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.
(**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.
I almost never do this, but I am posting here some remarks from another writer. My friend Andy Fately writes a daily commentary on the FX markets as part of his role at RBC as head of US corporate FX sales. In his remarks this morning, he summed up Yellen’s speech from yesterday more adroitly than I ever could. I am including a couple of his paragraphs here, with his permission.
Yesterday, Janet Yellen helped cement the view that the Fed is going to raise rates at the next FOMC meeting with her speech to the Washington Economic Club. Here was the key paragraph:
“However, we must also take into account the well-documented lags in the effects of monetary policy. Were the FOMC to delay the start of policy normalization for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession. Moreover, holding the federal funds rate at its current level for too long could also encourage excessive risk-taking and thus undermine financial stability.” (Emphasis added).
So after nearly seven years of zero interest rates and massive inflation in the size of the Fed balance sheet, the last five of which were in place after the end of the Financial Crisis induced recession, the Fed is now concerned about encouraging excessive risk-taking? Really? REALLY? That may be the most disingenuous statement ever made by a Fed Chair. Remember, the entire thesis of QE was that it would help encourage economic growth through the ‘portfolio rebalancing channel’, which was a fancy way of saying that if the Fed bought up all the available Treasuries and drove yields to historic lows, then other investors would be forced to buy either equities or lower rated debt thus enhancing capital flow toward business, and theoretically impelling growth higher. Of course, what we observed was a massive rally in the equity market that was based largely, if not entirely, on the financial engineering by companies issuing cheap debt and buying back their own shares. Capex and R&D spending have both lagged, and top-line growth at many companies remains hugely constrained. And the Fed has been the driver of this entire outcome. And now, suddenly, Yellen is concerned that there might be excessive risk-taking. Sheesh!
Like Andy, I have been skeptical that uber-dove Yellen would be willing to raise rates unless dragged kicking and screaming to that action. And, like Andy, I think the Chairman has let the market assume for too long that rates will rise this month to be able to postpone the action further. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the FOMC meeting this month, we should assume the Fed will raise rates. And then the dramatic stuff will happen afterwards. Actually I wouldn’t normally expect much drama from a well-telegraphed move, but in an illiquid market made more illiquid by the calendar in the latter half of December, I would be cutting risk no matter which direction I was trading the market. I expect others will too, which itself might lead to some volatility.
There is also the problem of an initial move of any kind after a long period of monetary policy quiescence. In February 1994, the Fed tightened to 3.25% after what was to that point a record period of inaction: nearly one and a half years of rates at 3%. In April 1994, Procter & Gamble reported a $102 million charge on a swap done with Bankers Trust – what some at the time said “may be the largest ever” swaps charge at a US industrial company. And later in 1994, in the largest municipal bankruptcy to that point, Orange County reported large losses on reverse repurchase agreements done with the Street. Robert Citron had seen easy money betting that rates wouldn’t rise, and for a while they did not. Until they did. (It is sweetly sentimental to think of how the media called reverse repos “derivatives” and were up in arms about the leverage that this manager was allowed to deploy. Cute.)
The point of that trip down memory lane is just this: telegraphed or not (it wasn’t like the tightening in 1994 was a complete shocker), there will be some firms that are over-levered to the wrong outcome, or are betting on the tightening path being more gradual or less gradual than it will actually turn out to be. Once the Fed starts to raise rates, the tide will be going out and we will find out who has been swimming naked.
And the lesson of history is that some risk-taker is always swimming naked.
A reader pointed out to me today a piece by Amy Higgins and Randal Verbrugge on the Cleveland Fed’s website entitled “Is a Nonseasonally Adjusted Median CPI a Useful Signal of Trend Inflation?” I will let readers draw their own conclusions about the new measure that Higgins and Verbrugge are proposing, but I wanted to point out the research because I often cite Median CPI as the best way to look at the central tendency of inflation (what the researchers call “trend inflation”) and this article confirms and reinforces that point of view.
And it is worth looking, therefore, at the recent movements in Median CPI. Yes, I know you’ve seen this over and over from me, but take a look anyway (chart is sourced from Bloomberg).
