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Spinning Economic Stories

January 4, 2019 5 comments

As economists[1] we do two sorts of things. We do quantitative work, and we tell stories.

One of the problems with economics is that we aren’t particularly regimented about how we convert data into stories and about how we look at stories to decide how to interrogate the data. So what tends to happen is that we have a phenomenon and then we look at what story we like and decide if that’s a reasonable way to explain the data…without asking if there isn’t a more reasonable way to explain the data, or at least another way that’s equally consistent with the data. I’m not saying that everyone does this, just that it’s disturbingly common especially among people being paid to be storytellers and for whom a good story is really important.

So for example, there is a well -known phenomenon that inflation tends to accelerate after the Fed begins raising interest rates.[2] Purporting to explain this phenomenon, here is a popular story that the Fed is just really smart, so they’re ahead of inflation, and when they seeing it moving up just a little bit they can jump on it real quick and get ahead of it and so inflation goes up…but the apparent causality is there because we just knew it was going to go up and acted before the observation of the higher inflation happened. This is basically Keynesian theory combined with “brilliant person” theory.

There is another theory that is consistent with this, of course: monetarism, which explains that increasing interest rates actually causes inflation to move higher, by causing velocity to increase. But, because this isn’t the popular story, this doesn’t get matched up to the data very frequently. In my mind it’s a better theory, because it doesn’t require us to believe that the Fed is super brilliant to make it work. (And, not to get snarky, but the countervailing evidence versus Fed staff economist genius is pretty mountainous). Of course, economists – and the Fed economists in particular – like theories that make them look like geniuses, so they prefer the prior explanation.

But again, as economists we don’t have a good and rigorous way to say that one way is the ‘preferred’ story or to look at other stories that are consistent with our data. We tend to look at what part of the data supports our story – in other words, confirmation bias.

Why this is relevant now is that the Fed is in fact tightening and inflation is in fact heading higher, and the story being pushed by the Fed and some economists is “good thing the Fed is tightening, because it looks like inflation was going up!” The story on the other hand that I have been telling for quite some time (and which I write about in my book) is that it’s partly because the Fed is tightening and interest rates are going up that that inflation is rising, in a feedback loop that is missed in our popular stories. The important part is the next chapter in the story. In the “Fed is getting ahead of it” story, inflation comes down and the Fed is able to stop tightening, achieving a soft landing. In the “rate increase is causing velocity to rise and inflation to rise” story, the Fed keeps chasing the dog which is only running because the Fed is chasing it.

There is another alternative, which really excites the stock market as evidenced by today’s massive – although disturbingly low-volume – rally. That story is that the Fed is going to become more “data dependent” (Chairman Powell suggested something along these lines today), which is great because the Fed has already won on inflation and growth is still okay. So the Fed can stop the autopilot rate hikes. This story unfortunately does require a little suspension of disbelief. For one thing, today’s strong Employment report (Payrolls 370k, including revisions, compared to 184k expectations) is unfortunately a December figure which means it has huge error bars. Moreover, the Unemployment Rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7%, and while a higher Unemployment Rate doesn’t mean the economy is definitely slowing (it could just be that more people are looking for jobs because the job market is so robust – another fun story), it is certainly more consistent with the notion that the economy is slowing at the margin. The fact that the Unemployment Rate went up, while Hourly Earnings rose more than expected and Jobs rose more than expected, should make you suspect that year-end quirkiness might have something to do with the figures. For the decades I’ve watched economic data, I always advise ignoring the January and February Employment Reports since the December/January changes in payroll are so large that the noise swamps the signal. But professional storytellers aren’t really content to say “this doesn’t really mean anything,” even if that’s the quantitative reality. They get paid to spin yarns, so spin yarns they do.

Yeah, about those wages: I’m not really sure why economists were expecting hourly earnings to decelerate this month. All of the anecdotal data, along with other wage measures, are suggesting that wages are rising apace (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker vs AHE). Not really a surprise, even given its compositional challenges, that AHE is also rising.

