It is rare that I write early on a Monday morning, but today there is this. A story on Bloomberg highlighted the pressure that the IMF is putting on Japan to institute an “incomes policy” designed to nudge (and force, if necessary) companies to increase wages. IMF mission chief for Japan told reporters a couple of weeks ago that “we need policies to support wage increases in Japan;” the Bloomberg article also names a former IMF chief economist and the current president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics as proposing an immediate boost of salaries of 5-10% for unionized workers.
It is truly appalling that global economic policymakers are essentially illiterate when it comes to economic history. The IMF suggestion to institute wage hikes as part of triggering inflation is not a question of misunderstanding macroeconomic models (although it manages to do this as well, since wages follow prices and thus increasing wages won’t cause inflation unless other conditions obtain). At some level, it is a question of ignorance of history. After the stock market crash in 1929, President Hoover persuaded major industrial firms (such as GM, U.S. Steel, and the like) to hold wages constant or raise them. Since prices were falling generally, this had the effect of raising the real cost of production, which of course worsened the subsequent Depression. According to one analysis, this single decision caused GDP loss in the Great Depression to be triple what it otherwise would have been if wages were allowed to adjust (because, again, wages follow prices and are the main mechanism by which a surplus or shortage of labor is cleared). It wasn’t just Hoover, of course: later, FDR established the National Recovery Administration to administer codes of “fair competition” for every industry that established minimum wages and prices. The NRA was struck down in large part by the Supreme Court, but the notion of arresting deflation by adjusting wages was quickly reintroduced in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
There is wide agreement, although I am sure it is not universal, that preventing markets from adjusting is a big part of what made the Great Depression so Great. And this isn’t theory…it’s history. There is no excuse, other than ignorance, for policymakers to whiff on this one.
Deflation can be bad, but it doesn’t need to come with massive unemployment. In Japan, it has not: the unemployment rate is 3.1%, the lowest it has been since 1995. But push wages higher artificially, and Japan can have the massive unemployment as well. Thanks, IMF.
I really don’t like August. It’s nothing about the weather, or the fact that the kids are really ready to be back in school (but aren’t). I just really can’t stand the monkey business. August is, after December, probably the month in which liquidity is the thinnest; in a world with thousands of hedge funds this means that if there is any new information the market tends to have dramatic swings. More to the point, it means that if there is not any new information, the speculators make their own swings. A case in point today was the massive 5% rally in energy futures from their lows of the day back to the recent highs. There was no news of note – the IEA said that demand will balance the oil market later this year, but they have said that in each of the last couple of months too. And the move was linear, as if there had been news.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care if traders monkey around with prices in the short run. They can’t change the underlying supply and demand imbalance and so it’s just noise trading for noise trading’s sake. What bothers me is that I have to take time out of my day to go and try to find out whether there is news that I should know. And that’s annoying.
But my whining is not the main reason for this column today. I am overdue to write about some of the inflation-related developments that bear comment. I’ll address one of them today. (Next week, I will probably tackle another – but Tuesday is also CPI day, so I’ll post my usual tweet summary. Incidentally, I’m scheduled to be on What Did You Miss? on Bloomberg TV at 4pm ET on Tuesday – check your local listings).
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about productivity (other than my own, and that of my employees). We are so bad at measuring productivity that the official data are revised for many years after their release. For example, the “productivity miracle” of the late 1990s, which drove the Internet bubble and the equity boom into the end of the century, was eventually revised away almost completely. It never happened.
The problem that a lot of people have with thinking about productivity is that they confuse the level of productivity with its pace of increase. So someone will say “of course the Internet changed everything and we got more productive,” when the real question is whether the pace of productivity increase accelerated. We are always getting more productive over time. There are always new innovations. What we need to know is whether those innovations and cost savings are happening more quickly than they used to, or more slowly. And, since the national accounts are exquisitely bad at picking up new forms of economic activity, and at measuring things like intellectual property development, it is always almost impossible to reject in real time the hypothesis that “nothing is changing about the rate of productivity growth.” Therefore, I don’t spend much time worrying about it.
