The Fear Index

| Thu May 20, 2010 12:34 PM EDT

The VIX index is a measure of stock market volatility. When it goes up, it means investors are afraid that the market is likely to swing wildly and unpredictably. Thus its nickname: the fear index.

And, as you can see on the right, the market is plenty fearful these days. Not as fearful as late 2008, when the VIX index broke 80 for a couple of months — at least, not yet — but it's heading there.

Why? Let us count the ways. Problems in the eurozone. Inflation fears in the U.S. The housing bubble in China. Persistent unemployment. The "flash crash" earlier this month that no one seems able to properly explain. Rising oil prices in the midst of flat economic conditions. Continuing global imbalances that are starting to seem nearly intractable. Mortgage delinquency rates in the U.S. that have risen to nearly 10%. Etc. And fear is the economy's worst enemy. If it doesn't abate, panic is next.