The thing about all of these stories is that while they can’t change the actual reality, they can change how reality is priced. This is one of the reasons that we get bubbles. The stories are so powerful that trading against them, with a ‘value’ mindset for example, is quixotic. Ultimately, in the long run, the value of the equity market is limited by fundamentals. But in the short run, it is virtually unlimited because of valuation multiples (price as a speculative multiple of fundamental earnings, e.g.) and those valuation multiples are driven by stories. And that’s a big reason that bullish stories are so popular.

But consider this bearish footnote on today’s 3.4% S&P rally: volume in the S&P constituents today was lower than the volume was on December 26! To be fair, the volume yesterday, when the S&P declined 2.5%, was even a bit lower than today’s volume. It’s typical thin and whippy first-week-of-the-year trading. Let’s see what next week brings.


[1] People occasionally ask me why I didn’t go on for my MA or PhD in Economics. I reply that it’s because I learned my Intermediate Microeconomics very well: I stopped going for a higher degree when the marginal costs outweighed the marginal benefits. When you look at it that way, it makes you wonder whether the PhD economists aren’t just the bad students who didn’t absorb that lesson.

[2] It’s referred to as the “price puzzle”; see Martin Eichenbaum, “Interpreting Macroeconomic Time Series Facts: The Effects of Monetary Policy: Comments.” European Economic Review, June 1992. And Michael Hanson, “The ‘Price Puzzle’ Reconsidered,” Journal of Monetary Economics, October 2004.

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The Important Trade Effects Are Longer-Term

The question about the impact of trade wars is really two questions, and I suppose they get conflated a lot these days. First, there’s the near-term market impact; second is the longer-term price/growth impact.

The near-term market impact is interesting. When the market is in a bad mood (forgive the anthropomorphization), then trade frictions are simply an excuse to sell – both stocks and bonds, but mostly stocks. When the market is feeling cheerful, and especially around earnings season, trade wars get interpreted as having very narrow effects on certain companies and consequently there is no large market impact. That is what seems to have happened over the last few weeks – although trade conflicts are escalating and having very concentrated effects in some cases (including on markets, such as in commodities, where they really oughtn’t), it hasn’t dampened the mood of the overall market.

In fact, the risk in these circumstances is that a “happy” market will take any sign of a reduction in these tensions as broadly bullish. So you get concentrated selloffs in single names that don’t affect the market as a whole, and when there’s any sign of thawing you see a sharp market rally. We saw a bit of that in the last day or so as Mexico’s President-elect and US President Trump both expressed optimism about a ‘quick’ NAFTA deal. Honestly, the broad market risk to trade in the near-term is probably upwards, since any increase in tensions will have a minor and concentrated effect while any thawing (especially with China) at all will cause a rally.

But beware in case the mood changes!

As an inflation guy, I’m far more interested in the longer-term impact. And there, the impact is unambiguous and bad. I’ve written about this in the past, in detail (see this article, which is probably my best on the subject and first appeared in our private quarterly), but the salient point is that you don’t need a trade war to get worse inflation outcomes than we have seen in the last 20 years. You only need for progress on advancing global trade to stop. And it seems as though it has.

Not all of the forces pressing on inflation right now are bullish, although most are. Apartment rents have slowed their ascent, and the delayed effect of the dollar’s rally will have a dampening effect next year (arrayed against that, however, are the specific effects of tariffs on particular goods) although globally, FX movements are roughly zero-sum in terms of global inflation. Money growth has slowed, to levels that would tend to contain inflation if velocity were also to remain stable at all-time lows. But velocity recently started to uptick (we will find out on Friday if this uptick continued in Q2) and as interest rates gradually increase around the globe money velocity should also quicken. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows our proprietary model for money velocity.

