The Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in Florida. Photo by the AP via the Wall Street Journal.
Elasticity is near the top of the list of topics that students struggle with in the principles course. Some students struggle with the arithmetic of calculating elasticities, while others have difficulty understanding the basic concept. The importance and difficulty of elasticity led us to devote an entire chapter to it: Chapter 6 in both Microeconomics and Economics. (We include a briefer discussion in Chapter 7, Sections 7.5 and 7.6 in Essentials of Economics.)
When the Walt Disney Company released its 2023 second quarter earnings report on May 10, it turned out that Disney CEO Bob Iger is also a little shaky on the concept of price elasticity. During Iger’s previous time as Disney CEO he had started the Disney+ subscription streaming service. Like some other streaming services during the past year, Disney+ has struggled to earn a profit. Disney’s announcement in November 2022 that Disney+ had lost $1.47 billion during the previous quarter contributed to Bob Chapek, Iger’s predecessor as CEO, being fired by Disney’s board of directors.
For this quarter, Iger was able to announce that losses at Disney+ had been reduced to $659 million, although skepticism among investors about whether the service would turn a profit by next year as Iger indicated contributed to a sharp decline in Disney’s stock price. The smaller loss at Disney+ was largely the result of Disney having raised the price of the service in December 2022 from $7.99 per month to $10.99 per month. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Iger noted that the price increase had caused only a very small decline in subscribers. Iger was quoted as concluding: “That leads us to believe that we, in fact, have pricing elasticity” with respect to Disney+.
Taken literally, Iger has the concept of elasticity backwards. If “having pricing elasticity” means having price elastic demand, then Disney would have experienced a large loss of Disney+ subscribers after the price increase, not a small loss. To use the concept correctly, Iger should have said something like “we have price inelastic demand.” If we give Iger the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows the definitions of price elastic and price inelastic, then we can interpret what he said as meaning “we have favorable price elasticity.” Favorable in this case would mean demand is price inelastic.
In any case, this episode is a good example of why many students–and CEOs!–can struggle with the concept of price elasticity.
At its Wednesday, May 3, 2023 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised its target for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percentage point to a range of 5.00 to 5.25. The decision by the committee’s 11 voting members was unanimous. After each meeting, the FOMC releases a statement (the statement for this meeting can be found here) explaining its reasons for its actions at the meeting.
The statement for this meeting had a key change from the statement the committee issued after its last meeting on March 22. The previous statement (found here) included this sentence:
“The Committee anticipates that some additional policy firming may be appropriate in order to attain a stance of monetary policy that is sufficiently restrictive to return inflation to 2 percent over time.”
In the statement for this meeting, the committee rewrote that sentence to read:
“In determining the extent to which additional policy firming may be appropriate to return inflation to 2 percent over time, the Committee will take into account the cumulative tightening of monetary policy, the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”
This change indicates that the FOMC has stopped—or at least suspended—use of forward guidance. As we explain in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 15, Section 5.2, forward guidance refers to statements by the FOMC about how it will conduct monetary policy in the future.
After the March meeting, the committee was providing investors, firms, and households with the forward guidance that it intended to continue raising its target for the federal funds rate—which is what the reference to “additional policy firming” means. The statement after the May meeting indicated that the committee was no longer giving guidance about future changes in its target for the federal funds rate other than to state that it would depend on the future state of the economy. In other words, the committee was indicating that it might not raise its target for the federal funds rate after its next meeting on June 14. The committee didn’t indicate directly that it was pausing further increases in the federal funds rate but indicated that pausing further increases was a possible outcome.
Following the end of the meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell conducted a press conference. Although not yet available when this post was written, a transcript will be posted to the Fed’s website here. Powell made the following points in response to questions:
He was not willing to move beyond the formal statement to indicate that the committee would pause further rate increases.
He believed that the bank runs that had led to the closure and sale of Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank, and First Republic Bank were likely to be over. He didn’t believe that other regional banks were likely to experience runs. He indicated that the Fed needed to adjust its regulatory and supervisory actions to help ensure that similar runs didn’t happen in the future.
He repeated that he believed that the Fed could achieve its target inflation rate of 2 percent without the U.S. economy experiencing a recession. In other words, he believed that a soft landing was still possible. He acknowledged that some other members of the committee and the committee’s staff economist disagreed with him and expected a mild recession to occur later this year.
He stated that as banks have attempted to become more liquid following the failure of the three regional banks, they have reduced the volume of loans they are making. This credit contraction has an effect on the economy similar to that of an increase in the federal funds rate in that increases in the target for the federal funds rate are also intended to reduce demand for goods, such as housing and business fixed investment, that depend on borrowing. He noted that both those sectors had been contracting in recent months, slowing the economy and potentially reducing the inflation rate.
He indicated that although inflation had declined somewhat during the past year, it was still well above the Fed’s target. He mentioned that wage increases were still higher than is consistent with an inflation rate of 2 percent. In response to a question, he indicated that if the inflation rate were to fall from current rates above 4 percent to 3 percent, the FOMC would not be satisfied to accept that rate. In other words, the FOMC still had a firm target rate of 2 percent.
In summary, the FOMC finds itself in the same situation it has been in since it began raising its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022: Trying to bring high inflation rates back down to its 2 percent target without causing the U.S. economy to experience a significant recession.
Join authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien as they discuss the state of the landing the economy will achieve – hard vs. soft – or “no landing”. Also, they address the debt ceiling and the barriers it might present to a recovery. We also delve into the Chips Act and what economics has to say about the subsidy of a particular industry. Gain insights into today’s economy through our final podcast of the 2022-2023 academic year! Our discussion covers these points but you can also check for updates on our blog post that can be found HERE .
The Federal Reserve’s goal has been to end the current period of high inflation by bringing the economy in for a soft landing—reducing the inflation rate to closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target while avoiding a recession. Although Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said repeatedly during the last year that he expected the Fed would achieve a soft landing, many economists have been much more doubtful.
It’s possible to read recent economic data as indicating that it’s more likely that the economy is approaching a soft landing, but there is clearly still a great deal of uncertainty. On April 12, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest CPI data. The figure below shows the inflation rate as measured by the CPI (blue line) and by core CPI—which excludes the prices of food and fuel (red line). In both cases the inflation rate is the percentage change from the same month in the previous year.
The inflation rate as measured by the CPI has been trending down since it hit a peak of 8.9 percent in June 2022. The inflation rate as measured by core CPI has been trending down more gradually since it reached a peak of 6.6 percent in September 2022. In March, it was up slightly to 5.6 percent from 5.5 percent in February.
As the following figure shows, payroll employment while still increasing, has been increasing more slowly during the past three months—bearing in mind that the payroll employment data are often subject to substantial revisions. The slowing growth in payroll employment is what we would expect with a slowing economy. The goal of the Fed in slowing the economy is, of course, to bring down the inflation rate. That payroll employment is still growing indicates that the economy is likely not yet in a recession.
The slowing in employment growth has been matched by slowing wage growth, as measured by the percentage change in average hourly earnings. As the following figure shows, the rate of increase in average hourly earnings has declined from 5.9 percent in March 2022 to 4.2 percent in March 2023. This decline indicates that businesses are experiencing somewhat lower increases in their labor costs, which may pass through to lower increases in prices.
Credit conditions also indicate a slowing economy As the following figure shows, bank lending to businesses and consumers has declined sharply, partly because banks have experienced an outflow of deposits following the failure of Silicon Valley and Signature Banks and partly because some banks have raised their requirements for households and firms to qualify for loans in anticipation of the economy slowing. In a slowing economy, households and firms are more likely to default on loans. To the extent that consumers and businesses also anticipate the possibility of a recession, they may have reduced their demand for loans.
But such a sharp decline in bank lending may also be an indication that the economy is not just slowing, on its way to a making a soft landing, but is on the verge of a recession. The minutes of the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) included the information that the FOMC’s staff economists forceast “at the time of the March meeting included a mild recession starting later this year, with a recovery over the subsequent two years.” (The minutes can be found here.) The increased chance of a recession was attributed largely to “banking and financial conditions.”
At its next meeting in May, the FOMC will have to decide whether to once more increase its target range for the federal funds rate. The target range is currently 4.75 percent to 5.00 percent. The FOMC will have to decide whether inflation is on a course to fall back to the Fed’s 2 percent target or whether the FOMC needs to further slow the economy by increasing its target range for the federal funds rate. One factor likely to be considered by the FOMC is, as the following figure shows, the sharp difference between the inflation rate in prices of goods (blue line) and the inflation rate in prices of services (red line).
During the period from January 2021 to November 2022, inflation in goods was higher—often much higher—than inflation in services. The high rates of inflation in goods were partly the result of disruptions to supply chains resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and partly due to a surge in demand for goods as a result of very expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. Since November 2022, inflation in the prices of services has remained high, while inflation in the prices of goods has continued to decline. In March, goods inflation was only 1.6 percent, while services inflation was 7.2 percent. In his press conference following the last FOMC meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that as long as services inflation remains high “it would be very premature to declare victory [over inflation] or to think that we’ve really got this.” (The transcript of Powell’s news conference can be found here.) This statement coupled with the latest data on service inflation would seem to indicate that Powell will be in favor of another 0.25 percentage point increase in the federal funds rate target range.
The Fed’s inflation target is stated in terms of the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index, not the CPI. The Bureau of Economic Analysis will release the March PCE on April 28, before the next FOMC meeting. If the Fed is as closely divided as it appears to be over whether additional increases in the federal funds rate target range are necessary, the latest PCE data may prove to have a significan effect on their decision.
So—as usual!—the macroeconomic picture is murky. The economy appears to be slowing and inflation seems to be declining but it’s still difficult to determine whether the Fed will be able to bring inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession.
Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they discuss the future of small banks in the US financial system in the wake of recent bank failures. With a government that is guaranteeing just about all deposits, what is the role of deposit insurance. Small banks serve a real purpose in our economy and will further government regularly only complicate their mission. Other small business rely on small banks for their intimate knowledge of their market and of their business. However, many may now rely on larger banks that may seem a safer place over the next few years. Our discussion covers these points but you can also check for updates on our blog post that can be found HERE .
The ability of any economy to produce goods and services depends partly on the number of people working in the economy. The number of people working depends on the size of the population and the fraction of the population that is working. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 9.1), the labor force participation rate (LFPR) is the fraction of the working-age population in the labor force. (Technically, the “working-age population” is the civilian, non-institutional population age 16 and older.)
