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 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.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Another Good Jobs Report, with AJSN-Shown Latent Demand Down Another 500,000 to 16.1 Million

After some wild Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary editions, it’s good in a way to see one that matched predictions and was consistent with common sense. 

The two projections I saw for net new nonfarm payroll positions, 380,000 and 390,000, were almost right on this morning’s 428,000.  There is a large usual difference between how many people are working in March and April, as while the seasonally adjusted employment rate held at 3.6% the actual or unadjusted figure fell from 3.8% to 3.3%.  Other key statistics were mixed.  On the good side, the count of officially jobless dropped 100,000 to 5.9 million, and the total of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to that kind of work while seeking full-time opportunities, shed 200,000 to 4.0 million.  Losers were those on temporary layoff, up 66,000 to 853,000, those out of work for 27 weeks or longer, up 100,000 to 1.5 million, average private nonfarm payroll wages, up 12 cents per hour to $31.85 but well below inflation, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, down 0.2% and 0.1% to 62.2% and 60.0%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure of how many new open positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were routinely easy to get, lost 501,000 to reach the following:

The share of the AJSN from those unemployed by official definition is now 30.5%, down from 33.5%, meaning that almost 70% of nonworking people who would take freely available jobs have other statuses.  That is historically very low.  Compared with a year ago, the AJSN has lost 3.7 million, all but 300,000 of that from lower official unemployment. 

On the pandemic side, the 7-day average of Covid-19 cases increased 18% from March 16th to April 15th (data was not available for April 16th) to 37,003, the same for deaths down 63% to 466, people hospitalized for this ailment off 42% to 14,868, and total number of vaccinations, most commonly newly-available boosters, up 203% to 718,910.  Given the still-low if rising case count, the geographical concentration of recent activity, and most of all the plummeting death numbers, it is still clear that few are taking undue risks to stay on the job. 

How can we size up April?  In some ways we didn’t go anywhere – pay is still lagging behind inflation, more people left the labor force, and the shortest and longest joblessness figures worsened.  On the other hand, that 428,000, about ten times enough to cover our smaller population growth, is nothing to take for granted.  We’re doing well, though it is obvious where we need to improve.  This time the turtle took a medium-size step forward.