But, that being said, we should realize that if there is a change in the rate of productivity growth it has implications for growth, but also for inflation. And recent productivity numbers, combined with the a priori predictions in some quarters that the global economy is entering a slow-productivity phase, have started to draw attention.
Most of that attention is focused on the fact that poor productivity growth lowers overall real output. The mechanism there is straightforward: productivity growth plus population growth equals real economic output growth. (Technically, more than just population growth it is working-age population growth times labor force participation, but the point is that it’s an increase in the number of workers, compounded by the increase in each worker’s productivity, that increases real output). Especially if a populist backlash in the US against immigration causes labor force growth to slow, a slower rate of productivity growth would compound the problem of how to grow real economic growth at anything like the rate necessary to support equity markets or, for that matter, the national debt.
But there hasn’t been as much focus on the other problem of low productivity growth, if indeed we are entering into that sort of era. The other problem is that low productivity growth causes higher prices, all else equal. That mechanism is also straightforward. We know that money growth plus the change in money velocity equals real output growth plus an increase in prices: that is, MV≡PQ. If velocity is mean-reverting, then the decline in real growth precipitated by a decline in labor productivity, in the context of an unchanged rate of increase in the money supply, implies higher prices. That is, if ΔM is constant and ΔV is zero and ΔQ declines, then ΔP must increase.
One partial offset to this is the fact that a permanent decline in productivity growth rates would lower the equilibrium real interest rate, which would lower the equilibrium money velocity. But that is a one-time shift while the change in trend output would be lasting.
In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose that the change in interest rates we have seen in the last few years is mostly cyclical but may also be partly secular. This would imply a lower equilibrium level of interest rates (although I don’t mean to imply that anything is near equilibrium these days), and a lower equilibrium level of monetary velocity. But there are a lot of “ifs” in that statement.
The biggest “if” of all, of course, is whether there really is a permanent or semi-permanent down-shift in long-term productivity growth. I don’t have a strong opinion on that, although I suspect it’s more likely true that the current angst over low productivity growth rates is just the flip side of the 1990s ebullience about productivity. We’ll know for sure…in about a decade.
Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.
But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?
I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?
I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”
That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.
It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.
But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.
Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.
There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.
 I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.
So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?
As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.
Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.
But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.
Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.
As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.
These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.
A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.
Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.
Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!
Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.
One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.
We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.
Recently, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published an Economic Letter in which they described why “Medicare Payment Cuts Continue to Restrain Inflation.” Their summary is:
“A steady downward trend in health-care services price inflation over the past decade has been a major factor holding down core inflation. Much of this downward trend reflects lower payments from public insurance programs. Looking ahead, current legislative guidelines imply considerable restraint on future public insurance payment growth. Therefore, overall health-care services price inflation is unlikely to rebound and appears likely to continue to be a drag on inflation.”
The article is worth reading. But I always have a somewhat uncomfortable reaction to pieces like this. On the one hand, what the authors are discussing is well known: healthcare services held down PCE inflation, and core CPI inflation, due to sequestration. Even Ben Bernanke knew that, and it was one reason that it was so baffling that the Fed was focused on declining core inflation in 2012-2014 when we knew why core was being dragged lower – and it was these temporary effects (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing core and Median CPI).
But okay, perhaps the San Francisco Fed is now supplying the reason: these were not one-off effects, they suggest; instead, “current legislative guidelines” (i.e., the master plan for Obamacare) are going to continue to restrain payments in the future. Ergo, prepare for extended lowflation.
This is where my discomfort comes in. The article combines these well-known things with questionable (at best) assumptions about the future. In this latter category the screaming assumption is the Medicare can affect prices simply by choosing to pay different prices. In a static analysis that’s true, of course. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely in the long run.
It’s a classic monopsonist pricing analysis. Just as “monopoly” is a term to describe a market with just one dominant seller, “monopsony” describes a market with just one dominant buyer. The chart below (By SilverStar at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13863070) illustrates the classic monopsony outcome.