The figure above shows the values of the LFPR from January 1948 through February 2023. The steady increase in the LFPR beginning in the late 1960s and lasting until 2000 was caused by an increase in the number of women working outside of the home and the effects of the baby boom–the increase in birth rates between 1946 and 1964–which led to a decline in the average age of the U.S. population. The LFPR reached a peak of 67.3 percent in early 2000. The gradual decline in the following years reflects the aging of the population as birth rates fell and a small decline in the fraction of prime-age workers–those between ages 25 and 54–in the labor force.
The start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States in March 2020 led to an abrupt decline in the LFPR followed by a gradual recovery. In February 2020, the LFPR was 63.3 percent. In February 2023, it was 62.5 percent. The difference means that about 2.1 million fewer people were working in February 2023 than would have been working if the LFPR had regained its February 2020 level.
What explains the LFPR not regaining is pre-Covid level? The following figure shows that in February 2023, the LFPR for prime-age workers had reached its February 2020 level. The implication of the figure is that the decline in the LFPR for the whole working-age population is due to a decline in labor force participation by non-prime-age workers.
This conclusion is confirmed by the analys of economists Mary Amiti, Sebastian Heise, Giorgio Topa, and Julia Wu of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (Their paper can be found here.) They consider three possible explanations for the decline in the overall LFPR:
The aging of the U.S. population
An increase in fraction of people in different age groups who have retired
An increase in the fraction of the population that is disabled, as result of suffering from “long Covid” or for other reasons
After analyzing the data they find that an increase in retirement rates (explanation 2), particularly for older people, has had only a small effect on LFPR. They find that “Once we adjust for aging, we find that the share of disabled individuals not in the labor force has, in fact, marginally declined.” So explanation 3 is not the key to the decline in the LFPR. They conclude that 1 is the most likely explanation: “Removing the effect of aging can explain the entire participation gap ….” The figure below summarizes their results. The gold line shows that if the United States had the same age structure in February 2023 as it had in February 2020 (that is, if the average age of the working population were lower, with fewer people older than 65), the LFPR would not have declined.
First Citizens Bank, based in based in Raleigh, North Carolina has purchased Silicon Valley Bank. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.
When the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) took over Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on March 10, 2023, it kept the bank in operation by setting up a “bridge bank.” The Silicon Valley Bridge Bank kept SVB’s branches running and allowed depositors–including those with deposits above the FDIC’s $250,000 insurance limit–to withdraw funds. The Silicon Valley Bridge Bank borrowed from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to ensure that it had the funds available to meet deposit withdrawals.
The FDIC prefers to use bridge banks to operate failed banks for as short a time as possible. Typically, the FDIC will seize a bank on a Friday and ideally will have identified another commercial bank willing to purchase the seized bank by the start of business on the following Monday. Finding a bank to buy SVB proved difficult, however, for two reasons:
1. The Biden administration has been skeptical of increasing concentration in the banking industry. That fact may have kept the FDIC from attempting to recruit a large bank to buy SVB, or large banks may have been reluctant to buy SVB because they believed that the Federal Trade Commission or the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice would have blocked the purchase or would have imposed restrictions on how the bank could be operated.
2. Following the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, some banks that purchased failing financial firms found themselves having to deal with loans and securities that had declined in value and with lawsuits from investors in the bank. That history may have caused many banks to be reluctant to buy SVB.
After two attempts to auction SVB failed to attract a buyer, on Sunday, March 26, the FDIC announced that First Citizens Bank, a regional bank based in Raleigh, North Carolina had agreed to purchase SVB. Before the merger, First Citizens was the thirtieth largest bank in the United States, so its purchase of SVB would not significantly increase concentration in retail banking.
Under terms of the purchase, on Monday morning First Citizens began operating SVB’s 17 branches, which now become First Citizens’ branches, assumed responsibility for SVBs deposits, and received $70 billion in SVB’s assets, at a 16.5 percent discount. About $90 billion in SVB’s assets will remain with the FDIC until a buyer for them can be found. The FDIC believes it will have lost about $20 billion from its Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) as a result of the SVB’s failure. The FDIC will use a special levy on commercial banks to replenish the DIF.
The FDIC’s announcement of First Citizens’ purchase of SVB can be found here.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell holding a news conference following the March 22 meeting of the FOMC. Photo from Reuters via the Wall Street Journal.
On March 22, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) unanimously voted to raise its target for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percentage point to a range of 4.75 percent to 5.00 percent. The members of the FOMC also made economic projections of the values of certain key economic variables. (We show a table summarizing these projections at the end of this post.) The summary of economic projections includes the following “dot plot” showing each member of the committee’s forecast of the value of the federal funds rate at the end of each of the following years. Each dot represents one member of the committee.
If you focus on the dots above “2023” on the vertical axis, you can see that 17 of the 18 members of the FOMC expect that the federal funds rate will end the year above 5 percent.
In a press conference after the committee meeting, a reporter asked Fed Chair Jerome Powell was asked this question: “Following today’s decision, the [financial] markets have now priced in one more increase in May and then every meeting the rest of this year, they’re pricing in rate cuts.” Powell responded, in part, by saying: “So we published an SEP [Summary of Economic Projections] today, as you will have seen, it shows that basically participants expect relatively slow growth, a gradual rebalancing of supply and demand, and labor market, with inflation moving down gradually. In that most likely case, if that happens, participants don’t see rate cuts this year. They just don’t.” (Emphasis added. The whole transcript of Powell’s press conference can be found here.)
Futures markets allow investors to buy and sell futures contracts on commodities–such as wheat and oil–and on financial assets. Investors can use futures contracts both to hedge against risk–such as a sudden increase in oil prices or in interest rates–and to speculate by, in effect, betting on whether the price of a commodity or financial asset is likely to rise or fall. (We discuss the mechanics of futures markets in Chapter 7, Section 7.3 of Money, Banks, and the Financial System.) The CME Group was formed from several futures markets, including the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and allows investors to trade federal funds futures contracts. The data that result from trading on the CME indicate what investors in financial markets expect future values of the federal funds rate to be. The following chart shows values after trading of federal funds futures on March 24, 2023.
The chart shows six possible ranges for the federal funds rate after the FOMC’s last meeting in December 2023. Note that the ranges are given in basis points (bps). Each basis point is one hundredth of a percentage point. So, for instance, the range of 375-400 equals a range of 3.75 percent to 4.00 percent. The numbers at the top of the blue rectangles represent the probability that investors place on that range occurring after the FOMC’s December meeting. So, for instance, the probability of the federal funds rate target being 4.00 percent to 4.25 percent is 28.7 percent. The sum of the probabilities equals 1.
Note that the highest target range given on the chart is 4.50 percent to 4.75 percent. In other words, investors in financial markets are assigning a probability of zero to an outcome that the dot plot shows 17 of 18 FOMC members believe will occur: A federal funds rate greater than 5 percent. This is a striking discrepancy between what the FOMC is announcing it will do and what financial markets think the FOMC will actually do.
In other words, financial markets are indicating that actual Fed policy for the remainder of 2023 will be different from the policy that the Fed is indicating it intends to carry out. Why don’t financial markets believe the Fed? It’s impossible to say with certainty but here are two possibilities:
Markets may believe that the Fed is underestimating the likelihood of an economic recession later this year. If an economic recession occurs, markets assume that the FOMC will have to pivot from increasing its target for the federal funds rate to cutting its target. Markets may be expecting that the banks will cut back more on the credit they offer households and firms as the banks prepare to deal with the possibility that substantial deposit outflows will occur. The resulting credit crunch would likely be enough to push the economy into a recession.
Markets may believe that members of the FOMC are reluctant to publicly indicate that they are prepared to cut rates later this year. The reluctance may come from a fear that if households, investors, and firms believe that the FOMC will soon cut rates, despite continuing high inflation rates, they may cease to believe that the Fed intends to eventually bring the inflation back to its 2 percent target. In Fed jargon, expectations of inflation would cease to be “anchored” at 2 percent. Once expectations become unanchored, higher inflation rates may become embedded in the economy, making the Fed’s job of bringing inflation back to the 2 percent target much harder.
In late December, we can look back and determine whose forecast of the federal funds rate was more accurate–the market’s or the FOMC’s.
Bank borrowing from the Fed. Figure from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED data set.
Discount loans were the Fed’s original policy tool. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.4 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.4) and in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 13, Section 13.1, Congress established the Fed to serve as a lender of last resort making loans to banks that were having temporary liquidity problems because depositors were withdrawing more funds than the bank could meet from its own cash holdings. Discount loans were intended to be short term, often overnight, and were to be made only to healthy banks that were solvent—the value of the banks’ assets were greater than the value of their liabilities—and that could pledge short-term business loans (called at the time “real bills”) as collateral.
Today, healthy banks with temporary liquidity needs can request a loan through the Fed’s discount window (an antique term dating from the early years of the system when the loans were literally made at a specific window at each regional Fed bank) from the Fed’s primary credit facility, or standing lending facility. Over the years, the importance of discount loans declined. The establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1934 reassured households and businesses that held deposits below the insurance limit that they did not need to withdraw their deposits at the first sign of trouble with their local bank. As a result, after the establishment of the FDIC few banks experienced runs.
In addition, the development of the federal funds market gave banks another source of short-term credit. Because the federal funds rate is typically lower than the interest rate (the discount rate) that the Fed charges on discount loans, most banks find borrowing in the federal funds market preferrable to borrowing at the Fed’s discount window. As banks’ use of discount loans declined, many banks were afraid that going to the discount window would be seen by depositors and investors as a sign the bank was in financial trouble. This stigma was an additional reason that most banks avoided borrowing at the discount window.
As the figure shows, in the years leading up to the Great Financial Crisis, the volume of discount loans had dwindled to very low levels. After a surge in discount borrowing following the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, discount borrowing gradually fell back to low levels. A smaller surge in discount borrowing occurred in the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the Covid–19 pandemic in the United States. Discount borrowing quickly declined during the following months.
The failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on March 10 and Signature Bank on March 12 pushed the volume of discount loans to record levels, as shown by the vertical line at the far right of the figure. The values in the figure include three types of loans:
Primary credit, which are traditional discount loans.
Other credit extensions, which are loans from Federal Reserve District Banks to the FDIC to fund so-called bridge banks established by the FDIC to operate SVB and Signature Bank until either purchasers can be found for the banks or their assets can be sold and the banks permanently closed.