At this point, trade is pushing inflation higher in two ways. The first is that arresting the multi-decade trend towards more-open markets and more-numerous trade agreements fundamentally changes the inflation/growth tradeoff that central banks globally will face. Rather than having a following wind that made monetary policy relatively simple (although policymakers still found a way to louse it up, potentially beyond repair, largely as a result of believing their own fables about the powerful role that central banks played in saving the world first from inflation, and then from deflation), there will be a headwind that will make monetary much more difficult – more like the 1960s and 1970s than the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The second way that trade conflict is pushing inflation higher is mechanical, by causing higher prices of recorded goods as a direct result of tariff implementation.

But this second way, while it gets all the ink and causes near-term knee-jerk effects in markets, is much less important in the long run.

Tariffs Do Not Cause Price Declines

July 5, 2018 6 comments

Adding to a good’s price does not make its price decline.

It’s worth repeating that a couple of times, because it seems to be getting lost in the discussion about tariffs – in particular, in the discussion about tariffs levied on US commodities. Grains prices have been plummeting, as the chart below showing front corn and soybean prices (source: Bloomberg) illustrates.

There are many reasons that grains prices may be declining, but if “tariffs have been levied on US production” is one of them then there is some really weird economics happening. Corn and soybeans are commodities. Specifically, this means that they are essentially fungible – corn from site “A” is essentially the same as corn from site “B.” So what does this mean for the results of a tariff?

If China stops buying soybeans from the US altogether, it means that unless they’re going to stop eating soybeans they will buy soybeans from Brazil. But if Brazil sells all of their soybeans to China, it means that Germany can no longer soybeans from Brazil. So where does Germany buy its soybeans from? Well, it seems that the US has beans that are not spoken for in this scenario…in other words, when we are talking about commodities a tariff mostly just reorganizes the list of who is buying from whom. If soybean prices are falling because China isn’t buying our soybeans, it means a great deal for Russia or Germany or whoever else is going to buy beans from us instead of from China’s new supplier. More than that, if global soybeans prices are falling because of tariffs then it means that everyone is getting cheaper soybeans because China is changing who they’re buying from. If that’s the case, then we really need to slap tariffs on everything and watch prices decline!

Let’s go back to elementary microeconomics. Adding a tariff is reflected in our product market supply and demand curves as a shift in the supply curve to the left: the quantity that producers are willing to supply at any price declines, because the price to the producer declines. Put a different way, the market price required to induce any particular quantity supplied rises by the amount of the tariff. Now, whether that causes market prices to rise a lot or a little, or quantity supplied to fall by a lot or a little, depends on the elasticities of supply and demand. If demand if fairly inelastic (which seems reasonable – you may be able to substitute for “beans” but it’s hard to substitute for “grains”), then you will see more of a price response than a quantity response, at least in the short run where the supply of beans is fairly inelastic. But that price response is up, not down.

By the way, this gets a little hard to illustrate with supply and demand curves, because with a tariff what you have are now two separate markets and separate prices for the same good. This is what confuses some people – if China is no longer buying from the US, doesn’t that mean that demand for US beans has declined, and therefore prices should decline? The crucial point is that we are talking here about commodity goods, and supplies are fairly interchangeable. If we are talking about Harley Davidson motorcycles, the answer is different because if Europe stops buying Harleys, they have to buy a different product altogether. In that case, the global price of “motorcycles” might be relatively unaffected, but the price of Harleys will rise (and the output decline) relative to other motorcycles. So, a tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles definitely hurts the US, but a tariff on soybeans – or even “US soybeans” since that is not a universal distinction – should have virtually no effect on US producers. And certainly, no effect on the global price of soybeans.

There are other reasons that grains prices may be declining. Since Brazil is a major producer of beans, the sharp decline in the Brazilian Real has pushed the US dollar price of beans lower (see chart, source Bloomberg). In the chart below, the currency is shown in Reals per dollar, and inverted. This is a much more important factor explaining the decline in grains prices, as well as one that could easily get worse before it gets better.