I don’t believe for a second that the FOMC is unaware of this picture; nor, however, do I believe they really care equally about inflation and growth. The talk right now is moderately hawkish, and with growth fair and inflation heading higher it is time to withdraw reserves. Indeed, it is long past time. As I have said for a while, the time to withdraw reserves was roughly when the Fed was busy implementing their last QE. Also note that I am not saying “raise rates,” since raising rates is an effect of withdrawing reserves and it is the withdrawal of reserves, not the raising of rates, that matters.
Practically speaking, since growth is slowing, the Fed is now back in a pickle of its own making. Inflation is clearly heading higher; growth is probably heading lower. If the FOMC had a balanced mandate (inflation and employment equal) then they would probably be at a neutral rate right now, so that would argue for tightening. But the FOMC has nothing remotely close to a balanced mandate. Against all evidence that monetary policy can affect inflation but not growth, the Fed is totally biased to act to support growth. The bankers believe that slow growth solves the inflation problem, so they should fight recession and just worry about inflation when growth gets “too hot.” Therefore, I currently do not expect the Fed to tighten in December.
Moreover, this increase in core or median inflation is happening in most major economies (with the notable exception of the UK, where it was nearing 4% in 2011 but has gradually come back to around 1%). This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom being propagated that inflation is falling everywhere. Consider the chart below, which is of core Japanese CPI (with the effect of the one-off tax increase in 2014 smoothed out).
Core inflation in Japan is the highest it has been in more than 17 years. Seventeen years. Tell me again how the BOJ’s money printing is having no effect? It is having no effect on growth, but it is doing what we would expect it to do on inflation.
Eurozone inflation is rising less impressively (see chart), but still rising. But then, the ECB has been less aggressive on monetary policy than either the US or Japan. Still, Europe is not, as the popular press would have you believe, flirting with deflation.
All of these economies are only flirting with deflation if you include energy quotes (these pictures may be worse if we had median CPI rather than core CPI for these economies). Now, energy quotes matter, just as much when they are going down as when they are going up, but it is a separate question whether including energy is at all helpful for predicting future inflation. And the answer is, as the Higgins and Verbrugge point out: no, it really isn’t. We are entering a period with weakening growth and strengthening inflation.
This should be “fun.”
I really enjoy reading, and listening to, Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. He is one of those few people – Cliff Asness is another – who is both really smart, in a cutting-edge-research sense, and really connected to the real world of investing. There are only a handful of these sorts of guys, and you want to align yourself with them when you can.
Rob has written and spoken a number of times over the last few years about the investing implications of the toppling of the demographic pyramid in developed markets. He has made the rather compelling point that much of the strong growth of the last half-century in the US can be attributed to the fact that the population as a whole was moving through its peak production years. Thus, if “natural” real growth was something like 2%, then with the demographic dividend we were able to sustain a faster pace, say 3% (I am making up the numbers here for illustration). The unfortunate side of the story is that as the center of gravity of the population, age-wise, gets closer to retirement, this tailwind becomes a headwind. So, for example, he figures that Japan’s sustainable growth rate over the next few decades is probably about zero. And ours is probably considerably less than 2%.
He wrote a piece that appeared this spring in the first quarter’s Conference Proceedings of the CFA Institute, called “Whither Bonds, After the Demographic Dividend?” It is the first time I have seen him tackle the question from the standpoint of a fixed-income investor, as opposed to an equity investor. I find it a compelling read, and strongly recommend it.
Don’t miss the “Question and Answer Session” after the article itself. You would think that someone who sees a demographic time bomb would be in the ‘deflation’ camp, but as I said Rob is a very thoughtful person and he reaches reasonable conclusions that are drawn not from knee-jerk hunches but from analytical insights. So, when asked about whether he sees an inflation problem, or continued disinflation, or deflation over the next five years, he says:
“I am not at all concerned about deflation. Any determined central banker can defeat deflation. All that is needed is a printing press. Japan has proven that. Japan is mired in what could only be described as a near depression, and it still has 1.5% inflation. So, if a central bank prints enough money, it can create inflation in an economy that is near a depression.”
This, more than anything else, explains why keeping interest rates low to avert deflation is a silly policy. If deflation happens, it is a problem that can be solved. Inflation is a much more difficult problem to solve because collapsing the money supply growth rate runs counter to political realities. I don’t think this Fed is worried about inflation at all, and they’re probably not worried too much about deflation either any longer. But they believe they can force growth higher with accommodative monetary policy, when all available evidence suggests they cannot. Moreover, Arnott’s analysis suggests that we are probably already growing at something near to, or even above, the probable maximum sustainable growth rate in this demographic reality.