Loans under the Fed’s Bank Term Funding Program, which are loans the Fed has made under this new facility established on March 12. The loans are secured by the borrowing banks’ holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.
The data underlying the figure come from the Fed’s H.4.1 statistical release, “Factors Affecting Reserve Balances of Depository Institutions and Condition Statement of Federal Reserve Banks,” which can be found here.
Which banks are doing this borrowing? To avoid stigma, the Fed doesn’t release the names of the banks for two years, but, presumably, regional banks, such as First Republic Bank, that have been experiencing substantial depositor withdrawals are doing so. (First Republic has publicly announced that it is borrowing from the Fed.) The amounts borrowed are so large, however, that it appears that a significant number of banks are either in need of liquidity or are preparing to be able to meet waves of deposit withdrawals should they occur.
Whether the banking crisis that began with the failure of SVB is largely over is unclear at this point, but the managers of some banks are preparing in case the crisis continues.
At the conclusion of its meeting today (March 22, 2023), the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced that it was raising its target for the federal funds rate from a range of 4.50 percent to 4.75 percent to a range of 4.75 percent to 5.00 percent. As we discussed in this recent blog post, the FOMC was faced with a dilemma. Because the inflation rate had remained stubbornly high at the beginning of this year and consumer spending and employment had been strongly increasing, until a couple of weeks ago, financial markets and many economists had been expecting a 0.50 percentage point (or 50 basis point) increase in the federal funds rate target at this meeting. As the FOMC noted in the statement released at the end of the meeting: “Job gains have picked up in recent months and are running at a robust pace; the unemployment rate has remained low. Inflation remains elevated.”
But increases in the federal funds rate lead to increases in other interest rates, including the interest rates on the Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities that most banks own. On Friday, March 10, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was forced to close the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) because the bank had experienced a deposit run that it was unable to meet. The run on SVB was triggered in part by the bank taking a loss on the Treasury securities it sold to raise the funds needed to cover earlier deposit withdrawals. The FDIC also closed New York-based Signature Bank. San Francisco-based First Republic Bank experienced substantial deposit withdrawals, as we discussed in this blog post. In Europe, the Swiss bank Credit Suisse was only saved from failure when Swiss bank regulators arranged for it to be purchased by UBS, another Swiss bank. These problems in the banking system led some economists to urge that the FOMC keep its target for the federal funds rate unchanged at today’s meeting.
Instead, the FOMC took an intermediate course by raising its target for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percentage point rather than by 0.50 percentage point. In a press conference following the announcement, Fed Chair Jerome Powell reinforced the observation from the FOMC statement that: “Recent developments are likely to result in tighter credit conditions for households and businesses and to weigh on economic activity, hiring, and inflation.” As banks, particularly medium and small banks, have lost deposits, they’ve reduced their lending. This reduced lending can be a particular problem for small-to medium-sized businesses that depend heavily on bank loans to meet their credit needs. Powell noted that the effect of this decline in bank lending on the economy is the equivalent of an increase in the federal funds rate.
The FOMC also released its Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). As Table 1 shows, committee members’ median forecast for the federal funds rate at the end of 2023 is 5.1 percent, indicating that the members do not anticipate more than a single additional 0.25 percentage point increase in the target for the federal funds rate. The members expect a significant increase in the unemployment rate from the current 3.6 percent to 4.5 percent at the end of 2023 as increases in interest rates slow down the growth of aggregate demand. They expect the unemployment rate to remain in that range through the end of 2025 before declining to the long-run rate of 4.0 percent in later years. The members expect the inflation rate as measured by the personal consumption (PCE) price index to decline from 5.4 percent in January to 3.3 percent in December. They expect the inflation rate to be back close to their 2 percent target by the end of 2025.
Sheila Bair served as chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2006 to 2011. This week, she was interviewed on the Wall Street Journal’s “Free Expression” podcast. She states that she had still been chair of the FDIC she would have been against the decision on Sunday, March 12, 2023, to declare that Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) as being systemically important. The declaration formed the basis of the decision by the FDIC, the Federal Rerserve, and the Treasure that SVB’s customers with deposits above the normal $250,000 insurance limit would be allowed to withdraw all their funds beginning Monday morning.
She argues that it would have been better to have followed the FDIC’s usual procedure of allowing insured depositors to withdraw their funds and declaring a “dividend” that would have allowed withdrawal of 50 percent of uninsured deposits. As SVB’s assets were sold, uninsured depositors would be able to make additional withdrawals, although because the value of the assets would likely be less than the value of the deposits, uninsured depositors would suffer some losses.
She believes that SVB’s problems were the result of poor management and she doubts that the bank’s uninsured depositors suffering losses would have led to runs on the deposits of other regional banks.
The wide-ranging interview is well worth listening to in full. The podcast can be found here.
Wall Street during the Panic of 1907. (Photo from the New York Public Library via Federal Reserve History.)
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on Friday, March 10 highlighted two potential sources of instability in the U.S. commercial banking system: (1) The risk that depositors with more than the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance deposit limit of $250,000 in their accounts may withdraw their deposits leading to liquidity problems in the banks experiencing the withdrawals; and (2) The losses many banks have taken on their Treasury and mortgage-backed securities as interest rates have risen. (We discuss SVB in this post and banks’ losses on their security holdings in this post.) The sources of instability are related in that the losses on their security holdings may cause banks to have difficulty obtaining the funds to meet deposit withdrawals.
Note that, although the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury guaranteed all deposits in SVB and in Signature Bank (which was closed on Sunday, March 1), the FDIC insurance limit of $250,000 per deposit, per bank remains in effect for all other banks.
The banks most at risk for large deposit outflows are the regional banks. In terms of size, regional banks stand intermediate between the large national banks, like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and small community banks. Depositors seem reassured that the large national banks have sufficient capital to withstand deposit outflows. The small community banks mainly hold retail deposits—deposits made by households and local businesses—that are typically below the $250,000 FDIC deposit limit.
On Thursday, March 16, First Republic Bank seemed to be the regional bank at most risk. Over the previous several days it experienced an outflow of billions of dollars in deposits. The Fed’s new Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP) made it possible for First Republic to borrow against its Treasury and mortgage-backed securities holdings—rather than selling the securities—to meet deposit outflows. Investors were not reassured, however, that using the BFTP would be sufficient to meet First Republic’s funding needs. The bank’s stock fell sharply on Wednesday and again on Thursday morning. S&P reduced its rating of the bank’s bonds to junk status. (We discuss bond ratings in an Apply the Concept in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 (Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2) and, at greater length, in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 5, Section 5.1.)
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, on Thursday morning: “The biggest banks in the U.S. are discussing a joint rescue of First Republic Bank that could include a sizable capital infusion to shore up the beleaguered lender .… The rescue would be an extraordinary effort to protect the entire banking system from widespread panic by turning First Republic into a firewall.” Among the banks participating in the plan are JP Morgan Chase, Well Fargo, Citigroup, and Bank of America. Because many large depositors had been switching their deposits from regional banks like First Republic to large banks, according to the article, the resuce plan would include the large banks making deposits in First Republic, thereby indirectly returning some of the deposits that First Republic had lost.
The banks involved in the rescue plan were apparently consulting with the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. Because this plan involved private banks attempting to help another private bank deal with deposit outflows, it was reminiscent of the actions of the bank clearing houses that operated in major cities before the Federal Reserve began operations in 1914.
Under this system, all the largest banks in a city were typically members of the clearing house, as were many midsize banks. The clearing houses had the ability to advance funds to meet the short-run liquidity needs of members. In effect, the clearing houses were operating in a way similar to the Fed’s extension of discount loans. Although the clearing houses were unable to stop bank panics, there is evidence that they were helpful in reducing deposit outflows from member banks. The famous financier J. P. Morgan was the most influential figure in the New York Clearing House during the early 1900s. This article on the Panic of 1907 discusses the role of Morgan and the New York Clearing House. A discussion of how the actions of the New York Clearing House compare with the actions of a government central bank, like the Fed, can be found here.
Congress has given the Federal Reserve a dual mandate of high employment and price stability. In addition, though, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.1 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.1) and at greater length in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 15, Section 15.1, the Fed has other goals, including the stability of financial markets and institutions.
Since March 2022, the Fed has been rapidly increasing its target for the federal funds rate in order to slow the growth in aggregate demand and bring down the inflation rate, which has been well above the Fed’s target of 2 percent. (We discuss monetary policy in a number of earlier blog posts, including here and here, and in podcasts, the most recent of which (from February) can be found here.) The target federal funds rate has increased from a range of 0 percent to 0.25 percent in March 2022 to a range of 4.5 percent to 4.75 percent. The following figure shows the upper range of the target for the federal funds rate from January 2015 through March 14, 2023.
This morning (Tuesday, March 14, 2023), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its data on the consumer price index for February. The following figure show inflation as measured by the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year (which is the inflation measurement we use most places in the text) and as the percentage change in core CPI, which excludes prices of food and energy. (The inflation rate computed by the percentage change in the CPI is sometimes referred to as headline inflation.) The figure shows that although inflation has slowed somewhat it is still well above the Fed’s 2 percent target. (Note that, formally, the Fed assesses whether it has achieved its inflation target using changes in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index rather than using changes in the CPI. We discuss issues in measuring inflation in several blog posts, including here and here.)
One drawback to using the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year is that it reduces the weight of the most recent observations. In the figure below, we show the inflation rate measured by the compounded annual rate of change, which is the value we would get for the inflation rate if that month’s percentage change continued for the following 12 months. Calculated this way, we get a somewhat different picture of inflation. Although headline inflation declines from January to February, core inflation is actually increasing each month from November 2022 when, it equaled 3.8 percent, through February 2023, when it equaled 5.6 percent. Core inflation is generally seen as a better indicator of future inflation than is headline inflation.
The February CPI data are consistent with recent data on PCE inflation, employment growth, and growth in consumer spending in that they show that the Fed’s increases in the target for the federal funds rate haven’t yet caused a slowing of the growth in aggregate demand sufficient to bring the inflation back to the Fed’s target of 2 percent. Until last week, many economists and Wall Street analysts had been expecting that at the next meeting of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on March 21 and 22, the FOMC would raise its target for the federal funds rate by 0.5 percentage points to a range of 5.0 percent to 5.25 percent.