The monopsonist forces an equilibrium based on the marginal revenue product of what it is buying, compared to the marginal cost, at point A. This results in the market being cleared at point M, at a quantity L and a price w, as distinct from the price (w’) and quantity (L’) that would be determined by the competitive-market equilibrium C. So, just as the San Fran Fed economists have it, a monopsonist (like Medicare) forces a lower price and a lower quantity of healthcare consumed (they don’t talk so much about this part but it’s a key to the ‘healthcare cost containment’ assumptions of the ACA neé Obamacare). Straight out of the book!
But that’s true only in a static equilibrium case. I admit that I wasn’t able to find anything relevant in my Varian text, but plain common-sense (and observation of the real world) tells us that over time, the supply of goods and services to the monopsonist responds to the actual price the monopsonist pays. That is, supply decreases because period t+1 supply is related to the reward offered in period t. There is no futures market for medical care services; there is no way for a medical student to hedge future earnings in case they fall. The way the prospective medical student responds to declining wages in the medical profession is to eschew attending medical school. This changes the supply curve in period t+1.
Any other outcome, in fact, would lead to a weird conclusion (at least, I think it’s weird; Bernie Sanders may not): it would suggest that the government should take over the purchase and distribution of all goods, since they could hold prices down by doing so. In other words, full-on socialism. But…we know from experience that pure socialist regimes tend to produce higher rates of inflation (Venezuela, anyone?), and one can hardly help but notice that when the government competes with private industry – for example, in the provision of express mail service – the government tends to lose on price and quality.
In short, I find it very hard to believe that mere “legislative guidelines” can restrain inflation in medical care, in the long run.
The Employment report was weak, with jobs coming in below consensus with a downward revision to prior months. It wasn’t abysmally weak, and not enough to change the a priori trajectory of the Fed. If the number had been 125k below expectations or 125k above it, then it may have had implications for the FOMC. But this is a number that has big swings and is revised multiple times. Getting 160k rather than 200k isn’t cause for celebration, but neither is it cause for panic. So whatever the Fed was getting ready to do didn’t change because of this number.
To be sure, no one knows what the Fed was planning to do, so this mainly has implications for the day’s volatility…which is to say that the market quickly went to sleep for the day.
Now, interestingly the Average Hourly Earnings number ticked higher to 2.5%, continuing the post-crisis upswing. At 2.5%, hourly earnings growth is slightly higher than median inflation and thus potentially “supportive of the inflation dynamic” from the standpoint of the Committee. Yes, wages follow inflation but not in the Fed models – so, while I don’t think this has any implications for future inflation it will eventually have implications for Fed policy. But this is a dovish Fed, and 2.5% earnings growth is not going to scare another tightening out of them…unless they were already planning to tighten.
Wages are actually a bit higher than that. Back in April I highlighted the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker and summarized how this measures is better than Hourly Earnings. I hadn’t been aware of this index previously but I follow it now. It stands at 3.2%. The difference between average hourly earnings and the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker is summarized below (Source: Bloomberg). Again, though: I don’t think we have seen anything today which will change the Fed’s collective opinion about the need for different monetary policy.
Earlier this week, I promised that I would revisit the question of how we can have both deflation and inflation, and how these concepts are confused. I first posted an article summarizing this point in January 2014, and in re-reading it I think it is good enough to pretty much cut-and-paste with only mild edits. So here it is:
How Inflation and Deflation Can Peacefully Coexist
In the discussion about whether the economy is exhibiting “inflationary tendencies” or “deflationary tendencies,” I find that many, many observers grow confused by the fact that we measure prices in dollars, which are themselves subject to changes in relative value due to supply and demand.
It helps to forget about dollars as the unit of measure. Just because it says “One Dollar” does not mean that it is an ever-fixed mark. With apologies to Shakespeare, dollars are not the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown although its dollar price be taken. There are two ways to look at the “inflation/deflation” debate. Depending on which one you are referring to, deflationary tendencies are not inconsistent with price inflation, and price inflation is not inconsistent with deflationary tendencies.
