Definition, Components, History, and Limitations

What Is the Distress Index?

The distress index is a measure of financial misery felt by on a regular basis individuals, as a result of threat of (or precise) joblessness mixed with an growing price of dwelling. The distress index is calculated by including the seasonally adjusted unemployment charge to the inflation charge.

Since unemployment and inflation are each thought-about detrimental to 1’s financial well-being, their mixed worth is helpful as an indicator of total financial well being. The unique distress index was popularized within the Seventies with the event of stagflation, or concurrently excessive inflation and unemployment.

Key Takeaways

  • The primary distress index was created by Arthur Okun within the Seventies to supply a snapshot of the U.S. financial system.
  • The distress index equals the inflation charge and unemployment charge; the upper the index, the higher the distress felt by common residents.
  • It has broadened in latest instances to incorporate different financial indicators, similar to financial institution lending charges.
  • The distress index is taken into account a handy however imprecise metric.
  • Variations of the unique distress index have develop into in style as methods to gauge the general well being of a nationwide financial system.

Click on Play to Study What the Distress Index Is

Understanding the Distress Index

The distress index has two elements. They’re the unemployment charge and the inflation charge. U.S. unemployment is the variety of able-bodied adults who’re actively in search of work, as a proportion of the whole workforce.

Inflation refers back to the charge at which cash loses shopping for energy, as a result of rise of client costs. Usually, these numbers are inversely correlated; when the unemployment charge goes down, costs are likely to go up, and vice versa.

The distress index is calculated by including the seasonally adjusted charge of unemployment and the annual inflation charge.

Distress index = Seasonally Adjusted Fee of Unemployment + Annual Inflation Fee

Economists usually take into account full employment to imply an unemployment charge of 4%–5%. The Federal Reserve (Fed) targets an inflation charge of two%. Due to this fact, a passable distress index ranking can be within the vary of 6%–7%.

See also  How to Reduce Your Taxes and AGI by Giving to Charity

Parts of the Distress Index

Seasonally Adjusted Fee of Unemployment 

The unemployment charge is adjusted to take away seasonal employment patterns in order that it may well present good perception into the relative stage of employment.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment charge is measured as a proportion. It displays the portion of the workforce that is ready to work and search employment actively, however can’t discover a job. Staff who’re retired however working and people who have stopped looking for a job are excluded from the seasonally adjusted charge.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reviews unemployment information every month.

Annual Inflation Fee

The annual inflation charge is the share enhance within the costs of the products and providers consumed by the consumers. In brief, it measures the costs of all items and providers current within the financial system.

The BLS reviews inflation information every month in its client value index (CPI) launch.

Distress Index as of December 2022

Distress Index = 9.95

Unemployment charge (3.5) + Inflation charge (6.45)

Historical past of the Distress Index

Arthur Okun’s Idea

The primary distress index was created by economist Arthur Okun within the Seventies when he was a scholar on the Brookings Establishment. He had beforehand served on President Lyndon Johnson’s Council of Financial Advisers.

Okun mixed the nation’s annual inflation charge and unemployment charge to supply an simply understood snapshot of the financial system’s relative well being. The upper the index, the higher the distress felt by the typical citizen.

Interval of Stagflation

In the course of the Seventies, after President Nixon restricted after which severed the ultimate hyperlinks between the U.S. greenback and gold, the U.S. skilled a number of years of concurrently elevated value inflation and unemployment, often known as stagflation.

The American individuals have been caught in a squeeze between the hardships of joblessness because the financial system hit a sequence of recessions and a rising price of dwelling because the greenback quickly misplaced worth.

This phenomenon didn’t match with dominant macroeconomic theories on the time, primarily based on the Phillips curve. It led economists to discover different concepts to explain and clarify what was happening.

On the time, the distress index was novel as a result of mainstream economists had beforehand believed that inflation and unemployment would offset each other fairly than rise on the similar time.

Use in Presidential Campaigns

In the course of the 1976 marketing campaign for U.S. president, candidate Jimmy Carter popularized Okun’s distress index as a method of criticizing his opponent, incumbent Gerald Ford. By the top of Ford administration, the distress index was a comparatively excessive 12.7%.

In the course of the 1980 presidential marketing campaign, Ronald Reagan in flip identified that the distress index had elevated below Carter.

Limitations of the Distress Index

Whereas it’s a handy shorthand for financial misfortune, the distress index shouldn’t be thought-about a exact metric for financial well being.

See also  Crypto Exchange Binance To Buy Rival FTX

For one factor, each elements of the distress index have inherent blind spots. The unemployment charge solely counts the unemployed who’re actively in search of work. It doesn’t embrace those that have given up in search of work, as is perhaps the case for long-term stretches of unemployment.

Likewise, low inflation will also be accompanied by sudden distress. For instance, no inflation, and even deflation, could be indicators of a stagnant financial system, which is usually a hardship for a lot of as a result of potential for rising unemployment and falling fairness and actual property valuations. Nonetheless, the low charges would produce a really low distress index.

As well as, the distress index treats unemployment and inflation equally. Nonetheless, a 1% enhance in unemployment doubtless causes extra distress than a 1% enhance in inflation.


The Okun distress index is taken into account a handy however extremely imprecise metric, as a result of inherent flaws of inflation and unemployment as measurements of financial well being.

Criticisms of the Distress Index

The Okun distress index has confronted some criticism from economists.