Then on Friday, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was forced to close the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). As the headline on a column in the Wall Street Journal put it “Fed’s Tightening Plans Collide With SVB Fallout.” That is, the Fed’s focus on price stability would lead it to continue its increases in the target for the federal funds rate. But, as we discuss in this post from Sunday, increases in the federal funds rate lead to increases in other interest rates, including the interests rates on the Treasury securities, mortgage-backed securities, and other securities that most banks own. As interest rates rise, the prices of long-term securities decline. The run on SVB was triggered in part by the bank taking a loss on the Treasury securities it sold to raise the funds needed to cover deposit withdrawals.
Further increases in the target for the federal funds rate could lead to further declines in the prices of long-term securities that banks own, which might make it difficult for banks to meet deposit withdrawals without taking losses on the securities–losses that have the potential to make the banks insolvent, which would cause the FDIC to seize them as it did SVB. The FOMC’s dilemma is whether to keep the target for the federal funds rate unchanged at its next meeting on March 21 and 22, thereby keeping banks from suffering further losses on their bond holdings, or to continue raising the target in pursuit of its mandate to restore price stability.
Some economists were urging the FOMC to pause its increases in the target federal funds rate, others suggested that the FOMC increase the target by only 0.25 percent points rather than by 0.50 percentage points, while others argued that the FOMC should implement a 0.50 increase in order to make further progress toward its mandate of price stability.
Forecasting monetary policy is a risky business, but as of Tuesday afternoon, the likeliest outcome was that the FOMC would opt for a 0.25 percentage point increase. Although on Monday the prices of the stocks of many regional banks had fallen, during Tuesday the prices had rebounded as investors appeared to be concluding that those banks were not likely to experience runs like the one that led to SVB’s closure. Most of these regional banks have many more retail deposits–deposits made be households and small local businesses–than did SVB. Retail depositors are less likely to withdraw funds if they become worried about the solvency of a bank because the depositors have much less than $250,000 in their accounts, which is the maximum covered by the FDIC’s deposit insurance. In addition, on Sunday, the Fed established the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP), which allows banks to borrow against the holdings of Treasury and mortgage-back securities. The program allows banks to meet deposit withdrawals by borrowing against these securities rather than by having to sell them–as SVB did–and experience losses.
On March 22, we’ll find out how the Fed reacts to the latest dilemma facing monetary policy.
Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they review the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in the context of a classic bank run. What lessons can be learned to avoid other bank collapses in this unchartered economic territory? Will this become a contagion? Or, is it simply an example of a bank searching for additional return in an uncertain economic world? Our discussion covers these points but you can also check for updates on our blog post that can be found HERE.
Rumors spread about the financial state of a bank. Some depositors begin to withdraw funds from their accounts. Suddenly a wave of withdrawals occurs and regulators step in and close the bank. A description of a run on a bank in New York City in the fall of 1930? No. This happened to Silicon Valley Bank, headquartered in Santa Clara, California and the sixteenth largest bank in the United States, on Friday, March 10, 2023.
Background on Bank Runs
In Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.4 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.4) we describe the basic reasons why a run on a bank may occur. We describe bank runs in greater detail in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 12. We reproduce here a key paragraph on the underlying fragility of commercial banking from Chapter 12 of the money and banking text:
The basic activities of commercial banks are to accept short-term deposits, such as checking account deposits, and use the funds to make loans—including car loans, mortgages, and business loans—and to buy long-term securities, such as municipal bonds. In other words, banks borrow short term from depositors and lend, often long term, to households, firms, and governments. As a result, banks have a maturity mismatch because the maturity of their liabilities—primarily deposits—is much shorter than the maturity of their assets—primarily loans and securities. Banks are relatively illiquid because depositors can demand their money back at any time, while banks may have difficulty selling the loans in which they have invested depositors’ money. Banks, therefore, face liquidity risk because they can have difficulty meeting their depositors’ demands to withdraw their money. If more depositors ask to withdraw their money than a bank has money on hand, the bank has to borrow money, usually from other banks. If banks are unable to borrow to meet deposit withdrawals, then they have to sell assets to raise the funds. If a bank has made loans and bought securities that have declined in value, the bank may be insolvent, which means that the value of its assets is less than the value of its liabilities, so its net worth, or capital, is negative. An insolvent bank may be unable to meet its obligations to pay off its depositors.
The Founding of the Fed and the Establishment of the FDIC as a Response to Bank Runs
The instability of the banking system led to a number of financial crises during the 1800s and early 1900s, culminating in the Panic of 1907. Congress responded by passing the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, establishing the Federal Reserve System. The Fed was given the role of lender of last resort, making discount loans to banks that were experiencing deposit runs but that remained solvent. The failure of the Fed to stop the bank panics of the early 1930s led Congress to establish the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to ensure deposits in commercial banks, originally up to a limit of $2,500 per deposit, per bank. The current limit is $250,000.
Deposit insurance reduced the likelihood of runs but increased moral hazard in the banking system by eliminating the incentive insured depositors had to monitor the actions of bank managers. In principle, bank managers still have an incentive to avoid making risky loans and other investments for fear of withdrawals by households and firms with deposits that exceed the dollar deposit limit.
Contagion, Moral Hazard, and the Too-Big-to-Fail Policy
But if these depositors fail to monitor risk taking by bank managers or if a bank’s loans and investments decline in price even though they weren’t excessively risky at the time they were made, the FDIC and the Fed face a dilemma. Allowing banks to fail and large depositors to be only partially paid back may set off a process of contagion that results in runs spreading to other banks. Problems in the banking system can affect the wider economy by making it more difficult for households and firms that depend on bank loans to finance their spending. (We discuss the process of contagion in this post on the Diamond-Dybvig model.)
The Fed and the FDIC can stop the process of contagion if they are willing to ensure that large depositors don’t suffer losses. One mechanism to achieve this result is facilitating a merger between an insolvent bank and another bank that agrees to assume responsibility for meeting depositors withdrawals from the insolvent bank. But stopping contagion in this manner with no depositors suffering losses can be interpreted as amounting to deposit insurance having no dollar limit. The result is a further increase in moral hazard in the banking system. When the federal government does not allow large financial firms to fail for fear of damaging the financial system, it is said to be following a too-big-to-fail policy.
Silicon Valley Bank and VCs
Runs on commercial banks have been rare in recent decades, which is why the run on Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) took many people by surprise. As its name indicates, SVB is located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley and the bank played an important role in the financing of many startups in the area. As such, SVB provided banking services to many venture capital (VC) firms. As we note in Chapter 9, Section 9.2 of the money and banking text, venture capital firms play an important role in providing funding to startup firms:
VCs such as Sequoia Capital, Accel, and Andreessen Horowitz raise funds from investors and invest in small startup firms, often in high-technology industries. In recent years, VCs have raised large amounts from institutional investors, such as pension funds and university endowments. A VC frequently takes a large ownership stake in a startup firm, often placing its own employees on the board of directors or even having them serve as managers. These steps can reduce principal–agent problems because the VC has a greater ability to closely monitor the managers of the firm it’s investing in. The firm’s managers are likely to be attentive to the wishes of a large investor because having a large investor sell its stake in the firm may make it difficult to raise funds from new investors. In addition, a VC avoids the free-rider problem when investing in a firm that is not publicly traded because other investors cannot copy the VC’s investment strategy.
An article on bloomberg.com summarized SVB’s role in Silicon Valley. SVB is
the single most critical financial institution for the nascent tech scene, serving half of all venture-backed companies in the US and 44% of the venture-backed technology and health-care companies that went public last year. And its offerings were vast — ranging from standard checking accounts, to VC investment, to loans, to currency risk management.
Note from this description that SVB acted as a VC—that is, it made investments in startup firms—as well as engaging in conventional commercial banking activities, such as making loans and accepting deposits. The CEO of one startup was quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “For startups, all roads lead to Silicon Valley Bank.” (The Wall Street Journal article describing the run on SVB can be found here. A subscription may be required.)
SVB’s Vulnerability to a Run
As with any commercial bank, the bulk of SVB’s liabilities were short-term deposits whereas the bulk of its assets were long-term loans and other investments. We’ve discussed above that this maturity mismatch means that SVB—like other commercial banks—was vulnerable to a run if depositors withdraw their funds. We’ve also seen that in practice bank runs are very rare in the United States. Why then did SVB experience a run? SVB was particularly vulnerable to a run for two related reasons:
1. Its deposits are more concentrated than is true of a typical bank. Many startups and VCs maintain large checking account balances with SVB. According to the Wall Street Journal, at the end of 2022, SVB had $157 billion in deposits, the bulk of which were in just 37,000 accounts. Startups often initially generate little or no revenue and rely on VC funding to meet their expenses. Most Silicon Valley VCs advised the startups they were invested in to establish checking accounts with SVB.
2. Accordingly, the bulk of the value of deposits at SVB was greater than the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit. Apparently 93 percent to 97 percent of deposits were above the deposit limit as opposed to about 50 percent for most commercial banks.
Economics writer Noah Smith notes that SVB required that startups it was lending to keep their deposits with SVB as a condition for receiving a loan. (Smith’s discussion of SVB can be found on his Substack blog here. A subscription may be required.)
The Reasons for the Run on SVB
When the Fed began increasing its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022 in response to a sharp increase in inflation, longer term interest rates, including interest rates on U.S. Treasury securities, also increased. For example the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note increased from less than 2 percent in March 2022 to more than 4 percent in March 2023. The interest rate on the 2-year Treasury note increased even more, from 1.5 percent in March 2022 to around 5 percent in March 2023.
As we discuss in the appendix to Macroeconomics, Chapter 6 (Economics, Chapter 8) and in greater detail in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 3, the price of a bond or other security equals the present value of the payments the owner of the security will receive. When market interest rates rise, as happened during 2022 and early 2023, the value of the payments received on existing securities—and therefore the prices of these securities—fall. Treasury securities are free from default risk, which is the risk that the Treasury won’t make the interest and principal payments on the security, but are subject to interest-rate risk, which is the risk that the price of security will decrease as market interest rates rise.
As interest rates rose, the value of bonds and other long-term assets that SVB owned fell. The price of an asset on the balance sheet of a firm is said to be marked to market if the price is adjusted to reflect fluctuations in the asset’s market price. However, banking law allows a bank to keep constant the prices of bonds on its balance sheets if it intends to hold the bonds until they mature, at which point the bank will receive a payment equal to the principal of the bond. But if a bank needs to sell bonds, perhaps to meet its liquidity needs as depositors make withdrawals, then the losses on the bonds have to be reflected on the bank’s balance sheet.