One is the question of dollar price; and here we are mainly concerned with the supply of dollars and the number of times they are spent, compared to the amount of stuff there is to buy. More dollars chasing the same goods and services imply higher prices. Of course, this is just another way of stating the monetarist equation: P ≡ MV/Q. This is an identity and true by definition. Moreover, it is true in practice: rapid money growth over some moderate length of time always corresponds with rapid deterioration in the purchasing power of the money unit – in other words, inflation. At least, we have no examples of (a) extremely high money growth without high inflation, or (b) extremely high inflation without high money growth.
But this is not the same discussion as saying that “the aging demographic [or debt implosion in a recession] means we will have deflation,” as many economists will have it. Deflation, in that sense, can still happen: if you have fewer workers making the same amount of GDP, then goods (and services) prices will fall relative to wages, which would be deflation the way we typically mean it if the overall price level was otherwise unchanged. However, if the money supply increases by a factor of 10, then nominal prices will increase no matter what else is going on. It may be, though, that in this case wages will increase slightly more than prices, so that there will be “deflation” in the unitless sense.
So, these are not inconsistent statements: (a) there will be increasing inflation next year, and (b) large amounts of private debt and demographic “waves” around the world are a deflationary force. The resolution to the seeming inconsistency is that (b) causes downward pressure on certain prices relative to other prices or, if you ignore the unit of exchange, it causes downward pressure in the ratio of one good that can be exchanged for another. Yet at the same time (a) implies that the overall increase in output in goods and services will be outstripped by the number of dollars spent on them, driving prices higher.
So you should cheer for the “good” sort of deflation. At least, you should cheer for it if you are still earning wages. But do not confuse that concept with the notion that prices in dollar terms will fall. That is wholly different, and unless central banks screw up pretty badly it is not going to happen. Indeed, despite all of the so-called “deflationary tendencies” – most of which I agree are important – I believe prices are going to rise in dollar terms and in fact they are going to rise at increasing rates (higher inflation) over the next few years.
P.S. Don’t forget to buy my book! What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All. Thanks!
 I kept this sentence…it was true in January 2014, as median inflation moved from 2.06% in Dec 2013 to 2.4% today, but I also believe this to be still true. Only the next leg will probably be faster.
(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link).
I am often critical of central banks these days, and especially the Federal Reserve. But that doesn’t mean I think the entire institution is worthless. While quite often the staff at the Fed puts out papers that use convoluted and inscrutable mathematics to “prove” something that only works because the assumptions used are garbage, there are also occasionally good bits of work that come out. While it is uneven, I find that the Atlanta Fed’s “macroblog” often has good content, and occasionally has a terrific insight.
The latest macroblog post may fall into the latter category. Before I talk about the post, however, let me as usual admonish readers to remember that wages follow inflation; they do not lead or cause inflation. That reminder is very important to keep in mind, along with the realization that some policymakers do think that wages lead inflation and so don’t get worried about inflation until wages rise as well.
With that said, John Robertson and Ellyn Terry at the Atlanta Fed published this great macroblog article in which they present the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker. Here’s the summary of what they say: most wage surveys have significant composition effects, since the group of people whose wages you are surveying now are very different from the group you surveyed last year. Thus, measures like Average Hourly Wages from the Employment report (which has been rising, but not alarmingly so) are very noisy and moreover might miss important trends because, say, high-wage people are retiring and being replaced by low-wage people (or industries).
But the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker estimates the wage growth of the same worker’s wage versus a year ago. That is, they avoid the composition effect.
It turns out that the Wage Growth Tracker has been rising much more steadily and at a higher rate than average hourly earnings. Here is the drop-the-mic chart:
With this data, the Phillips curve works like a charm. Higher employment is not only related, but closely related to higher wage growth. (For the record, Phillips never said that broad inflation was related to the unemployment rate. He said wage inflation was. See my post on the topic here.) The good news is that this doesn’t really say anything about future inflation, and what it means is that the worker who is actually employed right now is still keeping pace with inflation (barely) thanks to relatively strong employment dynamics.
The bad news, for Yellen and the other doves on the FOMC, is that if they were hiding behind the “tepid wage growth” argument as a reason to be suspicious that inflation will not be maintained, the Atlanta Fed just took a weed-whacker to their argument.