investors based their valuations on revenues, not profits. In a rush to dominate a market space, companies spent more to acquire a new customer than the revenue the customer brought in. Investors rejected “old economy” manufacturing companies like Ford and GE and turned to the new economy stocks like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, CompuServe, AOL and Netscape, companies that connected computers and people. Neither Google nor Facebook existed. Amazon was a company that sold books online. Pets.com raised $83 million at its IPO on the promise of convenient pet food delivery. In the summer of 2000, the air started leaking from the “dot-com” bubble. By the spring of 2003, the SP500 was down 42% from its high. None of that investor misery was captured by the misery index.
The index touched another low in early 2007, a year before the beginning of the 2007-09 recession and the Great Financial Crisis. This time investors were exuberant over both housing and stocks. The top bond ratings companies, like Moody’s and S&P, dependent on the fees they collected from Wall Street firms, slapped Grade AAA stickers on the subprime mortgage backed securities their customers wanted to underwrite. Financial companies played regulatory agencies against each other, choosing the one with the most relaxed standards and supervision. Whiz kids in the back rooms of major financial firms developed trading models that blew up within a few years. Some of the largest companies in the world, champions of the free market who consistently fought regulations, ran to the government with their hands out, pleading for bailouts. In the 3rd quarter of 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and threatened to take down the rest of the financial system. The misery index rose to 11.25%, slightly below our current reading of 11.88%. If the misery index were a tape measure, a carpenter would throw it in the garbage as an unreliable tool.
The collapse of oil prices in 2014 shifted the misery index to another low in 2015. After a decade of near zero interest rates, housing and stock prices had again reached nosebleed levels and the index dropped to another low in late 2019. Was that a harbinger of a coming financial crisis? We never did find out. Within six months, the pandemic crisis struck.
The misery index is an unreliable measure of discomfort but a good measure of investor exuberance. Medium term lows are an indicator that investor optimism and asset valuations are too high. Relative index highs like the current 12% mark a period of excess investor pessimism. Sometimes a lousy tape measure can be useful after all.
Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash
Shiller, R. J. (2015). Irrational Exuberance: Revised and Expanded Third Edition. Princeton University Press.