Maybe we can get Arnott on the Federal Reserve Board? Probably not – no one who is truly qualified for that job would actually want it.
**Note – If you would like to be on the notification list for my new book, What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!
I just saw this interesting article in Econbrowser called “New estimates of the effects of the minimum wage.” It is both good news, and bad news.
It is good news because it clarifies a debate about the effect of the minimum wage which has been raging for a long time, but without much actual data. This article summarizes a clever approach by a couple of academic economists to examine the actual effects of increasing the minimum wage. The research produces solid numbers and confirms some theories about the effects of the minimum wage.
The bad news is that the effect of the minimum wage is just what theory says it should be, but liberal politicians have insisted isn’t true in practice. And that’s a net negative effect on overall welfare, albeit divided between winners and losers. However, even that ought to be good news, because this analysis also means that we can reverse the policy and reap immediate gains in consumer welfare.
First, the theory: microeconomics tells us that an increase in the minimum wage, if it is above the equilibrium wage for some types of labor, should decrease employment while increasing the wages of those who actually retain their jobs. (The usual argument for increasing the minimum wage is that the people who earn minimum wage aren’t making enough to live on, and supporters tend to forget that if people lose their jobs because the minimum wage is raised, then those people are making even less.) We often say things are “Econ 101,” but this really is Econ 101 in the sense that it is taught in every introductory economics class. There is no excuse not to know this:
In the chart above, the supply of labor is S and the demand for labor is D. In the absence of a floor (minimum wage), the clearing wage and quantity of jobs is at the intersection; at a minimum wage of a, however, there is a shortage of jobs equal to c-b. If the minimum wage is raised to a’, then the shortage of jobs increases to c’-b’. The question for society is whether the increase in joblessness is an acceptable cost to accept, in order to increase the minimum wage from a to a’. (Of course, the political calculation might also include the fact that people who become unemployed will be supported by the welfare state, and potentially vote to preserve and expand those public institutions that constitute it).
The problem for those who argue against the minimum wage, or for it being increased, is that they can point out this economic truism until they are blue in the face, while the other side simply says “nuh-uh” and denies it is true with the same fervor that they insist that Obamacare has actually lowered premiums and deductibles. The façade only cracks, maybe, when actual data is presented that shows the argument to be bankrupt.
This academic study does that cleverly, by examining changes in employment and wages in states where the federal minimum wage was binding (because the state minimum wage was lower, or non-existent) and states where it was not binding (because the state minimum wage was higher, so the federal minimum wage didn’t matter). Their conclusion:
“Over the late 2000s, the average effective minimum wage rose by 30 percent across the United States. We estimate that these minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point.”
That’s the sterile conclusion. Now let’s count the cost. Between July 2007 and December 2009, the national employment-to-population ratio (which is similar to, but not the same as, the labor force participation rate) declined from 62.7% to 58.3%; it has since risen to 59.2%. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, the labor force participation rate (in yellow) shows a more gradual decline but no recovery – as has been well-documented.
Now, some numbers. In November, the Civilian noninstitutional population (the denominator for the employment-to-population rate) was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be 248,844,000. That means that if the authors are correct, the minimum wage has boosted the wages of unemployed workers at the bottom of the scale at the cost of about 1.74 million jobs (0.007 * 248,844,000).
Imagine what having another 1.74 million workers would do for GDP? Do you think it could make a difference for one of the worst recoveries on record?
It probably isn’t fair to assume that all of those 1.74 million workers is currently “unemployed” by the BLS definition. Many of them are likely not looking for work, in which case they would not be counted as unemployed. It is interesting to note, although surely spurious, that the series “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” is about 1.7 million higher than would be expected given the unemployment rate (see chart, source BLS).
Alternatively, we could consider what it would mean to the Unemployment Rate if those 1.74 million workers were employed. This means they would also be in the Civilian Labor Force, so the participation rate (see above) would be 63.5% rather than 62.8%. If instead of coming from the “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” group they came from the “Unemployed” group, the Unemployment Rate would be 4.7% instead of 5.8%. (Personally, I think that most of them are probably in the former category, as the Unemployment Rate has declined at approximately the rate we would expect from past recoveries, despite tepid GDP growth.) That is not inconsistent, of course, if GDP growth is lower because the labor force is simply smaller than it should be – and that is exactly the implication of this bit of research.