I think the discussion of the effects of tariffs has gotten a bit polluted since the decline in grains seems to coincide with the announcement of tariffs from China. I think the price decline here has fed that story, but it’s bad economics. Piecemeal tariffs on commodity products are not likely to appreciably change the supply and demand outcome, although it will result in rearranging the sources of product for different countries. Tariffs on non-commodity product, especially branded products with few close substitutes, can have much larger effects – although we ought to remember that from the consumer’s perspective (and in the measurement of consumer inflation), tariffs never lower prices faced by consumers although they can lower prices received by producers. This is why tariffs are bad – they cause higher prices and lower output, and the best case is no real change.


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have both long and short positions in grains, and in particular long positions in Beans and Corn, this month.

Trade Surplus and Budget Deficit? Ouch.

The market gyrations of late are interesting, especially during the NCAA Basketball tourney. Normally, volatility declines when these games are on during the week, as traders watch their brackets as much as they do the market (I’ve seen quantitative analysis that says this isn’t actually true, but I’m skeptical since I’ve been there and I can promise you – the televisions on the trading floor are tuned to the NCAA, not the CNBC, on those days). Higher volatility not only implies that lower prices are appropriate in theory but it also tends to happen in practice: higher actual volatility tends to force leveraged traders to reduce position size because their calculation of “value at risk” or VAR generally uses trailing volatility; moreover, these days we also need to be cognizant of the small, but still relevant, risk-parity community which will tend to trim the relative allocation to equities when equity vol rises relative to other asset classes.

My guess is that the risk-parity guys probably respond as much to changes in implied volatility as to realized volatility, so some of that move has already happened (and it’s not terribly large). But the VAR effect is entirely a lagging effect, and it’s proportional to the change in volatility as well as to the length of time the volatility persists (since one day’s sharp move doesn’t change the realized volatility calculation very much). Moreover, it doesn’t need to be very large per trader in order to add up to a very large effect since there are many, many traders who use some form of VAR in their risk control.

Keep in mind that a sharp move higher, as the market had yesterday, has as much effect on VAR as a sharp move lower. The momentum guys care about direction, but the VAR effect is related to the absolute value of the daily change. So if you’re bullish, you want a slow and steady move higher, not a sharp move higher. Ideally, that slow and steady move occurs on good volume, too.

The underlying fundamentals, of course, haven’t changed much between Friday and Monday. The chance of a trade war didn’t decline – the probability of a trade war is now 1.0, since it has already happened. Unless you want to call an attack and counterattack a mere skirmish, rather than a trade war, there is no longer any debate about whether there will be conflict on trade; the only discussion is on magnitude. And on that point, nothing much has changed either: it was always going to be the case that the initial salvo would be stridently delivered and then negotiated backwards. I’m not sure why people are so delighted about the weekend’s developments, except for the fact that investors love stories, and the story “trade war is ended!” is a fun story to tell the gulli-bulls.

As a reminder, it isn’t necessary to get Smoot/Hawley 2.0 to get inflation. Perhaps you need Smoot/Hawley to get another Depression, but not to get inflation. The mere fact that globalization is arrested, rather than continuing to advance, is enough to change the tradeoff between growth and inflation adversely. And that has been in the cards since day 1 of the Trump Administration. A full-on trade war, implying decreased globalization, changes the growth/inflation tradeoff in a very negative way, implying much tighter money growth will be required to tamp down inflation, which implies higher interest rates. I’m not sure we aren’t still headed that way.

But there is a much bigger issue on trade, which also implies higher interest rates…perhaps substantially higher interest rates. We (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘he’) are trying to reduce the trade deficit while increasing the budget deficit sharply. This can only happen one way, and that is if domestic savings increases drastically. I wrote about this point first in 2010, and then re-blogged it in 2013, here. I think that column is worth re-reading. Here’s a snippet:

“And this leads to the worry – if the trade deficit explodes, then two other things are going to happen, although how much of each I can’t even guess: (I) protectionist sentiment is going to become very shrill, and fall on the ears of a President who is looking to burnish his populist creds, and (II) the dollar is going to be beaten like a red-headed stepchild (being a red-headed stepchild, I use that simile grudgingly).”

Well, it took a while to happen and I never dreamed the “President looking to burnish his populist creds” would be a (supposed) Republican…but that’s what we have.

