Friday, July 1, 2022

Working From Home – No Consensus, but Plenty of Exploration

This very ongoing issue is nothing new – employees and companies waged battles on telecommuting when George H.W. Bush was president, with little resolution or even lessons learned or retained.  It’s gone through different phases since then, but only with the Covid-19 pandemic, now about 2 ½ years old, did it become critical for so many companies.  A lot of prosperity, profitability, and worker satisfaction will hang on it, so let’s check in on the latest.

On BBC.com on April 11th, Alex Christian wrote about “The simmering tension between remote and office workers,” documenting specific workplaces where some but not all were allowed to continue doing their jobs from elsewhere and others were ordered to stop.  As a result, “this disparity between who gets to work from home and who has to return to the office has created friction:  different employees are subject to different rules, and it feels unfair that the rationale has never been explained.”  Allowing only some people de facto privileges, which remote work for most certainly is, without openly communicated business justification is a recipe for unhappiness, especially when, as put by one respondent, management “just made (the policy) up as they went along.”  Even if eligibility for remote work is determined in part or more by individual suitability, the reasons for differing benefits must be shared as well as consistent.

One answer to the problem of labor being potentially unlimited in specific or total hours came up in “Working 9 to 2, and Again After Dinner” (Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, April 29th).  This example, or ones like it, would work well for mothers of school-age children, who could get them ready for and off to school before putting in a main stretch of work, and return to it when all was more settled in the evening.  That sort of thing should be a natural advantage of flexible time, without posturing about something close to 24x7 being the preferred norm.  Expect further such plans, possibly more formally agreed upon.

Now that the coronavirus is settling down if not ending, with extra-low death rates meaning little employment interference, are most employees returning from home?  Not at all, per Emma Goldberg on May 10th in the same publication, as “Just 8% of Manhattan office workers are back full time, survey shows.”  It is true that in this area of New York, employees have expressed an unusual amount of concern about crime, but it’s not the national norm for “nearly two-thirds” of companies to be “offering workers incentives to return to the office, including 43 percent that are giving free or discounted meals.”  Per the study in the title, “78 percent of workplaces have adopted a hybrid model, allowing a mix of remote and in-person work… a leap from 6 percent before the pandemic.”  At least in this place and time we aren’t going back.

These sorts of benefits aren’t always effective.  Per Quentin Fottrell in MarketWatch on May 23rd, “’Workers don’t want toys or free food, they want a higher quality of life.’:  The Great Resistance is here – as companies struggle to get workers back to the office.”  A Stanford economics professor quoted said “neither hard nor soft nudges will work,” and that “nobody commutes for one hour for a free bagel or box or to use a ping-pong table.”  He advocated companies naming “two or three days a week” during which all workers were expected to be in the office, more realistic than trying to “enforce a five-day week and fail.”  That could be the answer, seemingly strict but concentrating employee appearances together for greater cooperation and sanctioning permanent reductions in shuttling between home and work.

Not all employers are willing to implement such a thing.  As mentioned in Vivian Giang’s June 4th The New York Times “A test of devotion,” around then, CEO Elon Musk “issued an ultimatum to Tesla employees requiring them to return to the office for at least 40 hours per week – or lose their jobs.”  His view that “remote work is an affront to productivity and personal commitment” was shared by Goldman Sachs chief Jamie Dimon, who said “that working from home isn’t for people who want “to hustle.””  There’s plenty of controversy, as there should be when something this critical is disputable and lacks good supporting data.

Finally, on the other side we return again to Emma Goldberg, whose June 9th New York Times piece was titled “A Full Return to the Office?  Does ‘Never’ Work for You?”  Opposite to Musk’s wishes, per a Gartner Group human-resources-practice vice president, “there are fewer and fewer companies expecting their employees to be in the office five days a week,” and Google, Apple, and Intuit have all backed off of “rigid” employee reporting requirements. 

That’s the situation – reasonable views on both sides, nothing settled, and massive differences between companies, meaning that we’re nowhere near even talking about industry standards.  The remote-work issue will probably be unresolved long after Covid-19 is a memory.  That’s what we’re facing. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Inflation, Interest Rates, Gas Prices, and Employment: What’s Really Happening, and What They Really Mean

These areas are all over the business news, and beyond.  Let’s clear the air.

