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.

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.