Here’s the updated chart showing the relationship between these two variables.

It’s important to remember that you can’t have a trade account surplus and a financial account surplus. If someone sells a good to a US consumer, that seller holds dollars and they can either sell the dollars to someone else (in which case the problem just changes hands), buy a US good (in which case there’s no trade deficit), or buy a US security. If we need non-US persons to buy US securities, then we need to run a trade deficit. If we want to run flat on trade, then we either need to run a balanced budget or fund the difference out of domestic savings. A large increase in domestic savings implies a large decrease in domestic spending, especially if the Fed is now ‘dissaving’ by reducing its balance sheet. Inducing extra domestic savings also implies higher real interest rates. Now, this isn’t a cataclysmic result – more domestic savings implies more long-term domestic growth, although perhaps not if it’s being sopped up by the federal government – but it’s a very large shift to what the current balances are.

If you want to run a flat balance of trade, the best way to do it is to run a balanced federal budget. Going opposite directions in those two accounts implies uncomfortably large shifts in the account that makes up the difference: domestic savings, and large shifts in interest rates to induce that savings.

Are Rising Yields Actually a Good Thing?

February 6, 2018 2 comments

I’ve recently been seeing a certain defense of equities that I think is interesting. It runs something like this:

The recent rise in interest rates, which helped cause the stock market swoon, is actually a good thing because interest rates are rising due to a strong economy and increasing demand for capital, which pushes up interest rates. Therefore, stocks should actually not mind the increase in interest rates because it’s an indication of a strong economy.

This is a seductive argument. It’s wrong, but it’s seductive. Not only wrong, in fact, but wrong in ways that really shouldn’t confuse any economist or strategist writing in the last twenty years.

Up until the late 1990s, we couldn’t really tell the main reason that nominal interest rates were rising or falling. For an increase in market rates there are two main potential causes: an increase in real interest rates, which can be good if that increase is being caused by an increasing demand for credit rather than by a decreasing supply, and an increase in inflation expectations, which is an unalloyed negative. But in 1995, we would have had to just guess which was causing the increase in interest rates.

But since 1997, we’ve had inflation-linked bonds, which trade on the basis of real yield. So we no longer have to guess why nominal rates are rising. We can simply look.

The chart below shows the decomposition of 10-year nominal yields since early December. The red line, which corresponds to the left scale, shows “breakevens,” or the simple difference between real yields and nominal yields; the blue line, on the right-hand scale, shows real yields. So if you combine the two lines at any point, you get nominal yields.

Real yields represent the actual supply and demand for the use of capital. That is, if I lend the government money for ten years, then in order to entice me to forego current consumption the government must promise that every year I will accumulate about 0.68% more ‘stuff.’ I can consume more in the future by not consuming as much now. To turn that into a nominal yield, I then have to add some premium to represent how much the dollars I will get back in the future, and which I will use to buy that ‘stuff’, will have declined in value. That of course is inflation expectations, and right now investors who lend to the government are using about 2.1% as their measure of the rate of deterioration of the value of the dollar.[1]

So, can we say from this chart that interest rates are mainly rising for “good” reasons? On the contrary! The increase in inflation expectations has been much steadier; only in the last month have real interest rates risen (and we don’t know, by the way, whether they’re even rising because of credit demand, rather than credit supply). Moreover – although you cannot see this from the chart, I can tell you based on proprietary Enduring Intellectual Properties research that at this level of yields, real yields are usually responsible for almost all of the increase or decrease in nominal yields.[2] So the fact that real yields are providing a little less than half of the selloff? That doesn’t support the pleasant notion of a ‘good’ bond selloff at all.

As I write this, we are approaching the equity market close. For most of the day, equities have been trading a bit above or a bit below around Monday’s closing level. While this beats the heck out of where they were trading overnight, it is a pretty feeble technical response. If you are bullish, you would like to see price reject that level as buyers flood in. But instead, there was pretty solid volume at this lower level. That is more a bearish sign than a bullish sign. However, given the large move on Friday and Monday it was unlikely that we would close near unchanged – so the last-hour move was either going to be significantly up or significantly down. Investors chose up, which is good news. But the bad news is that the end-of-day rally never took us above the bounce-high from yesterday’s last hour, and was on relatively weak volume…and I also notice that energy prices have not similarly rallied.