First, inflation is high, but not atrocious, by historical standards.  The latest three months’ levels, 8.5% for March, 8.3% for April, and 8.6% for May, are not included here, but would easily fit on this chart:

 


(Source: The New York Times)

From “How inflation became a global problem” (Patricia Cohen, The New York Times, June 10th), we learn that its latest readings were 9.2% in the Netherlands, 5.3% in Australia, at “four-decade highs” in Germany and Great Britain, and over 10% in “seven eastern European nations.”  It’s not just us.

Second, on Wednesday afternoon the Federal Reserve raised the federal funds target rate by 0.75%, which, though the largest one-time boost in 28 years, only brings it to where it was just before Covid-19 became widespread, which was lower than it was from Nixon through Clinton:

(Source:  Trading Economics)


Third, at over $5 a gallon, gasoline prices seem way high, but when adjusted for inflation are not obscene:

(Source:  The New York Times)

 

Fourth, unemployment, 3.6% adjusted in most-recent May, is within 0.2% of the best it has been in 65 years:


(Source:  Federal Reserve Economic Data)


Beyond the statistics above, what is important to understand?

It is possible that interest rate hikes will not significantly shrink inflation.  That is because our current situation is due to “over-buoyant demand” (the view of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, cited by Cohen above), from the pandemic’s slowing, and from relatively high household cash.  On the other hand, with deep job supplies such increases may not boost unemployment much either – indeed, per “Fed Takes Aggressive Action in Inflation Fight:  Live Updates,” by Jeanna Smialek in the June 15th New York Times, the Federal Reserve predicted joblessness, even with higher interest rates, would reach only 3.7% this year and 4.1% in the next.  In that case, the only thing we could do, without finding a way of wrenching tens of millions of jobs and trillion dollars of money away from Americans, would be to wait for demand to cool itself off.   

As well, as addressed in “The Daily Money:  Why are gas prices so high?  Oil refineries never caught up after COVID” (Jayme Deerwester, USA Today, June 7th), and reflecting on the United States only producing 12% of world petroleum and Russian production being down in “Biden Has ‘Only Bad Options’ for Bringing Down Oil Prices” (Clifford Krauss, The New York Times, June 5th), we cannot do a lot.  However, as described in “Gasoline demand falters with average price on brink of $5/gallon” (Yahoo Finance, June 9th), “demand destruction,” in the form of people just plain driving less, is already in progress and can only exert downward price pressure.  Expect more, including lower per-mile consumption from consumer vehicle choices. 

Overall, we are hardly in terrible shape.  Inflation and gas prices are high but understandable.  Interest rates remain historically tiny.  Today’s unemployment level would be the envy of any time from the 1970s through the 2010s, as virtually nobody wanting work needs to go without it.  Sometimes we can’t force things to change – we can nudge them, but that’s all.  Accept that, and we will all be happier.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Artificial Intelligence and Robots Keep Progressing, Like It or Not

Inflation and the pandemic have been the two largest American 2020s news stories, but not all.  Before they, and the Ukraine war, took over the headlines, another combined area gathered much more attention.  As it will remain critical after these three other situations have passed, let’s check in.

Artificial intelligence has been the toddler of technology, capable of much more than its governance can handle.  In “Clearview AI settles suit and agrees to limit sales of facial recognition database,” by Ryan Mac and Kashmir Hill in the May 9th New York Times, we learned about how this company, which uses “its database of what it said were more than 20 billion facial photos,” will no longer work with “most private individuals and businesses in the country,” but will still “sell that database to federal and state agencies.”  This decision stemmed from a 2020 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which Clearview AI ended “to avoid a protracted, costly and distracting legal dispute with the A.C.L.U. and others.”  It can still be used by the likes of police departments, and the technology will remain.

Along similar data-collection lines, we have “Your Bosses Could Have a File on You, and They May Misinterpret It” (Sarah Scoles, The New York Times, May 17th).  Here, the ability to collect and integrate information has surpassed its prudent use, as “some private enterprises may be attracted to scrutinizing employees like an intelligence agency might keep tabs on analysts and spies,” since “software can watch for suspicious computer behavior or it can dig into an employee’s credit reports, arrest records and marital-status updates,” and it “can check to see if Cheryl is downloading bulk cloud data or run a sentiment analysis on Tom’s emails to see if he’s getting testier over time.”  This sort of thing, with poor or no established handling practices, being subject to unsettled laws, and as in the ACLU example ripe to easily run afoul of others with more power, is going to cause plenty of trouble before it achieves huge gains.