SVB’s problems began on Wednesday, March 8 when it surprised Wall Street analysts and the bank’s Silicon Valley clients by announcing that to raise funds it had sold $21 billion in securities at a loss of $1.8 billion. It also announced that it was selling stock to raise additional funds. (SVB’s announcement can be found here.) SVB’s CEO also announced that the bank would borrow an additional $15 billion. Although the CEO stated that the bank was solvent, as an article on fortune.com put it, “Investors didn’t buy it.” In addition to the news that SVB had suffered a loss on its bond sales and had to raise funds, some analysts raised the further concern that the downturn in the technology sector meant that some of the firms that SVB had made loans to might default on the loans.
Problems for SVB compounded the next day, Thursday, March 9, when Peter Theil, a co-founder of PayPal and Founders Fund, a leading VC, advised firms Founders Fund was invested in to withdraw their deposits from SVB. Other VCs began to pull their money from SVB and advised their firms to do the same and a classic bank run was on. Because commercial banks lack the funds to pay off a significant fraction of their depositors over a short period of time, in a run, depositors with funds above the $250,000 deposit insurance limit know that they need to withdraw their funds before other depositors do and the bank is forced to close. This fact makes it difficult for a bank to stop a run once it gets started.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, by the end of business on Thursday, depositors had attempted to withdraw $42 billion from SVB. The FDIC took control of SVB the next day, Friday, March 10, before the bank could open for business.
The Government Response to the Collapse of SVB
The FDIC generally handles bank failures in one of two ways: (1) It closes the bank and pays off depositors, or (2) it purchases and assumes control of the bank while finding another bank that is willing to purchase the failed bank. If the FDIC closes a bank, it pays off the insured depositors immediately, using the bank’s assets. If those funds are insufficient, the FDIC makes up the difference from its insurance reserves, which come from payments insured banks make to the FDIC. After the FDIC has compensated insured depositors, any remaining funds are paid to uninsured depositors.
As we write this on Sunday, March 12, leaders of the Fed, the FDIC, and the Treasury Department, were considering what steps to take to avoid a process of contagion that would cause the failure of SVB to lead to deposit withdrawals and potential failures of other banks—in other words, a bank panic like the one that crippled the U.S. economy in the early 1930s, worsening the severity of the Great Depression. These agencies hoped to find another bank that would purchase SVB and assume responsibility for meeting further deposit withdrawals.
Another possibility was that the FDIC would declare that closing SVB, selling the bank’s assets, and forcing depositors above the $250,000 deposit limit to suffer losses would pose a systemic risk to the financial system. In that circumstance, the FDIC could provide insurance to all depositors however large their deposits might be. As discussed earlier, this approach would increase moral hazard in the banking system because it would, in effect, waive the limit on deposit insurance. Although the waiver would apply directly only to this particular case, large depositors in other banks might conclude that if their bank failed, the FDIC would waive the deposit limit again. Under current law, the FDIC could only announce they were waiving the deposit limit if two-thirds of the FDIC’s Board of Directors, two-thirds of the Fed’s Board of Governors, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen agreed that failure of SVB would pose a systemic risk to the financial system.
According to an article on wsj.com posted at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, bank regulators were conducting an auction for SVB in the hopes that a buyer could be found that would assume responsibility for the bank’s uninsured deposits. [Update evening of Monday March 13: The Sunday auction failed when no U.S. banks entered a bid. Late Monday, the FDIC was planning on holding another auction, with potentially better terms available for the acquiring bank.]
Update: At 6:15 pm Sunday, the Treasury, the Fed, and the FDIC issued a statement (you can read it here). As we noted might occur above, by invoking a situation of systemic risk, the FDIC was authorized to allow all depositors–including those with funds above the deposit limit of $250,000–to access their funds on Monday morning. Here is an excerpt from the statement:
“After receiving a recommendation from the boards of the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, and consulting with the President, Secretary Yellen approved actions enabling the FDIC to complete its resolution of Silicon Valley Bank, Santa Clara, California, in a manner that fully protects all depositors. Depositors will have access to all of their money starting Monday, March 13. No losses associated with the resolution of Silicon Valley Bank will be borne by the taxpayer.”
[Update Monday morning March 13] As we discussed above, one of the problems SVB faced was a decline in the prices of its bond holdings. As a result, when it sold bonds to help meet deposit outflows, it suffered a $2.1 billion loss. Most commercial banks have invested some of their deposits in Treasury bonds and so potentially face the same problem of having to suffer losses if they need to sell the bonds to meet deposit outflows.
To deal with this issue, Sunday night the Fed announced that it was establishing the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP). Banks and other depository institutions, such as savings and loans and credit unions, can use the BTFP to borrow against their holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities and agency debt. (Agency debt consists of bonds issued by any federal government agency other than the U.S. Treasury. Most agency debt is bonds issued by the Government Sponsored Agencies (GSEs) involved in the mortgage market: Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae), and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage (Freddie Mac).) The Fed explained its reasons for setting up the BTFP: “The BTFP will be an additional source of liquidity against high-quality securities, eliminating an institution’s need to quickly sell those securities in times of stress.” You can read the Fed’s statement here.
On Sunday, Signature Bank was closed by New York state banking officials and the FDIC. As with SVB, the Fed, FDIC, and Treasury announced that all depositors, including those whose deposits were above the $250,000 deposit limit, would be able to withdraw the full amount of their deposits.
Shareholders in SVB and Signature Bank lost their investments when the FDIC took control of the banks. On Monday morning, investors were selling shares of a number of regional banks who might also face runs, fearing that their investments would be lost if the FDIC were to seize these banks.
President Biden, speaking from the White House, attempted to reassure the public that the banking system was safe. He stated that he would ask Congress to explore changes in banking regulations to reduce the likelihood of future bank failures.
Supports: Microeconomics, Chapter 11, Section 11.5; Economics, Chapter 11, Section 11.5; and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.5
Photo from the Wall Street Journal.
Imani owns a firm that sells payroll services to companies in the Atlanta area. Her largest cost is for labor. She employs workers who use software to prepare payroll reports and to handle texts and calls from client firms. She decides to begin using a generative AI program, like ChatGPT, which is capable of quickly composing thorough answers to many questions and write computer code. She will use the program to write the additional computer code needed to adapt the payroll software to individual client’s needs and to respond to clients seeking advice on payroll questions. Once the AI program is in place, she will need only half as many workers. The number of additional workers she needs to hire for every 20 additional firms that buy her service will fall from 5 to 1. She will have to pay a flat monthly licensing fee for the AI program; the fee will not change with the number of firms she sells her services to. Imani determines that making these changes will reduce her total cost of providing services to her current 2,000 clients from $2,000,000 per month to $1,600,000 per month
In answering the following questions, assume that, apart from the number of workers, none of the other inputs—such as the size of her firm’s office, the number of computers, or other software—change as a result of her leasing the AI program.
a. Briefly explain whether each of the following statements about the cost situation at Imani’s firm after she begins using the AI program is correct or incorrect.
Her firm’s average total cost, average variable cost, and average fixed cost curves will shift down, while her firm’s marginal cost curve will shift up.
Her firm’s average total cost, average variable cost, average fixed cost and marginal cost curves will all shift up.
Her firm’s average total cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost curves will shift down, while her average fixed cost curve will shift up.
Her firm’s average total cost, average variable cost, average fixed cost, and marginal cost curves will all shift down.
Her firm’s average fixed cost curve will shift up, but her other cost curves will be unchanged.
b. Draw a graph illustrating your answer to part a. Be sure to show the original average total cost, average variable cost, average fixed cost, and marginal cost curves. Also show the shifts—if any—in the curves after Imani begins using the AI program.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem requires you to understand definitions of costs, so you may want to review the sections “The Difference between Fixed Costs and Variable Costs,” “Marginal Costs,” and “Graphing Cost Curves”
Step 2: Answer part (a) by explaining whether each of the five listed statements is correct or incorrect. The cost of the AI program is fixed because it doesn’t change with the quantity of her services that Imani sells. Her firm will have greater fixed costs after licensing the AI program but she will have lower variable costs because she is able to produce the same level of output with fewer workers. Her marginal cost will also decline because she needs to hire fewer workers as the quantity of services she sells increases. We know that the average total cost per month of providing her service to 2,000 clients has decreased because we are given the information that it changed from ($2,000,000/2,000) = $1,000 to ($1,600,000/2,000) = $800.
This statement is incorrect because her average fixed cost curve will shift up as a result of her total fixed cost having increased by the amount of the AI program license and because her marginal cost curve will shift down, not up.
This statement is incorrect because all of her cost curves, except for average fixed cost, will shift down, not up.
This statement is correct because it describes the actual shifts in her cost curves.
This statement is incorrect because her average fixed cost curve will shift up, not down.
This statement is incorrect because her rather than being unaffected, her average total cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost curves will shift down.
Step 3: Answer part (b) by drawing the cost curves for Imani’s firm before and after she begins using the AI program. Your graph should look like the following, where the curves representing the firm’s costs before Imani begins leasing the AI program are in blue and the costs after leasing the program are in red.
During the recovery from the Covid–19 pandemic, inflation as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, first rose above the Federal Reserve’s target annual inflation rate of 2 percent in March 2021. Many economists inside and outside of the Fed believed the increase in inflation would be transitory because it was thought to be mainly the result of supply chain problems and an initial burst of spending as business lockdowns were ended or mitigated in most areas.
Accordingly, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) kept its target for the federal funds rate at effectively zero (a range of 0 to 0.25 percent) until March 2022 and continued its quantitative easing (QE) program of buying long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) until that same month.
As the following figure shows, by March 2022 inflation had been well above the FOMC’s target for a year. The Fed responded by raising its target for the federal funds rate and switched from QE to quantitative tightening (QT). Although some supply chain problems were still contributing to the high inflation rate during the spring of 2022, the main driver appeared to be very expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. (This blog post from May 2021 has links to contributions to the debate over macro policy at the time. Glenn’s interview that month with the Financial Times can be found here. In November 2022, Glenn argued that overly expansionary fiscal policy was the main driver of inflation in this op-ed in the Financial Times (subscription or registration may be required).We discuss inconsistencies in the Fed’s forecasts of unemployment and inflation here. And in this post we discuss the question of whether the Fed made a mistake in not attempting to preempt inflation before it accelerated.)