[1] In an article last week I explained why we tend to want to use inflation swaps rather than breakevens to measure inflation expectations, but in this case I want to have the two pieces add up to nominal Treasury yields so I am stuck with breakevens. As I noted in that article, the 2.1% understates what actual inflation expectations are for 10 years.

[2] TIPS traders would say “the yield beta between TIPS and nominals is about 1.0.”

The Mystery of Why There’s A Mystery

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment

We have an interesting week ahead, at least for an inflation guy.

Of course, the CPI statistics (released this Friday) are always interesting but with all of the chatter about the “mystery” of inflation, it should draw more than the usual level of attention. That’s especially true since the mystery will cease to be a mystery fairly soon as even flawed indicators of inflation’s central tendency, such as the core CPI, turn back higher. This is not particularly good news for many pundits, who have declared the mystery to be solved with some explanation that implies inflation will stay low.

  • “Amazon effect”
  • Globalization
  • “competition”
  • Etc

The first of these I have addressed previously back in June (“The Internet Has Not Killed, and Will Not Kill, Inflation”). The second is a real effect, but it is a real effect whose effect peaked in the early 1990s and has been waning since then. I wrote something in our quarterly in Q4 last year, which is partly summarized here.

The “competition” objection is a weird one. It seems to posit that competition was pretty lame until recently, which is pretty strange. One argument along these lines is in this article by Steve Wunsch, who considers the increase in airline fees “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition.” This is odd, since airlines were deregulated in 1978 and have in recent years become less competitive if anything with the mergers of Delta/Northwest in 2009, United/Continental in 2010, Southwest/AirTran in 2011, and US Airways/American Airlines in 2013. A flaccid antitrust response from the Justice Department has allowed quasi-monopolies to develop in some travel hubs, which has tended to push fares higher rather than lower. The chart below shows the relationship between Jet Fuel prices and the CPI for airfares (both seasonally adjusted) for the 20 years ended in 2014, along with the most-recent point from last month.

The highly-explanatory R-squared of 0.81 suggests that there is not much wiggle room in airline pricing. Airfares are, as you would expect under a competitive industry, roughly cost-plus with the main source of variance being jet fuel prices. This is true even though we would expect that spread to vary over time. As Mr. Wunsch would argue, the highly competitive nature of the industry is holding down the non-commodity price pressures in airfares.

The only problem is that if you extend this graph to include the last three years, the R-squared drops about 10 points:

In case it isn’t clear from that chart, the last three years have seen airfares increasingly above what we would expect from the level of jet fuel prices. The next chart makes that clear I hope by plotting the residual (and 12-month moving average to smooth out seasonal issues such as one that evidently happened last month) between the actual CPI-airfare and the level that would be predicted from the 1994-2014 relationship. As you can see, prices have been higher, and increasingly so, than we would have thought, until this last month or two – and I wouldn’t grab a lot of comfort from that yet.

Not only is this not “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition,” it seems to be stark evidence of inflation in ticket prices caused by a reduction in competition thanks to airline mergers.

In reading these many articles, it always is somewhat striking to me: everybody thinks their answer is “the” answer to the mystery. But most of these authors really don’t sufficiently understand how inflation works, and what the data is showing. This is apparent to those who do understand these nuances, as an author might discuss (as the one mentioned above did) an “aberration” in cell phone inflation as if the experts are stupid for expecting inflation when cell phone services only go down. The author clearly misunderstands what the “aberration” referred to even is; in this case the aberration was an enormous one-month collapse in prices that had never been seen and has not been repeated since. (For those who are curious about the aberration, and why it occurred, and why it is likely a methodology issue rather than sign of spiraling deflation in wireless services you can see my discussion of it here.)