While still often controversial, physical AI applications are marching on.  One was described in “Robotic surgery is safer and improves patient recovery time,” from University College London on May 15th in Science Daily.  This was a formal writeup of an academic study showing that “robot-assisted surgery used to perform bladder cancer removal and reconstruction enables patients to recover far more quickly and spend significantly (20 per cent) less time in hospital.”  Here, “researchers say the findings provide the strongest evidence so far of the patient benefit of robot-assisted surgery.”  Although robots have helped with surgery before, such research results are where such things begin widespread legitimacy and implementation.

“What’s holding back the self-driving car revolution?”  This obvious query was posed by Mike Bebernes in Yahoo Finance on May 19th.  He said “the simplest reason” was that “driving is much more complex and difficult to replicate than automakers anticipated,” especially in dealing with “unexpected situations.”  Others he proposed were auto companies “rolling untested self-driving features onto the road and making lofty claims that prompt drivers to push beyond their vehicle’s capabilities,” and “the task of creating cars that can navigate every imaginable road scenario may simply be impossible.”  The second problem here is of marketing, but the first and third were supposed to be solved with efforts beginning with dedicated testing grounds and billions of dollars of purchased brainpower.  As one cited observer put it, “unless the industry and public agree to accept a flawed self-driving system – one capable of failure – autonomous vehicles on our streets will never become mainstream.  Achieving perfection here can’t, and shouldn’t, be the goal.”  That is the real issue, which boils down to a lack of tolerance, a lack of perspective in underemphasizing the most recent years’ 42,000 American human-driving deaths, and a lack of will.  There is no imaginable way that, given the possible things that could have gone wrong, we could have overcome a similar attitude when, for example, getting to the moon. 

How are sales of automatons doing now?  Just fine, as “US robot orders surge 40% as labor shortages, inflation persist” (Lucas Manfredi, Fox Business, June 1st).  It makes clear sense, as if workers need higher pay they open a door for alternatives, which can improve and cost less over time.  The industries with substantial increases were metals; plastics and rubber; semiconductor, electronics and photonic; food and consumer goods; and “all others.”  Expect more.

A well-established Japanese nursing-home idea has making stateside inroads.  As described in “Therapy with a robot?  How AI could help those struggling with mental health” (Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park Press, published in Times Herald-Record on May 26th).  Sort of like 1990s Furby toys, called MARCos, “short for the mental health assisting robot companion,” they are “soft and cushy with two nonjudgmental eves and no mouth,” and look “like your favorite stuffed animal from childhood to whom you told your secrets.”  These devices “can respond, listening for key words to dispense advice or alert your contacts in case of an emergency.”  At $499 to $720 and heading lower, they are cost-effective if they achieve customer acceptance – and of course they can continue to improve.

Finally, “Farm Robots Will Solve Many of Our Food Worries” (Amanda Little, Bloomberg.com, June 2nd).  They “use computer vision to distinguish between crops and weeds and then deploy with sniper-like precision tiny jets of herbicide onto the weeds.”  Currently “expensive, enormous, wildly complex machines currently accessible only to industrial-scale farmers,” with enough demand they will get cheaper and smaller, and “within a few years their impact on the environment and human health could be nothing short of spectacular.”  More progress with the usual massive potential – that’s once more the story with robots and artificial intelligence.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Employment Report: New Jobs Healthy, People Rejoining Labor Force, AJSN Says We’re 16.4 Million Jobs Behind

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary turned out close to what people expected – almost. 

We gained 390,000 net new nonfarm positions, reasonably near the two 325,000 projections I saw.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment did not reach the 3.5% some thought, but held at 3.6%, actually increasing a bit with the difference falling into rounding – the unadjusted figure gained 0.1% to 3.4%.  Other indicators were mixed.  The adjusted count of those officially jobless rose 100,000 to 6.0 million, with 43,000 fewer or 810,000 on temporary layoff, and the number in long-term unemployment, or out for 27 weeks or longer, 100,000 better at 1.4 million.  The two measures best showing how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, were up 0.1% and unchanged respectively to reach 62.3% and 60.1%.  The count of those employed, 158.609 million, was up 631,000, and that of unemployed also gained, 90,000 to 5.548 million.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding that sort of position while seeking a full-time one, jumped 300,000 to 4.3 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages again lagged behind inflation, gaining 10 cents per hour to $31.95. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many currently unadvertised positions it would take to get one to each person who would grab it if they thought they were readily available, was up over 300,000 to reach the following:

 




The areas in which the AJSN got worse were people not searching for work in the previous year (adding almost 400,000 to the total) and those officially unemployed, contributing 81,000.  Improving were the count of those not wanting a job, contributing 52,800 fewer than in April, and the “other” category, with 47,100 fewer.  The share of the AJSN from those officially unemployed was almost unchanged, down 0.1%, to 30.4%.  Compared with April 2021 the AJSN again showed a year of great improvement, 3.5 million lower, with all but half a million of the difference from official joblessness and most of the rest from fewer people not looking for a year or more. 