Again, the good news is that we can help the country and the downtrodden “structurally” unemployed with the same simple policy: reverse all increases in the Minimum Wage that have happened since 2007.
Back to school! It is the beginning of September, post-Labor Day, and students everywhere are back to school.
It is the time of year when investors, too, tend to be schooled – as bond markets tend to strengthen and equity markets to weaken (relative to the overall drift). It doesn’t happen every year, but the tendency in fixed income markets is strong enough that, as a rule, I demand much stronger reasons to sell bonds in September and October than during the rest of the year.
This year, we appear to be in for a special treat. We all get to learn new acronyms, like ISIS, and Americans are learning where Ukraine is on a map of the world. What fun.
Monetary policymakers tend to be resistant to further lessons, since after all they have had so many years of book learning that, darn it, they should know enough by now! And yet – there is so much about economics and monetary policy that we just don’t know; so much that isn’t knowable; and so much that we know with great confidence but just isn’t so.
However, I have been delighted to find that recently, the subject of money velocity has been appearing more frequently in policy circles. To a monetarist, velocity is one of a very small handful of things that matter, and its absence from discussions among the learned has been a terrible sign that monetarism was not merely in retreat, but almost extinct. And yet, the predictions of monetarism have been borne out time and time again (that is, the actual predictions, not the idea that printing money causes economic growth – a prediction that presupposes a high degree of money illusion is at work), while the predictions of Keynesian economists have only worked once the parameters are revised post-hoc to fit the crisis. Increased money supply growth got Japan out of its deflationary spiral – as predicted. None of the Keynesian solutions deployed over the last two decades have worked, but the first attempt at serious money-printing worked. (Although it remains to be seen if the BOJ will keep its pedal to the metal; it certainly hasn’t yet “doubled the money supply” as it had pledged to do).
High money growth – that is, transactional money and not inert reserves – always accompanies high inflation. For a time, money growth may be offset by declining money velocity, but we also know quite a bit about what causes money velocity to move. Last year I cited a rare paper by a central banker (Samuel Reynard at the Swiss National Bank) that really had insight on these almost-forgotten tenets of monetarism. And this year, I am delighted to note that some economists at the St. Louis Fed have published a brief note entitled “What Does Money Velocity Tell Us about Low Inflation in the U.S.?” While the authors, Yi Wen and Maria Arias, mistakenly focus on the velocity of base money, and thus reach an incorrect conclusion that individuals are “hoarding” money (when it in fact is sitting in bank reserves, untouched), it is nevertheless the right topic and the right question, and that’s most of the battle.
I have previously shown the chart of interest rates and money velocity, so let me show it again.
This is important, because it’s the single biggest risk to a significant inflation accident. While the low vacancy rate and the rapid growth in housing prices will continue to push rents higher, bringing median and/or core inflation above 3% by early next year, we can live with 3%. The risk for much worse inflation is all tied to a rebound in monetary velocity. It bears repeating. From 2008 to 2013, money growth was rapid but declining money velocity (tied to interest rate declines, mainly) restrained inflation. If money growth remains at the same level but money velocity merely stabilizes, it is consistent with inflation of 3%-4%. But if money velocity reverses even a part of its post-crisis decline, then inflation could move appreciably higher. Since Q2 of 2008, the velocity of M2 has fallen at a 3.76% annualized rate; were that to reverse, with the same money supply growth, then the 3-4% inflation becomes 6.75%-7.75% inflation, which I think we would all agree is a bad thing.
Now, the unfortunate thing is that models of velocity that incorporate interest rates and certain other factors already indicate that money velocity should be rising. The chart below shows our proprietary model of money velocity; as you can see, since mid-2013 there has been a large and growing gap between what the model implies and where money velocity has actually been recorded. This might well mean that the model is wrong. But we should also take it as indicating the risk of a rise in velocity is real, whether it is a 1% or 2% rise per year, or a 15% snap-back over a shorter period of time.
As I always admonish, that’s a big picture concern, and not something to trade tomorrow. I would be gradually accumulating positions in inflation swaps, caps, breakevens, and broad commodity indices. There is time before people start to get really concerned. But to my mind, what is interesting is that the central bankers are now at least starting to reconsider velocity.