  • It does not embrace some key elements. Some imagine it isn’t indicator of financial efficiency as a result of it does not embrace financial development information. Nonetheless, this errors the distress index for a measure of common financial efficiency fairly than for a measure of the ache felt by the typical citizen.
  • It solely considers present information. As a measure of non-public financial misery, the distress index might underweight the position of expectations and uncertainty by trying solely at present unemployment and inflation charges. A lot of the stress and fear that individuals truly really feel could also be for his or her future financial prospects (along with present situations). Particularly, the unemployment charge is usually thought-about to be a lagging indicator that doubtless understates perceived distress early in a recession and overstates it even after the recession is over.
  • It is used inconsistently. In the course of the Nice Moderation, the prevalence of low unemployment and low inflation figures throughout a lot of the world meant that the distress index was used solely every so often, throughout transient recessions and crises. Unhealthy information sells, so durations of concurrently low inflation and unemployment merely do not generate the identical impetus to measure and monitor financial distress.

There have been a number of makes an attempt to modernize the distress index by together with different metrics.

Newer Variations of the Distress Index

By Robert Barro

The distress index has been modified a number of instances, first by Harvard economist Robert Barro. In 1999, Barro created the Barro distress index, which provides client lending rates of interest and the hole between precise and potential gross home product (GDP) development to judge post-WWII presidents.

By Steve Hanke

In 2011, Johns Hopkins economist Steve Hanke modified Barro’s distress index and broadened its software to be a cross-country index. Hanke’s annual distress index is the sum of unemployment, inflation, and financial institution lending charges, minus the change in actual GDP per capita.

Hanke publishes his world record of distress index rankings yearly for the nations that report related information on a well timed foundation. For 2021, his record included 156 nations, with Libya being recognized because the world’s least depressing nation and Cuba because the world’s most depressing nation.

By Tom Lee

The idea of a distress index has additionally been expanded to asset lessons. For instance, Tom Lee, co-founder of Fundstrat Advisors, created the Bitcoin Distress Index (BMI) to measure the typical bitcoin investor’s distress. The index calculates the share of successful trades towards whole trades and provides it to the cryptocurrency’s total volatility. The index is taken into account “at distress” when its whole worth is lower than 27.

By Bloomberg

A variation of the unique distress index is the Bloomberg distress index. Argentina, South Africa, and Venezuela, nations beset by widespread inflation and unemployment, topped the index in 2020.

On the opposite finish, Thailand, Singapore, and Japan have been thought-about the happiest nations in keeping with economist estimates.

However low inflation and low unemployment charges also can masks low demand. Japan is a textbook case of persistently low demand as a consequence of an financial system that has suffered from stagflation for the final twenty years.

It is sensible for buyers to construct an emergency fund in case of an financial downturn or job loss.

Distress Index Beneath Totally different Presidents

Though the distress index was first popularized within the Seventies, it’s potential to judge the financial misfortunes below completely different presidents by evaluating their inflation and unemployment figures.

Unsurprisingly, probably the most depressing yr on report occurred in the course of the Nice Melancholy. The distress index reached 25.7% within the first yr of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency (1933). It fell to three.5% by 1944, doubtless as a consequence of full employment in the course of the Second World Conflict.

Richard Nixon (1969–1974) and Jimmy Carter (1977–1980) have the unenviable distinction of presiding over probably the most depressing economies of the post-war interval. The distress index rose to twenty% below Nixon and 22% below Carter. The index fell sharply below Ronald Reagan, and it continued to development downwards in the course of the George H.W. Bush and Clinton presidencies.

In the course of the presidency of George W. Bush, the distress index once more trended upwards. It reached a peak of 12.7% below President Obama as a result of ongoing Nice Recession. The index fell to a low of 5.06% in 2015 and remained low via a lot of the Trump presidency (2017–2020). Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a pointy enhance in unemployment, pushing the distress index to fifteen%.

Common Distress Index by U.S. President
President  Time period Common
Joseph Biden 2021-present 10.85
Donald Trump 2017-2020 6.91
Barack Obama 2009-2016 8.83
George W. Bush 2001-2008 8.11
Invoice Clinton 1993-2000 7.80
George H. W. Bush 1989-1992 10.68
Ronald Reagan  1981-1988 12.19
Jimmy Carter  1977-1980 16.26
Gerald Ford 1974-1976 16.00
Richard Nixon 1969-1974 10.57

Supply: United States Distress Index

What Is a Current Distress Index?

The Distress Index as of December 2022 is 9.95 (Unemployment charge of three.5 + Inflation charge of 6.45).

Who Created the Distress Index?

The Distress Index was created by economist Arthur Okun within the Seventies and it was initially known as the Financial Discomfort Index.

What is the Most Depressing Nation within the World?

In keeping with the Distress Index for 2021, Cuba was probably the most depressing nation on this planet with a distress index rating of 1,227.6, adopted by Venezuela (774.3) and Sudan (397.2).

The Backside Line

The distress index, created by economist Arthur Okun, is an financial indicator that’s calculated by including the seasonally adjusted charge of unemployment and the annual inflation charge. Broadly talking, it serves as a measure of the nation’s financial well being and the financial misery of the typical citizen.

Whereas the distress index grew to become a well-liked measure as a consequence of its simplicity, it’s extensively considered an ineffective measure of macroeconomic situations because it does not take into account financial development information.