On the pandemic side, per The New York Times, from April 15-16 to May 16 the seven-day average of new daily cases leaped 159% to 95,918, and hospitalizations were up 50% to 22,346 with vaccinations figured the same way off 33% to 371,272.  Deaths, though, fell 33% to 302, clearly telling us that the current variant is the least lethal we have seen.  Once more there is no indication from Covid-19 that people should be working less than they are. 

So what happened here?  The statistics above are unanimous in showing that many people tried to go back to work, starting with a one-million decline in those claiming no interest, and while most got there many did not.  The gain in people employed, along with the robust net new jobs count which is still around ten times what we need for population growth, tell us that our economy is strongly expanding.  Latent demand increased as more people are looking.  We still have a problem with wages, and the main reason for not finding jobs, and the boost in those working part-time for economic reasons, may be that existing opportunities pay too little.  That’s why the numbers above, for the strong and improving times we are in, look messy.  Employers still need to evaluate the cost of leaving needed positions unfilled against that of paying more – as they realize that the latter will allow their sales, in an outstandingly high-demand time, to jump even more, which will also shut up the misguided people talking about a possible recession.  There’s no doubt that the bones of our employment situation are strong, so, accordingly, the turtle took another solid step forward.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Inflation, Interest Rates, Recession, Stagflation, “The Era of Cheap and Plenty,” and Getting a Grip

Unjustified fears are hardly restricted to the far left or far right these days.  Consider our economic situation, which looms highest on American’s current concerns.

First, the one on which we can’t sensibly disagree.  In “Why Has the Inflation Calculation Changed Over Time,” by Stuart A. Thompson and Jeanna Smialek in the May 24th New York Times, we are reminded that the latest rate, April’s, is 8.3%.  That was down 0.2% from March.  The only algorithm adjustments the authors mentioned were 23 and 39 years ago, allowing items that could substitute for others and removing house prices, which means no special recent controversy.

Inflation is why “Fed officials expected to make at least three big rate increases over the next few months” (Ana Swanson, The New York Times, May 25th).  We have already had two such hikes, resulting in the federal funds rate still a historically low 0.75 to 1 percent, and Swanson, doubtless along with the Federal Reserve itself, has no firm timelines for the next, though the next meetings, scheduled for June 14-15 and July 26-27 per the Board of Governors calendar, seem probable targets.  There is real disagreement on whether these raises will solve our current problem, as it is not the usual inflation situation but caused by pandemic-related demand coupled with unusual supply problems, but the Fed is under bipartisan pressure to “do something,” and this is the only something they know.

We also need to keep in mind “What Higher Interest Rates Could Mean for Jobs,” as on May 17th, also in the Times.  Author Lydia DePillis concluded implicitly that they wouldn’t mean much at all, as “job losses would have to mount considerably before workers would have a hard time finding new positions, given the backlogged demand,” about 740,000 additional people must be hired every year to support house building, commercial construction is behind and in demand, and an outplacement company president reported that “a lot of our customers are trying to avoid the ‘fire and rehire’ playbook of the past.”  Therefore, in these areas and doubtless others, lower sales will not even eliminate shortfalls. 

What is a recession?  Per Oxford Languages, it is “a period of temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced, generally identified by a fall in GDP in two successive quarters.”  Even though the definition does not include employment, it would still require, from here, demand to significantly drop and stay lower.  Could that happen, with that now widely outstripping supply and healthy hiring and job creation?  Well, “A Harvard economist says the economy looks bad right now, but a recession isn’t a sure thing.  It all depends on these 2 factors” (Tristan Bove, Fortune, published in Yahoo Finance, May 12th).  Except for stock market activity, which since the publication date has been up and down instead of “crashing,” with 3.6% adjusted unemployment and household wealth strong it’s hard to defend that “the economy looks bad.”  This professor’s two things are consumer activity, already another good aspect of how we are doing, and his expectation that gasoline prices, due to higher production and large releases from the American strategic reserve, will fall.  Easy.  With there being no reason for jobs to go away, and in turn for consumer demand to plummet, I see almost no chance for a recession, by definition and in spirit.

