Groundhog Day

April 24, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

As the press announces the latest inflation numbers, we hear that this is the highest inflation number in four decades. These two periods share few similarities. In 1982, the economy was in a deep recession, the worst since the Great Depression. A clerical position or warehouse job would draw forty in-person applicants. Inflation had been sporadic and persistent for a decade. Two oil supply shocks and a surge of young Boomers into the workforce led to high unemployment and high inflation, a phenomenon termed “stagflation.” Since that time, economists have struggled to understand the peculiarities of that era.

Human behavior produces what economists call simultaneous causality, a recursive loop where event A causes event B which feeds back into event A. Just the anticipation of a policy causes people to act differently before the policy is implemented. This week Fed Chairman Powell strongly hinted that the Fed would raise interest rates by ½% at their May 3-4 meeting (FOMC, 2022). Anticipating that the rate increase could be as high as ¾% and more rate hikes than the market had already priced in, the market sold off on Friday. When in doubt, run, the survival strategy of squirrels and their large cousins, groundhogs.

Uncertainty joins all decades. Policymakers and investors must make forecasts and decisions with less than complete information. The more unusual the circumstances the more likely the flaws. In 1977, Congress enshrined the Fed’s independence in law and gave it a twin mandate of full employment and stable prices (Fed, 2011). A year later, Congress passed the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. The text of this act demonstrates how several years of stagflation had confused the direction of causality. The Act reads:

 High unemployment may contribute to inflation by diminishing labor training and skills, underutilizing capital resources, reducing the rate of productivity advance, increasing unit labor costs, and reducing the general supply of goods and services.

(U.S. Congress, 1978)

High unemployment accompanies or is coincident with diminished labor skills, resource utilization and productivity. Unemployed people lowers demand and that contributes to lower prices, not inflation. In 1979, a year after this act was passed, the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah and strikes in the oil fields cut global oil production by 6-7% (Gross, 2022). U.S. refineries were slow to switch production to alternative sources. Typical of that time, the Congress and U.S. agencies overmanaged prices, supply and demand in key industries. This regulation contributed to long lines at gas stations and a 250% increase in gas prices.

Today, much of the supply line has been affected by the pandemic and the effects linger. China has again shut down some tech manufacturing regions. The prices of building materials have been erratic. The ratio of home prices to median household income has now exceeded the heights during the housing crisis (Frank, 2022). Millennials have endured the dot-com crash, 9/11, the housing crisis, and the pandemic. Now a housing affordability crisis. The Fed’s survey of household finance reports that the median amount of household savings is $5300 (Wolfson, 2022).

War in Ukraine, crazies in Congress and little accountability. Since the end of 2019, inflation-adjusted wages have not improved (FRED Wages). Low unemployment should have driven wages far higher. Profit margins shrank or turned negative during the pandemic. Supply constraints have presented businesses with an opportunity to raise prices and make up for profits lost during the pandemic. As prices climb, policymakers and economists engage in a round of finger pointing.

Now comes the bit about a recession. Casual readers may have heard of a yield inversion. Time has value. Risk has value. A debt that is due five years from now should return or yield more than a debt due one year from now. There is more that can go wrong in five years. When shorter term debt has a greater yield than longer term debt, that is called a yield inversion. The yield curve is a composite of interest rates over different periods. A common measure is the difference between the 10 year Treasury note and the 2 year Treasury. When that spread turns negative over a period of 3 months, investors show their lack of confidence in the near future. A recession has occurred within 18 months.

Why should this be? As I noted at the beginning, we are a feedback machine. Our anticipation of events contributes to the likelihood that they will occur. The weekly version of the graph above did turn negative a few months before the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. However, the weekly chart may give false forecasts. The quarterly chart captures sustained investor sentiment.

At the right side of the chart, we see how negative the sentiment has turned. The Fed knows that rising interest rates will drive that sentiment further down. By law – that 1977 law I mentioned earlier – they can’t ignore the force of rising prices. Employment, their other mandate, is strong enough to withstand some rate hikes. What worries the Fed now is a different type of unemployment – idle capital. Worried investors and business owners are less likely to begin new projects. That lack of confidence becomes self-fulfilling, creating an economic environment of pessimism. To Millennials, it feels like Groundhog Day all over again.


Photo by Pascal Mauerhofer on Unsplash

Fed. (2011). The Federal Reserve’s “Dual Mandate”: The Evolution of an Idea. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

FOMC. (2022). Meetings Calendars, Statements and Minutes (2017-2022). Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

Frank, S. (2022). Home price to income ratio (US & UK). Longtermtrends. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

FRED Real Wages, Series LES1252881600Q. Index level 362 in 2019:Q4. Index level 362 in 2021:Q4.