Since March 2022, the FOMC has raised its target for the federal funds rate multiple times. In February 2023, the target was a range of 4.50 to 4.75 percent. Longer-term interest rates have also increased. In particular, the average interest rate on residential mortgage loans increased from 3 percent in March 2022 to 7 percent in November 2022, before falling back to around 6 percent in February 2023. In the fall of 2022, there was optimism among some economists that the Fed had succeeded in slowing the economy enough to put inflation on a path back to its 2 percent target. Although many economists had expected that inflation would only return to the target if the U.S. economy experienced a recession—labeled a hard landing—the probability that inflation could be reduced without a recession—labeled a soft landing—appeared to be increasing.
Economic data for January 2023 made a soft landing seem less likely. Consumer spending remained above its trend from before the pandemic, employment increases were unexpectedly high, and inflation reversed its downward trend. A continuation of low rates of unemployment and high rates of inflation wasn’t consistent with either a hard landing or a soft landing. Some observers, particularly in Wall Street financial firms, began describing the situation as no landing. But given the Fed’s strong commitment to returning to its 2 percent target, the no landing scenario couldn’t persist indefinitely.
Many investors had anticipated that the FOMC would end its increases in the federal funds target by mid-2023 and would have made one or more cuts to the target by the end of the year, but that outcome now seems unlikely. The FOMC had increased the federal funds target by only 0.25 percent at its February meeting but many economists now expected that it would announce a 0.50 percent increase at its next meeting on March 21 and 22. Unfortunately, the odds of a hard landing seem to be increasing.
A couple of notes: Although there are multiple ways of measuring inflation, the percentage increase in the PCE is the formal way in which the FOMC determines whether it is hitting its inflation target. To judge what the underlying inflation is—in other words, the inflation rate likely to persist in at least the near future—many economists look at core inflation. In the earlier figure we show movements in core inflation as measured by the PCE excluding prices of food and energy. Note that over the period shown PCE and core PCE follow the same pattern, although core PCE inflation begins to moderate earlier than does core PCE.
Some economists use other adjustments to PCE or to the consumer price index (CPI) in an attempt to better measure underlying inflation. For instance, housing rents and new and used car prices have been particularly volatile since early 2020, so some economists calculate PCE or CPI excluding those prices, as well as food and energy prices. As we discuss in this blog post from last September some economists prefer median CPI as the best measure of underlying inflation. (We discuss some of the alternative ways of measuring inflation in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 and Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.) Nearly all these alternative measures of inflation indicated that the moderation in inflation that began in the summer of 2022 had ended in January 2023. So, choosing among measures of underlying inflation wasn’t critical to understanding the current path of inflation.
Finally, the inflation, employment, and output measures that in January seemed to show that the U.S. economy was still in a strong expansion and that the inflation rate may have ticked up are all seasonally adjusted. Seasonal adjustment factors are applied to the raw (unadjusted) data to account for regular seasonal fluctuations in the series. For instance, unadjusted employment declined in January as measured by both the household and establishment series. Applying the seasonal adjustment factors to the data resulted in the actual decline in employment from December to January turning into an adjusted increase. In other words, employment declined by less than it typically does, so on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that it had increased. Seasonal adjustments for the holiday season may be distorted, however, because the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 holiday seasons occurred during upsurges in Covid. Whether the reported data for January 2023 will be subject to significant revisions when the seasonal adjustments factors are subsequently revised remains to be seen. The latest BLS employment report, showing seasonally adjusted and not seasonally adjusted data, can be found here.
Join author Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien in their first Sprint 2023 podcast where they revisit inflation as the major topic facing our country, our economy, and our classrooms. Glenn & Tony discuss the Federal Reserve response and the outlook for the economy. While rates have continued to move up, is a soft-landing still possible?
In 1974, Congress created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO was given the responsibility of providing Congress with impartial economic analysis as it makes decisions about the federal government’s budget. One of the most widely discussed reports the CBO issues is the Budget and Economic Outlook. The report provides forecasts of future federal budget deficits and changes in the federal government’s debt that the budget deficits will cause. The CBO’s budget and debt forecasts rely on the agency’s forecasts of future economic conditions and assumes that Congress will make no changes to current laws regarding taxing and spending. (We discuss this assumption further below.)
On February 15, the CBO issued its latest forecasts. The forecasts showed a deterioration in the federal government’s financial situation compared with the forecasts the CBO had issued in May 2022. (You can find the full report here.) Last year, the CBO forecast that the federal government’s cumulative budget deficit from 2023 through 2032 would be $15.7 trillion. The CBO is now forecasting the cumulative deficit over the same period will be $18.8 trillion. The three main reason for the increase in the forecast deficits are:
1. Congress has increased spending—particularly on benefits for military veterans.
2) Cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other government programs have increased as a result of higher inflation.
3) Interest rates on Treasury debt have increased as a result of higher inflation.
The CBO forecasts that federal debt held by the public will increase from 98 percent of GDP in 2023 to 118 percent in 2033 and eventually to 198 percent in 2053. Note that economists prefer to measure the size of the debt relative to GDP rather than in as absolute dollar amounts for two main reasons: First, measuring debt relative to GDP makes it easier to see how debt has changed over time in relation to the growth of the economy. Second, the size of debt relative to GDP makes it easier to gauge the burden that the debt imposes on the economy. When debt grows more slowly than the economy, as measured by GDP, crowding effects are likely to be relatively small. We discuss crowding out in Macroeconomics, Chapter 10, Section 10.2 and Chapter 16, Section 16. 5 (Economics, Chapter 20, Section 20.2 and Chapter 26, Section 26.5). The two most important factors driving increases in the ratio of debt to GDP are increased spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and increased interest payments on the debt.
The following figure is reproduced from the CBO report. It shows the ratio of debt to GDP with actual values for the period 1900-2022 and projected values for the period 2023-2053. Note that the only other time the ratio of debt to GDP rose above 100 percent was in 1945 and 1946 as a result of the large increases in federal government spending required to fight World War II.
The increased deficits and debt over the next 10 years are being driven by government spending increasing as a percentage of GDP, while government revenues (which are mainly taxes) are roughly stable as a percentage of GDP. The following figure from the report shows actual federal outlays and revenues as a percentage of GDP for the period 1973-2022 and projected outlays and revenues for the period 2023-2033. Note that from 1973 to 2022, outlays averaged 21.0 percent of GDP and revenues averaged 17.4 percent of GDP, resulting in an average deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP. By 2033, outlays are forecast to rise to 24.9 percent of GDP–well above the 1973-2022 average–whereas revenues are forecast to be only 18.1 percent, for a forecast deficit of 6.8 percent of GDP.
The increase in outlays is driven primarily by increases in mandatory spending, mainly spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans’ benefits and increases in interest payments on the debt. The CBO’s forecast assumes that discretionary spending will gradually decline over the next 10 years as percentage of GDP. Discretionary spending includes federal spending on defense and all other government programs apart from those, like Social Security, where spending is mandated by law.
To avoid the persistent deficits, and increasing debt that results, Congress would need to do one (or a combination) of the following:
1. Reduce the currently scheduled increases in mandatory spending (in political discussions this alternative is referred to as entitlement reform because entitlements is another name for manadatory spending).
2. Decrease discretionary spending, the largest component of which is defense spending.
3. Increases taxes.
There doesn’t appear to be majority support in Congress for taking any of these steps.
The CBO’s latest forecast seems gloomy, but may actually understate the likely future increases in the federal budget deficit and federal debt. The CBO’s forecast assumes that future outlays and taxes will occur as indicated in current law. For example, the forecast assumes that many of the tax cuts Congress passed in 2017 will expire in 2025 as stated in current law. Many political observers doubt that Congress will allow the tax cuts to expire as scheduled because to do so would result in increases in individual income taxes for most people. (Here is a recent article in the Washington Post that discusses this point. A subscription may be required to access the full article.) The CBO also assumes that defense spending will not increase beyond what is indicated by current law. Many political observers believe that, in fact, Congress may feel compelled to substantially increase defense spending as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the potential military threat posed by China.
The CBO forecast also assumes that the U.S. economy won’t experience a recession between 2023 and 2033, which is possible but unlikely. If the economy does experience a recession, federal outlays for unemployment insurance and other programs will increase and federal personal and corporate income tax revenues will fall. The CBO’s forecast also assumes that the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note will be under 4 percent and that the federal funds rate will be under 3 percent (interest rates on short-term Treasury debt move closely with changes in the federal funds rate). If interest rates turn out to be higher than these forecasts, the federal government’s interest payments will increase, further increasing the deficit and the debt.
In short, the federal government is clearly facing the most difficult budgetary situation since World War II.
In October 2021, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did something unusual–he changed the name of the company from Facebook, Inc. to Meta Platforms, Inc. According to Zuckerberg, he did so because he said, “Over time I hope our company will be seen as a metaverse company.” What is the metaverse? Definitions differ, but it typically refers to software programs that allow people to access either augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) images and information.
In both AR and VR, people wear headsets, goggles, or glasses to see images and information displayed. In VR, you wear goggles and have to remain stationary because your whole field of vision is a digital projection, so if you walk around you run the risk of tripping over furniture or other obstacles. With AR, you can walk through the physical world because your goggles display only limited amounts of information.
For example, Peggy Johnson, CEO of Magic Leap describes the device her firm sells this way: “You wear it over your eyes. You can actually think of it as a computer on your eyes. And you still see your physical world around you, but we place digital content very smartly in that physical world.” Among other uses, Magic Leap’s device can help to train a worker to use a new piece of equipment by overlaying a virtual version of the equipment over the actual piece of equipment. The virtual version would place instructions in the worker’s field of view. That worker would be in the metaverse.
While Meta has been selling Oculus AR headsets, Zuckerberg has focused more on VR than on AR. An article in the Wall Street Journal described the VR metaverse that Zuckerberg is hoping to help build: “Eventually, the idea is that people will be able to do almost anything in the metaverse: go shopping, attend school, participate in work meetings.” They would do these things while sitting at their desk or armchair. Meta’s first significant VR product was Horizon Worlds. On Horizon, after choosing an avatar, or virtual figure that represents you, you can shop, play games, or hang out with other people. You enter Horizon by using Meta’s Quest VR headset, which has a price of $400 to $700, depending on the headset’s configuration. Meta set a goal of having 500,000 monthly users of Horizon by the end of 2022 but ended the year with only around 200,000 active users.
