This Week in the Economy

Take whatever stigma you've attached to economics and check it at the door. This stuff can really get you going. I know it gets me fired up. Of course, with all of the chatter about recession vs. recovery, inflation vs. stagflation, and bailout vs. bankruptcy, keeping abreast of the latest economic events can be a Herculean task.

Fear not, Fools. In this regular series, we're here to compress the week's economic developments into a simple-to-understand summary. And we promise to keep it completely free of the hieroglyphics and eight-syllable words that weasel their way into standard academic forecasts. Here's the latest scoop.

How miserable do you feel?
Forget debating whether we're in a recession. Some folks have started using a more direct form of measuring our current struggles: the Misery Index. A popular statistic during other times of economic torpor, the Misery Index adds the unemployment rate to the inflation rate to form a more complete assessment of consumers' anguish. The good news? The current "misery" number of 8.9 isn't that grim. The index hit a post-World War II high of 20.6 in 1980, and a low of 6.1 in 1998, but the current one-two punch of job cuts and surging prices are no doubt pouring on an uncomfortable amount of economic strain.

Bernanke says relax
According to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the trepidation in financial markets is beginning to ease. As a result of a mishmash of interest rate cuts, stimulus packages, and open lending to investment banks, investors appear to have begun healing from an unprecedented bout of the heebie-jeebies. Although he noted that conditions are still far from ordinary, Bernanke cited renewed strength in the debt markets -- even in infamously troublesome mortgage-backed securities, as evident in Freddie Mac's (NYSE: FRE  ) recent earnings surprise.

It's all relative
Topping the charts in the "You know it's bad when ..." file, foreclosures in the posh neighborhood of New York's East Hampton and Southampton hit a record during the first quarter of 2008, when 120 homeowners bowed out of their mortgages. If that tidbit didn't induce enough sympathy toward the affluent, how about this? A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described a former Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) mortgage-backed-securities salesman who filed suit against the company after his annual pay shrank to $190,000 -- a level so low that, according to his lawyer, "He couldn't make enough money to feed his family."

Thanks for nothing
According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, the rising cost of gasoline and food will eat up a chunk of consumers' stimulus checks. The latest poll found that an estimated 17.2 million people expect to use at least part of their rebate to pay for gasoline -- a 42% jump from February's survey. And around 21.2 million people anticipate using some of the rebate to cover basic food necessities. None of that is good news for big retailers such as Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) , Circuit City (NYSE: CC  ) , and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , who hope the rebate checks will spur demand for windfall purchases.

The inflation nation
The Consumer Price Index, a major measure of inflation, rose 0.2% in April -- a 3.9% jump over the same month last year. What's behind the price spike? The gravity-defying surge in oil played a big role, of course, but you can also blame a chunk of the rise on food staples. In the past year or so, the price of eggs increased about 25%, poultry shot up 7%, and milk, although I'm almost certain it still does a body good, rose about 13%.

That's the latest for this week. Check back next Friday for the latest economic roundup.

More economic Foolishness:

Best Buy is a selection of the Motley Fool's Stock Advisor and Inside Value newsletter services. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick as well. The Motley Fool owns shares of Best Buy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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