Gross, S. (2022, March 9). What Iran’s 1979 revolution meant for US and Global Oil Markets. Brookings. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

U.S. Congress. (1978). Public law 95-254 95th Congress an act. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

Wolfson, A. (2022, March 2). Here’s exactly how much money is in the average savings account in America. MarketWatch. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from

Fortress of Trust

April 17, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Adherents of the Bitcoin digital technology tout it as both a payment system and a store of value, two of the three functions of a form of money. In September 2021 El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as an official currency as a measure to reduce dependence on the dollar. After six months, customers and vendors, even those devoted hawkers of wares on Bitcoin Beach, have been disappointed in the results (Brigida & Schwartz, 2022). Gadi Schwartz, a reporter for NBC News (Video, 2022) related that few vendors take bitcoin anymore because it was not reliable. He and his film crew found a restaurant that did accept Bitcoin. They paid with Bitcoin but the transaction did not go through and, after ten minutes, they paid cash. Later they learned that the Bitcoin account had been deducted on their end but not at the restaurant’s end.

Bitcoin advocates point to recent inflation numbers as they make their case for a digital currency and against a fiat currency. Like gold, bitcoin does not grow enough to meet the growing needs of population and production technology. In the 18th century Adam Smith first noted the lack of gold available for the amount of economic activity in the American colonies. The use of gold as the dominant currency led to a number of crises and panics during America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century.

Under a fiat currency regime, money can grow as needed. Price stability and prudent management of money and interest rates becomes the prime duty of a government and its central bank. To that end, the Fed sets a target of 2% annual inflation, which is the error term in calculating the change in prices and the comparison of utility we get from goods and services over time. We have all noticed the dramatic rise in prices at the grocery store and gas station but the 10 year average of annual inflation is right at the Fed’s target of 2% (FRED Series PCEPI). For years following the financial crisis in 2008, we became comfortable with disinflation, the slowing down of any price appreciation. Getting back to average inflation should not be so abrupt but the extraordinary slump in global production during the pandemic was abrupt.

Bitcoin boosters argue that a digital currency regime would curtail the government borrowing that fuels inflation, the borrowing that funds continual wars. That borrowing also funded the stimulus relief during the pandemic and kept millions safe in their homes and not hungry on the streets. The flexibility of fiat currencies can be good and bad. Currencies can be classified by time – the past and the future – and their flexibility in time. Gold and bitcoin are based on past effort and are proof of the work required to mine the currency, but both are inconvenient to use as such. The inhabitants on the island of Yap in the South Pacific mined limestone into round discs taller than a person. That proof-of-work, a highly immobile stone, became the island’s money. At the end of this post, check out the photo at the end of this Planet Money article (Goldstein & Kestenbaum, 2010).

From the earliest use of gold, people deposited their gold with a goldsmith who gave them a receipt for the gold. People then traded the receipts, not the gold (Cecchetti & Schoenholtz, 2021, 272). The gold was based on past effort but the receipts were based on the future – a promise by the goldsmith to redeem the receipt for gold. A fiat currency like the U.S. dollar is a receipt based on a promise as well. Few of us realize that the dollar in our pockets is a loan to the Federal Reserve as it appears on the Fed’s balance sheet. Want your loan paid back? Go to any bank, give them your dollar and they will give you a replacement dollar. The words on the back of a dollar bill may say In God We Trust but the dollar bill itself is a token of trust in the stability of the U.S. as a country.

As the NBC News crew learned in El Salvador, bitcoin may be proof-of-work in concept but it is not proof-of-trust in practice. The U.S. Fed stores the largest hoard of gold in the world. Like the large stones on the island of Yap, that accumulation of wealth is proof-of-work, proof-of-stability, and proof-of-trust. The proof-of-work is of the past. The proof-of-stability is the bridge from past to future. The proof-of-trust is a faith in the future.


Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

Brigida, A.-C., & Schwartz, L. (2022, March 15). Six months in, El Salvador’s Bitcoin Gamble is crumbling. Rest of World. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from

Cecchetti, S. G., & Schoenholtz, K. L. (2021). Money, banking, and Financial Markets. McGraw-Hill.

Goldstein, J., & Kestenbaum, D. (2010, December 10). The island of Stone Money. NPR. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from

NBC News. (2022, April 13). El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as a national currency. here’s how it’s going. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from

Thirty Year Horizon

April 10, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

In the period leading up to the financial crisis a speculative fever engaged many of the actors in the housing market. This included homebuyers, agents, mortgage brokers, investment firms and risk managers convinced that housing prices could only rise. Homebuyers, struck by FOMO fever, jumped into the home lottery, gambling on a quick flip for a profitable gain with little investment. The frenzy of this market is marked by an opposite phenomenon. Small investors with a portfolio of ten or fewer houses are outbidding conventional buyers with all cash offers. Investment capital is at war with consumption capital.

The Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve (2022) maintains a Home Ownership Affordability Monitor (HOAM) that ranks the affordability of a home at current prices and interest rates in cities and counties through the country. Readers can select the city, county they are interested in and they’ll see the affordability index. Hover over a county on the map and they’ll see the median home price, median household income and the share of income a house payment would be. The mortgage payment is based on the 3.6% interest rate of two months ago. After the recent rise in interest rates, you can add on at least $200 or more to the monthly payment.