Even further out is stagflation, described in Investopedia as being “characterized by slow economic growth and relatively high unemployment—or economic stagnation—which is at the same time accompanied by rising prices (i.e., inflation) … alternatively defined as a period of inflation combined with a decline in the gross domestic product (GDP).”  We have the third component, but where are the chances for the first two?  Still, “Ben Bernanke sees ‘Stagflation’ Ahead” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times, May 16th).  Bernanke, a former good Fed chair, should know better, and maybe he does, as in the text he is only quoted as saying something could happen that “you could call” stagflation.  Perhaps, as he suggested, 4% unemployment (“up a little bit”) and 5% inflation (dropping due to fewer people working) would qualify.  If so, we spent most of the prosperous 1960s in stagflation. 

Finally, could it be that “The Era of Cheap and Plenty May Be Ending” (Jeanna Smialek and Ana Swanson, The New York Times, May 3rd)?  “The answer could hinge on whether a shift away from globalization takes hold,” although then we might have “more resilient, more robust supply chains,” something on the list of corporate managers all over.  With plenty of international connections still functioning well, changes seem likely to be incremental instead of fundamental, and for now, per the above, our country is not in long-term economic trouble either.  So, as with the other possibilities, let’s not worry about developments with minimal or nonexistent chances.  Inflation is real, and we need to continue reducing it, but recession, stagflation, and few low-priced goods are not worthy of your attention.  We have enough to worry about.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Transportation Developments Beyond The Usual: High Value, Varying Progress

Over a trillion dollars of the American gross domestic product goes to moving us around.  Being able to go almost anywhere safely is one of the great things about the modern age, and, over the centuries if not decades, has progressed greatly.  For 60 and 100 years respectively, jet airliners and gasoline-powered cars have dominated, but there is and could be more.

That most prosaic was the topic of Farhad Manjoo’s March 18th New York Times “The Holy Grail of Transportation Is Right in Front of Us.”  Although “in America, nobody loves the bus,” and its systems are “chronically underfunded,” they use existing roadways, are flexible, and its citizens took 4.6 billion trips with them in 2019.  From what he saw in London, Manjoo recommended increasing their numbers, to which I add something I too have seen overseas, electric signs at bus stops with expected arrival times.  If buses got even a sliver of the personal and legislative love of trains, we would benefit.

Onto a form that cannot complain about being unfavored: “Electric vehicle sales hit record high in 2021, KBB reports” (Erika Giovanetti, Fox Business, February 22nd).  Lyndon Baines Johnson was president when I first read about the great potential of electric cars, and their main problem, driving distance between lengthy charges, remains the same.  So I can’t get excited, after decades of subsidies and green enthusiasm, about seeing that sales of electric vehicles (not the same as personal automobiles) reached 4.5% of the market last year, with hybrids, the most adaptive version, below 10% of “the car sales market.”  Even if we sweep their higher prices under the rug, the implied and even touted environmental advantage is small, with an average of 35% of American electricity coming from fossil sources, meaning, as when hippies and Vietnam headed the news, they are still generally neither suitable nor desirable.

Electric car acceptance could be passed by something more recent and more fanciful, if it gets help.  In “Virgin Hyperloop unveils West Virginia as location for Hyperloop test center,” (Louis Casiano, Fox Business, October 8, 2020) we saw at least planned progress for this magnetic-driven 600mph ground transportation technology.  Yet, nine months later on July 16th, the same publication could only issue Chris Taylor’s “All aboard the hyperloop:  How your commute could be changing,” a how-this-works-and what-it could-do-someday piece that could have been issued two years before.  The hyperloop concept has been proven, and people years ago rode on it for half-miles and speeds of 200, so it’s time to move ahead – will it happen?

Something even more spectacular and ambitious has been implemented better.  First, “Tony Robbins puts money behind Cape Canaveral space balloon business” (Bradford Betz, Fox Business, December 3rd).  Pompous ass or not, this motivational speaker wants to actually do things more than most, and this one is actually in progress, with, per Debra Kamin’s May 7th New York Times “The Future of Space Tourism Is Now.  Well, Not Quite.,” seven “completed space tourist launches,” by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, completed, and a fourth company, World View, taking and getting 2024 reservations for Robbins-style balloon trips, during which “a 10-person pressurized capsule… will gently float to 100,000 feet while passengers sip champagne and recline in ergonomic chairs,” “high enough to show travelers the curvature of the planet.”  I thought I had seen that from 30,000 feet at twilight, but I’m sure it’s better higher.  With no rocket and long-standing technology I don’t see a problem, and will skip over other of Kamin’s reported projections, as this industry is now, partially but indisputably, past the concept-and-testing stage.