Horizon’s main problem seems to have been that the app was subject to large network externalities. As we discuss in Chapter 10, Section 10.3 of Economics and Microeconomics, network externalities describe the situation in which the usefulness of a product increases with the number of consumers who use it. The Horizon app is enjoyable to use only if many other people are using it. But because few people regularly use the app, many new users don’t find it enjoyable and soon stop using it. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, in late 2022, “Most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month … there are rarely any girls in the Hot Girl Summer Rooftop Pool Party, and in Murder Village there is often no one to kill. Even the company’s showcase worlds… are mostly barren of users.” Reality Labs, the division of Meta in charge of Horizon, the Quest headset, and other metaverse projects, had total losses of $27 billion by the end of 2022. The losses were partly the result of Meta selling Quest headsets for a price below the cost of producing them in an attempt to get more people to use Horizon.
Zuckerberg peisists in believing that the firm’s future lies with the metaverse and continues to spend billions on metaverse projects. Investors aren’t convinced that this strategy will work because, as an article on economist.com put it in early 2023: “Few people are burning to migrate to the metaverse.” As investors’ became more skeptical of Zuckerberg’s strategy, Meta’s stock price declined by more than half between the fall of 2021 and early 2023. To be successful in its metaverse strategy, Meta will eventually have to attract enough buyers of its Quest headsets and users of its Horizon app to begin taking advantage of network externalities.
Source: Dylan Croll, “Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson on the AR revolution,” news.yahoo. com, January 4, 2023; “Things Are Looking Up for Meta,” economist.com, February 3, 2023; “How Much Trouble Is Mark Zuckerberg In?” economist.com, October 16, 2022; Jeff Horwitz, Salvador Rodriguez, and Meghan Bobrowsky, “Company Documents Show Meta’s Flagship Metaverse Falling Short,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2022; Sarah E. Needleman, “Facebook Changes Company Name to Meta in Focus on Metaverse,” Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2021; Meghan Bobrowsky and Sarah E. Needleman, “What is the Metaverse? The Future Vision for the Internet,” Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2022.
you can bid for Paul Samuelson’s Nobel Prize Medal here. Note that at the time of posting the minimum bid required was $495,000.
You can read a brief biography of Samuelson on the Nobel site here. You can read the lecture Samuelson delivered on the occasion of being awarded the price here. (Note that the lecture contains technical material.)
Argentina’s Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa coming from a meeting in Washington, DC with the International Monetary Fund to discuss the country’s hyperinflation. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.
Argentina has been through several periods of hyperinflation during with the price level has increased more than 50 percent per month. The following figure shows the inflation rate as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index from the previous month for since the beginning of 2018. The inflation rate during these years has been volatile, being greater than 50 percent per month during several periods, including staring in the spring of 2022. High rates of inflation have become so routine in Argentina that an article in the Wall Street Journal quoted on store owner as saying, “Here 40% [inflation] is normal. And when we get past 50%, it doesn’t scare us, it simply bothers us.”
As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.5 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.5 ), when an economy experiences hyperinflation, consumers and businesses hold the country’s currency for as brief a time as possible because the purchasing power of the currency is declining rapidly. As we noted in the chapter, in some countries experiencing high rates of inflation, consumers and businesses buy and sell goods using U.S. dollars rather than the domestic currency because the purchasing power of the dollar is more stable. This demand for dollars in countries experiencing high inflation rates is one reason why an estimated 80 percent of all $100 bills circulate outside of the United States.
The increased demand for U.S. dollars by people in Argentina is reflected in the exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the U.S. dollar. The following figure shows that at the beginning of 2018, one dollar exchanged for about 18 pesos. By November 2022, one dollar exchanged for about 159 pesos. The exchange rate shown in the figure is the official exchange rate at which people in Argentina can legally exchange pesos for dollars. In practice, it is difficult for many individuals and small firms to buy dollars at the official exchange rate. Instead, they have to use private currency traders who will make the exchange at an unofficial—or “blue”—exchange rate that varies with the demand and supply of pesos for dollars. A reporter for the Economist described his experience during a recent trip to Argentina: “Walk down Calle Lavalle or Calle Florida in the centre of Buenos Aires and every 20 metres someone will call out ‘cambio’ (exchange), offering to buy dollars at a rate that is roughly double the official one.”
People in Argentina are reluctant to deposit their money in banks, partly because the interest rates banks pay typically are lower than the inflation rate, causing the purchasing power of money deposited in banks to decline over time. People are also afraid that the government might keep them from withdrawing their money, which has happened in the past. As an alternative to depositing their money in banks, many people in Argentina buy more goods than they can immediately use and store them, thereby avoiding future price increases on these goods. The Wall Street Journalquoted a university student as saying: “I came to this market and bought as much toilet paper as I could for the month, more than 20 packs. I try to buy all [the goods] I can because I know that next month it will cost more to buy.”
Devon Zuegel, a U.S. software engineer and economics blogger who travels frequently to Argentina, has observed one unusual way that some people in Argentina save while experiencing hyperinflation:
“Bricks—actual bricks, not stacks of cash—are another common savings mechanism, especially for working-class Argentinians. The value of bricks is fairly stable, and they’re useful to a family building out their house. Argentina doesn’t have a mortgage industry, and thus buying a pallet of bricks each time you get a paycheck is an effective way to pay for your home in installments. (Bricks aren’t fully monetized, in that I don’t think people buy bricks and then sell them later, so people only use this method of saving when they actually have something they want to use the bricks for.)”
Sources: “Sergio Massa Is the Only Thing Standing Between Argentina and Chaos,” economist. com, October 13, 2022; Devon Zuegel, “Inside Argentina’s Currency Exchange Black Markets,” devonzuegel.com, September 10, 2022; Silvina Frydlewsky and Juan Forero, “Inflation Got You Down? At Least You Don’t Live in Argentina,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, FRED data set.
In the Apply the Concept “Trying to Use the Apple Approach to Save J.C. Penney” in Chapter 10, Section 10.4 in both Microeconomics and Economics, we discussed how Ron Johnson had been successful as head of Apple’s retail stores but failed when he was hired as CEO of J. C. Penney. Insights from behavioral economics indicate that Johnson made a mistake in eliminating Penney’s previous strategy of keeping prices high but running frequent sales. Although Penney’s “every day prices” under Johnson were lower than they had been under the previous management, many consumers failed to recognize that fact and began shopping elsewhere.
Johnson’s experience may indicate the dangers of changing a firm’s long-standing business model. Customers at brick-and-mortar retail stores fall into several categories: Some people shop in a number of stores, depending on which store has the lowest price on the particular product they’re looking for; some shop only for products such as televisions or appliances that they hesitate to buy from Amazon or other online sites; while others shop primarily in the store that typically meets their needs with respect to location, selection of products, and pricing. It’s the last category of customer that was most likely to stop shopping at Penney because of Johnson’s new pricing policy because they were accustomed to primarily buying products that were on sale.
Bed Bath & Beyond was founded in 1971 by Warren Eisenberg and Leonard Feinstein. As the name indicates, it has focused on selling household goods—sometimes called “home goods”—such as small appliances, towels, and sheets. It was perhaps best known for mailing massive numbers of 20 percent off coupons, printed on thin blue cardboard and nicknamed Big Blue, to households nationwide. Although by 2019, the firm was operating more than 1,500 stores in the United States, some investors were concerned that Bed Bath & Beyond could be run more profitably. In March 2019, the firm’s board of directors replaced the current CEO with Mark Tritton who had helped make Target stores very profitable.
In an approach similar to the one Ron Johnson had used at J.C. Penney, Tritton cut back on the number of coupons sent out, reorganized the stores to reduce the number of different products available for sale, and replaced some name brand goods with so-called private-label brands produced by Bed Bath & Beyond. Unfortunately, Tritton’s strategy was a failure and the firm, which had been profitable in 2018, suffered losses each year between 2019 and 2022. The losses totaled almost $1.5 billion. In June 2022, the firm’s board of directors replaced Tritton with Sue Grove who had been serving on the board.
Why did Tritton’s strategy fail? Partly because in March 2020, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of many Bed Bath & Beyond stores. Unlike some other chains, Bed Bath & Beyond’s web site struggled to fulfill online orders. The firm also never developed a system that would have made it easy for customers to order goods online and pick them up at the curb of their retail stores. That approach helped many competitors maintain sales during the pandemic. Covid-19 also disrupted the supply chains that Tritton was depending on to produce the private-label brands he was hoping to sell in large quantities.
But the larger problems with Tritton’s strategy would likely have hurt Bed Bath & Beyond even if there had been no pandemic. Tritton thought the stores were too cluttered, particularly in comparison with Target stores, so he reduced the number of products for sale. It turned out, though, that many of Bed Bath & Beyond’s most loyal customers liked searching through the piles of goods on the shelves. One customer was quoted as saying, “I used to find so many things that I didn’t need, that I’d end up buying anyway, like July 4th-themed corn holders.” Customers who preferred to shop in less cluttered stores were likely to already be shopping elsewhere. And it turned out that many Bed Bath & Beyond customers preferred national brands and switched to shopping elsewhere when Tritton replaced those brands with private-label brands. Finally, many customers were accustomed to shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond shortly after receiving a Big Blue 20 percent off coupon. Sending out fewer coupons meant fewer trips to Bed Bath & Beyond by those customers.
In a manner similar to what happened to Johnson in his overhaul of the Penney department stores, Tritton’s changes to Bed Bath & Beyond’s business model caused many existing customer to shop elsewhere while attracting relatively few new customers. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted an industry analyst as concluding: “Mark Tritton entered the business and ripped up its playbook. But the strategy he replaced it with was not tested and nowhere near sharp enough to compensate for the loss of traditional customers.”
Sources: Jeanette Neumann, “Bed Bath & Beyond Traced an Erratic Path to Its Current Crisis,” bloomberg.com, September 29, 2022; Kelly Tyko, “What to expect at Bed Bath & Beyond closing store sales,” axios.com September 22, 2022; Inti Pacheco and Jodi Xu Klein, “Bed Bath & Beyond to Close 150 Stores, Cut Staff, Sell Shares to Raise Cash,” Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2022; Suzanne Kapner and Dean Seal, “Bed Bath & Beyond CEO Mark Tritton Exits as Sales Plunge,” Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2022; Suzanne Kapner, “Bed Bath & Beyond Followed a Winning Playbook—and Lost,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2022; and Ron Lieber, “An Oral History of the World’s Biggest Coupon,” New York Times, November 3, 2021.