The mystery is simple – the Fed’s models don’t work, and don’t take into account the fact that lower interest rates cause lower money velocity. They rely on a Phillips Curve effect that they think is broken because they don’t understand that the Phillips Curve relates wages and unemployment, not consumer prices and unemployment. They focus on a flawed measure like PCE rather than on something like Median CPI which, coincidentally, is a lot higher and suggests more price pressures. The mystery isn’t why inflation isn’t rising yet – the mystery is why they think there’s a mystery.

Some Further (Minor) Thoughts on the Phillips Curve

September 6, 2017 3 comments

Before I begin, let me say that if you haven’t read yesterday’s article, please do because it represents the important argument: the Phillips Curve doesn’t need rehabilitating, because it is working fine. In fact, I would argue that the Phillips Curve – relating wages to unemployment – is a remarkably accurate economic model prediction. The key chart from that article I reproduce here, but the article (which is brief) is worth reading.

Following my publication of that article, I had a few more thoughts that are worth discussing on this topic.

The first is historical. It’s incredibly frustrating to read article after article incorrectly stating what the Phillips Curve is supposed to relate. Of course one writer learns from another writer until what is incorrect becomes ‘common knowledge.’ I was fortunate in that, 30 years ago, I had excellent Economics professors at Trinity University in San Antonio, and I was reflecting on that fact when I said to myself “I wonder if Samuelson had it right?”

So I dug out my copy of Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus (the best-selling textbook of all time, I believe, and the de rigeur Intro to Economics textbook for generations of economists). My copy is the 12th Edition, so perhaps they have corrected this since then…but on page 247, there it is – the Phillips Curve illustrated as a “tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.” Maybe that is where this error really propagated – with a Nobel Prize-winning economist making an error in his incredibly widely-read text! Interestingly, the authors don’t reference the original Phillips work, but refer to “writers in the 1960s” who made that connection, so to be fair to Samuelson and Nordhaus they were possibly already repeating an error that had been made even earlier.

My second point is artistic. In yesterday’s article, I said “The Phillips Curve…simply says that when labor is in short supply, its price goes up. In other words: labor, like everything else, is traded in the context of supply and demand,…” But students of economics will note that the Phillips Curve seems to obfuscate this relationship, because it is sloping the wrong way for a supply curve – which should slope up and to the right rather than down and to the right. This can be remedied by expressing the x-axis of the Phillips Curve differently – making it the quantity of labor demanded rather than the quantity of labor not demanded…which is what the unemployment rate is. So the plot of wage inflation as a function of the Employment Rate (as opposed to the Unemployment Rate) has the expected shape of a supply curve. More labor is supplied when the prices rise.

Again, this is nuance and not a really important point unless you want your economics to be pretty.

My third point, though, is important. One member of the bow-tied fraternity of Ph.D. economists told me through a friend that “the Phillips Curve has evolved to the relationship between Unemployment and general prices, not simply wages.” I am skeptical of any “evolution” that causes the offspring to be worse-adapted to the environment, but moreover I would argue that whoever led this “evolution” (and as I said above, it looks like it happened in the 1960s) didn’t really understand the way the economy (and in particular, business) works.

There is every reason to think that wages should be tied to available labor supply because one is the price of the other. That’s Microeconomics 101. But if unemployment is going to be a good indicator of generalized price inflation too, then it means that prices in the economy are essentially set as the price of the labor input plus a spread for profit. That is not at all how prices are set. Picture the businessperson deciding how to set prices. According to the “evolved Phillips Curve” understanding, this business owner looks at the wages he/she is paying and then sets the price of the product. But that’s crazy. A business owner considers labor as one input, as well as all of the other inputs, improvements in productivity in producing this good or service in question, competitive pressures, and the general state of the national and local economy. It would be incredible if all of these factors canceled out except for wage inflation, wouldn’t it? So in short, while I would expect that unemployment might have some explanatory power for inflation, I wouldn’t expect that explanatory power to be very strong. And, in fact, it isn’t. (But this isn’t new – it never has had any power.)

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