A total housing cost of up to 30% of gross income is considered affordable according to the HOAM guidelines. A rule of thumb to calculate an affordable housing budget is to divide annual gross income by 40. For instance, $80,000 / 40 = $2000 per month. An index above 100 is affordable. The metro Denver area is in the 70s. With an index below 50, a typical household in the LA area would spend more than 50% of their gross income on housing. Some of the counties in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area and most of the counties in the Atlanta, Georgia area are affordable and that helps explain a growing population in some southern states.

Few will be surprised to learn that housing prices in many cities are unaffordable. Since the housing crisis, not enough housing has been built and low interest rates have increased the pool of qualified buyers. The higher demand puts upward pressure on prices. Older homeowners on a reduced income may resist selling because they cannot find a suitable replacement – a paradox of rising home prices.

In the chart below I’ve added on the Fed’s 2% inflation target to real GDP growth as a benchmark for the 30-year mortgage rate. Rates have been low the past decade but GDP growth has been low as well.

The red line is real economic growth after inflation + 2%. In the last quarter of 2021, economic growth was just 5% above the same quarter of 2019. That two year growth rate is moderate but not strong. The one year growth rate of 5.5% is due to what economists call base effects. Because of the pandemic the 2020 base number was weak, making moderate growth look stronger than it is.

The Fed is expecting growth to average 2.75% this year and decline to 2.3% in 2023 (FRED Series GDPC1CTM). Add in the Fed’s 2% inflation target as I done and the 30 year rate should find a balance in the range of 4.5-5.0%. However, that rate will probably overshoot before finding an equilibrium. The war in Ukraine will make it more difficult for that balance to happen. Homebuyers should not expect 30-year rates to fall below 4% in the near term.


Photo by Laib Khaled on Unsplash

Federal Reserve. (2022). Home Ownership Affordability Monitor. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from

Home, Sweet Home

April 3, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Interest rates belong to the world of money assets where changes can happen as fast as a keystroke. Prices are “sticky,” moving slower in the concrete world of real goods and services. This week the 30-year mortgage rate rose to 4.67% (MORTGAGE30US), but home prices are still high, reflecting the higher demand for homes at low interest rates. Denver was 11th in the country with an annual price increase of more than 20%, according to the Case Shiller index for January (DNXRSA see note). Six months ago, a 30-year rate was 2.87%, near a historic low. The difference in monthly payments on a 30-year $240K mortgage is $245.

When we buy a home, we leverage our down payment into a stable asset and become our own landlord. When the BLS computes the CPI inflation index, they include an item called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER) and it contributes 25% to the CPI index, the largest component of that index. Based on a survey of actual rental housing, OER represents the opportunity cost of renting our home to ourselves rather than to someone else at the going market price. While this might seem contorted, it reminds us that a home represents consumption capital, an investment whose benefits we consume during the time we own the asset. A home is the largest component of most household wealth.

The Federal Reserve charts changes various components of household wealth (Fed, 2022). Our homes represent a stable base of change, as the chart below shows.

The light green shaded area is the change in our home equity. You can visit the site and play with the time controls. Because the change is so stable, people’s expectations became anchored until the housing and financial crisis when the change in housing equity turned negative. People were shocked that such a thing could happen on a broad national scale. It is not unusual for home prices to turn down in a local area, usually in response to a substantial shift in the economic base of an area. Home prices in some Midwest cities experienced substantial losses as manufacturing went to other countries with lower labor costs. In the 1980s, the decline in oil prices made investments in oil shale on Colorado’s western slope unprofitable. Thousands lost their jobs and the prices of working class homes in Denver experienced a 10% decline (DNXRLTSA). Over several decades across the entire country, home prices are sure to rise but the probability of regional economic declines is equally sure.

The blue bars in the graph above represent the volatile changes in stock market equity. Compare that volatility to the stable changes in bond equity (orange). That’s why financial advisors recommend a growing portfolio allocation to bonds as we grow older. The small deviations in bond and real estate prices help anchor the large deviations in stock market wealth.

As mortgage rates rise, people can afford less home and the decrease in demand should relieve the upward momentum of rising home prices. There are those who play momentum in stock prices, buying and selling to take advantage of short term changes in sentiment. The graph above highlights the difference in deviations of stocks and homes. Playing the real estate market like it was the stock market got a lot of people in trouble during the 2000s. A home is an investment in stability, not a raffle ticket to riches.


Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Home Price, Denver Note: Even affordable homes in Denver have experienced sharp prices increases, rising 19.6% in January (DNXRLTSA).

Fed. (2022, March 10). Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. The Fed – Chart: Changes in Net Worth: Households and Nonprofit Organizations, 1952 – 2021. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from