Where Are Americans Most Miserable? - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Where Are Americans Most Miserable?

THE WALLSTREET JOUNRAL.COM - The lot of the U.S. consumer hasn't been a happy one. Weak labor markets, falling home values and, recently, soaring gas prices have gnawed away at confidence.

The economic angst was apparent Tuesday when the Conference Board reported its index fell to 63.4 this month, from 72.0 in February.

Even so, misery isn't blanketing the U.S. in equal measure. And gauging local gloom is possible using data collected at the city level. It turns out Boston is coping best. Clouds are darkest in sunny Phoenix.

The twin worries depressing consumers — slow progress on the job front and soaring gas prices — are reminiscent of the fears of the late 1980s. Back then, a misery index — the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates — illustrated the strains on households. In 1980, the index averaged 21%.

How miserable are consumers now? A 1980s index would total 11.0%, but recent inflation reports haven't totally captured the pain drivers are suffering at the pump. Plus, any measure today would have to include the weakness in real estate. The January S&P/Case-Shiller report showed the fall in home prices is accelerating again. Declining home values make homeowners feel especially miserable.

One way to construct a current misery index would add the 12-month change in the jobless rate (to gauge improvement in the labor markets), the percent change in gas prices since the end of 2010, and the inverse of the yearly percent change in home values. That U.S. misery index would stand at 20% now, and up from 8.3% a year ago.

The national number, of course, masks the divergence across regions since some cities and real estate markets are recovering faster than others. Local misery indexes are possible using city unemployment rates from the Labor Department , local gas prices from gasbuddy.com, and home prices from the S&P report.

Although misery is in the eye of the beholder, the city with the mildest case of the blues is Boston. The Massachusetts city has seen home prices fall just 0.6% over the past year, and gas prices are up "only" 13.6%, compared with a nearly 18% gain nationwide.

Phoenix, Ariz., ranked last of the 20 cities. Home prices there led the S&P January survey with a yearly drop of 9.1%. And gas prices have jumped about 22%.

The magnitude of local misery will have an impact on struggling city governments. In Phoenix, the steep plunge in home values will constrain property tax collections. Miami and Denver have seen little progress on the jobs front, suggesting demand for public safety-net services will remain high.

Don't expect misery to ease soon. Although the jobless rate is likely to fall gradually, gas prices are likely to keep rising as the U.S. nears the summer driving season. And the S&P/Case-Shiller report warned there was "no real hope in sight for the near future" concerning home prices.

Consumers are already braced for more pain ahead. The plunge in confidence was concentrated in expectations for the next six month. That index dropped to its lowest reading since November 2010.

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