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.
Fed. (2011). The Federal Reserve’s “Dual Mandate”: The Evolution of an Idea. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.richmondfed.org/publications/research/economic_brief/2011/eb_11-12
FOMC. (2022). Meetings Calendars, Statements and Minutes (2017-2022). Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/fomccalendars.htm
Frank, S. (2022). Home price to income ratio (US & UK). Longtermtrends. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.longtermtrends.net/home-price-median-annual-income-ratio/
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 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/03/05/what-irans-1979-revolution-meant-for-us-and-global-oil-markets/
U.S. Congress. (1978). Public law 95-254 95th Congress an act. Congress.gov. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.congress.gov/95/statute/STATUTE-92/STATUTE-92-Pg187.pdf
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 https://www.marketwatch.com/picks/heres-exactly-how-much-money-is-in-the-average-savings-account-in-america-and-psst-you-might-feel-inadequate-in-comparison-01646168736