That leaves us with driverless cars.  I ignore the incremental and extremely localized achievements, as in 2017 we were expecting autonomous vehicles to be all over the place, in favor of a more important and equally pertinent report.  It is “Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021,” issued May 17th by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The tentative number was 42,915 – more than 21,000 times the total killed by driverless vehicles.  A lack of will is not only sad but can be deadly – and that goes for other transportation shortcomings as well.  

Friday, May 13, 2022

Inflation and Interest Rates: What Happened, What They Mean, and How We Can React To Them

The largest jobs-and-the-economy news story of 2022 is clearly here.  There has been almost too much coverage and commentary, even when it’s not politically distorted.  So let’s go to the core.

Per Jeanna Smialek’s May 4th New York Times “Fed raises rates half a percentage point, its largest increase since 2000,” the federal funds target level went up last week, though at 1.00% it is historically low, in fact under any point from before 1970 to 2002.  We should expect more such hikes, as Federal Reserve chair Jerome H. Powell said that “there is a broad sense on the committee that additional 50 basis points increases should be on the table at the next couple of meetings.”  The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that “inflation edged down to 8.3% in April compared to a year ago, remaining near 40-year highs” (The Washington Post, May 11th), from 8.5% in March, suggesting that the rate, if still a major problem, is leveling off or decreasing.

One of higher prices’ less-publicized effects is that “Sky-high inflation could lead to higher taxes for millions of Americans” (Megan Henney, Fox Business, May 10th).  Since federal income tax became indexed in 1981, we haven’t thought much about “bracket creep,” the result of pay following higher prices being subject to percentage tax increases, but “15 states fail to account for inflation when drawing the brackets for taxes on wages and income” and “another 18 states do not index personal exemption tax to inflation.”  These locations are spread all over the country, and the first group includes high-population Georgia, New Jersey, and New York.  With the current problem small for four decades, this situation was given little priority, but expect that to change.

“What do Federal Reserve interest rate hikes mean for Main Street?” (Brock Dumas, Fox Business, March 16th).  That includes higher personal rates on “car loans, mortgages, and credit card balances,” but those for “savings accounts and CDs will rise at a slower pace.”  Discouraging, but to be expected. 

What else can ordinary people do?  The advice offered in “Gas prices could hit a new record high:  Here’s how to save” (Daniella Genovese, Fox Business, May 9th) is well-worn, but bears repeating:  “Lighten the weight of your car”; “Purchase a fuel-efficient car”; “Only use the air conditioning when you need it”; “Use cruise control”; “Don’t idle”; “Make sure your tires are properly inflated”; “use cash-back credit cards and… join a gas station loyalty program when possible.”  These things matter more than usual.  I add that when deciding whether to pay with cash or credit when the latter costs more, consider what your cash-back rate is, as often now the difference at the pump is less than 1%. 

A new opportunity, perfect for now, was described by Ann Carrns in the May 3rd New York Times: “Inflation bonds are earning eye-popping rates:  9.62 percent.”  Seems too good to be true, but these are legitimate Series I U.S. savings bonds.  They pay amounts algorithmically determined from fixed amounts and inflation levels.  They must be bought online, with limits of $10,000 per person plus a maximum of $5.000 more with tax refund money, “you must hold I bonds for at least 12 months before redeeming them, and you’ll be docked the last three months of interest as a penalty if you redeem before five years.”  If you don’t believe it, check out treasurydirect.gov and open an account for yourself to start the process, which takes at least ten business days.  I did.

In government policy as elsewhere, the strongest response is not always the best.  That was the idea of “The Courage Required to Confront Inflation,” by the New York Times Editorial Board on April 29th.  Points made in this piece include “supply shortages… are best endured patiently.  The Fed’s decision… won’t ease them,” “lingering questions about the health of the economy provide another reason for the Fed to move cautiously,” and “there is no evidence the United states is entering a wage-price spiral.”  Sellers are all too willing to get more products, and when the problems from supply-chain snags to Covid-19-caused foreign worker restrictions ease, they will come in no matter the interest rates.  In the meantime, jobs are plentiful and families have added a lot of money, two things we don’t want to endanger.  The course we are following is prudent and will prove effective – let us give it the time it needs.