As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 5, Section 5.3, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contribute to climate change, including the increases in temperatures that have been experienced worldwide. We’ve found that students are interested in seeing U.S. CO2 emissions in a global context.
The first of the following figures shows for the years 1960 to 2020, the total amount of CO2 emissions by the United States, China, India, the 28 countries in the European Union, lower-middle-income countries (including India, Nigeria, and Vietnam), and upper-middle-income countries (including China, Brazil, and Argentina). The second of the figures shows the percentage of total world CO2 accounted for by each of the three individual countries and by the indicated groups of countries. in the United States and in the countries of the European Union both total emissions and the percentage of total world emissions have been declining over the past 15 years. Emissions have been increasing in China, India, and in middle-income countries. The figures are from the Our World in Data website (ourworldindata.org). (Note that the reductions in emissions during 2020 largely reflect the effects of the slowdown in economic activity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic rather than long-term trends in emissions.)
Governments in many countries have attempted to slow the pace of climate change by enacting policies to reduce CO2emissions. (According to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, CO2 accounts for about 76 percent of all emissions worldwide of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Methane and nitrous oxide, mainly from agricultural activity, make up most of the rest of greenhouse gas emissions.) In August 2022, Congress and President Biden enacted additional measures aimed at slowing climate change. Included among these measures were government subsidies to firms and households to use renewable energy such as rooftop solar panels, tax rebates for some buyers of certain electric vehicles, and funds for utilities to develop power sources such as wind and solar that don’t emit CO2. The measures have been estimated to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 6 percent and 15 percent. Because the United States is responsible for only about 14 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, the measures would likely reduce global emissions by only about 2 percent.
The figures shown above make this result unsurprising. Because the United States is the source of only a relatively small percentage of global greenhouse emissions, reductions in U.S. emissions can result in only small reductions in global emissions. Although many policymakers and economists believe that the marginal benefit from these reductions in U.S. emissions exceed their marginal cost, the reductions can’t by themselves do more than slow the rate of climate change. A key reason that India, China, and other middle income countries have accounted for increasing quantities of greenhouse gases is that they rely much more heavily on burning coal than do the United States, the countries in the European Union, and other high-income countries. Utilities switching to generating electricity by burning coal rather than by burning natural gas has been a key source of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The two figures above measure a country’s contribution to CO2 emissions by looking at the quantity of emissions generated by production within the country. But suppose instead that we look at the quantity of CO2 emitted during the production of the goods consumed within the country? In that case, we would allocate to the United States CO2 emitted during the product of a good, such as a television or a shirt, that was produced in China or another foreign country but consumed in the United States.
For the United States, as the following figure shows it makes only a small difference whether we measure CO2emissions on the basis of production of goods and services or on the basis of consumption of goods and services. U.S. emissions of CO2 are about 7 percent higher when measured on a consumption basis rather than on a production basis. By both measures, U.S. emissions of CO2 have been generally declining since about 2007. (1990 is the first year that these two measures are available.)
Sources: Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Pablo Rosado, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” OurWorldInData.org, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions; Greg Ip, “Inflation Reduction Act’s Real Climate Impact Is a Decade Away,” Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2022; Lisa Friedman, “Democrats Designed the Climate Law to Be a Game Changer. Here’s How,” New York Times, August 22, 2022; Hannah Ritchie, “How Do CO2 Emissions Compare When We Adjust for Trade?” ourworldindata.org, October 7, 2019; and United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data,” epa.gov, February 22, 2022.
In Chapter 1, Section 1.1, one of our three key economic ideas is that people respond to economic incentives. Government policy can change the economic incentives that people face. Sometimes a government policy can have unintended consequences because it changes economic incentives in a way that policymakers didn’t anticipate. Some economists argue that this was the case with the Biden administration’s decision to change the federal student loan program.
In recent years, college students and their parents have rapidly increased their loan debt. The following figure shows the total value of outstanding student loans beginning in 2000. Student loan debt increased from about $52 billion in 2000 to about $1.6 trillion in 2022. Or, put another way, for every dollar of loan debt students and their parents owed in 2000, they owed more than 27 dollars of debt in 2022. In 2022, the average borrower owed about $37,000.
During the Covid–19 pandemic, the Trump and Biden administrations allowed people with student loans to suspend making payments on them. The payment moratorium began March 31, 2020 and is scheduled to end on December 31, 2022. Student loan payments are often the largest item in the budgets of recent college graduates. Some economists argue that the need to make student loan payments has made it harder for young adults to accumulate the down payments necessary to buy homes. As a result, young adults are likely to delay forming families, thereby reducing their need to move from an apartment to a house. In 1967, about 83 percent of people aged 25 to 34 lived with a spouse or partner, while in 2021 only about 54 percent did.
Some economists doubt that student loan debt explains the delay in young adults forming families and buying houses. But many policymakers have seen reducing the burden of student loan debt on young adults as an important issue. In August 2022, President Joe Biden announced a plan under which individuals earning less than $125,000 per year would have up to $10,000 in student loan debt cancelled. Borrowers with Pell grants would have up to another $10,000 cancelled. A second part of the plan involved changes to the federal government’s income-driven repayment (IDR) program. As a result of these changes, lower and middle-income student loan borrowers will be able to more easily have their loan balances canceled. With some exceptions, borrowers who have loans of $12,000 or less will have their loans canceled after making payments for 10 years, rather than the current 20 years. The annual payments for most borrowers using the IDR program will be lowered to 5 percent of their income above about $33,000 per year, rather than the previous 10 percent.
Some policymakers objected to President Biden’s plan, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it was the result of a presidential executive order rather than the result of Congressional legislation. Many economists focused on a different potential problem with the plan: the economic incentives that might result from the changes to the IDR program. The intention of these changes was to reduce the burden on people who currently have student loans, but the changes also affected the economic incentives facing students applying for loans and colleges in deciding the level of tuition to charge.
In an article on the Brookings Institution website, Adam Looney, a professor of finance at the University of Utah, argued that because of the changes to the IDR program, the typical college student could expect to pay back only about 50 percent of the amount borrowed. Before the changes, the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that the typical student would end up paying more than 100 percent of the amount borrowed because the student would have to pay interest on the loan amount. Looney argues that students and their parents will have an incentive to borrow more because they will expect to pay back only half of the amount borrowed. In particular, he notes:
“A large share of student debt is not used to pay tuition, but is given to students in cash for rent, food, and other expenses…. While students certainly need to pay rent and buy food while in school, under the administration proposal a student can borrow significant amounts for ‘living expenses,’ deposit the check in a bank account, and not pay it all back…. Some people will use loans like an ATM, which will be costly for taxpayers and is certainly not the intended use of the loans.”
Sylvain Catherine, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, makes a similar argument: “How can we not anticipate the distortionary effects of such a policy? Student will be encouraged to take more debt since they will not have to repay the marginal dollar, and colleges will have an incentive to further increase tuition.” An article in the New York Times noted that taxpayers will be responsible for the value of student loans that aren’t paid back: “By offering more-generous educational subsidies, the government may be creating a perverse incentive for both schools and borrowers, who could begin to pay even less attention to the actual price tag of their education—and taxpayers could be left footing more of the bill.”
It’s too early to judge the extent to which students, their families, and colleges will react to the changed incentives in President Biden’s student debt relief plan. But because the plan changes economic incentives, it may result in consequences not intended by President Biden and his advisers. (Note that the lawsuits challenging the plan’s constitutionality have also not yet been resolved.)
Sources: Adam Looney, “Biden’s Income-Driven Repayment Plan Would Turn Student Loans into Untargeted Grants,” brookings.edu, September 15, 2022; Gabriel T. Rubin and Amara Omeokwe, “Biden’s Student-Debt-Forgiveness Plan May Cost Up to $1 Trillion, Challenging Deficit Goals,” Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2022; Stacey Cowley, “Student Loan Subsidies Could Have Dangerous, Unintended Side Effects,” New York Times, September 19, 2022; Ron Lieber, “Why Aren’t Student Loans Simple? Because This Is America,” New York Times, September 3, 2022; Congressional Budget Office, “Federal Student Loan Programs, Baseline Projections,” May 2022; U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Living Arrangements of Adults,” Table AD-3, November 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED data set.
Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke (now a Distinguished Fellow in Residence at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC), Douglas Diamond of the University of Chicago, and Philip Dybvig of Washington University in St. Louis shared the 2022 Nobel Prize in Economics (formally called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). The prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (about 8.85 million U.S. dollars) was awarded for “significantly [improving] our understanding of the role of banks in the economy, particularly during financial crises.” (The press release from the Nobel committee can be read here.)
In paper published in the American Economic Review in 1983, Bernanke provided an influential interpretation of the role the bank panics of the early 1930s played in worsening the severity of the Great Depression. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.3 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.3), by taking deposits and making loans banks play an important in the money supply process. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, Chapter 7, argued that the bank panics of the early 1930s caused a decline in real GDP and employment largely through the mechanism of reducing the money supply.
Bernanke demonstrated that the bank failures affected output and employment in another important way. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and Chapter 14, Section 14.4 (Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2 and Chapter 24, Section 24.4) banks are financial intermediaries who engage in indirect finance. Banks accept deposits and use the funds to make loans to households and firms. Households and most firms can’t raise funds through direct finance by selling bonds or stocks to individual investors because investors don’t have enough information about households or all but the largest firms to know whether these borrowers will repay the funds. Banks get around this information problemby specializing in gathering information on households and firms that allow them to gauge how likely a borrower is to default, or stop paying, on a loan.
Because of the special role banks have in providing credit to households and firms that have difficulty borrowing elsewhere, Bernanke argued that the bank panics of the early 1930s, during which more than 5,000 banks in the United States went out of business, not only caused a reduction in the money supply but restricted the ability of households and firms to borrow. As a result, households and firms decreased their spending, which increased the severity of the Great Depression.
In a 1983 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy, Diamond and Dybvig presented what came to be known as the Diamond and Dybvig model of the economic role of banks. This model, along with later research by Diamond, provided economists with a better understanding of the potential instability of banking. Diamond and Dybvig note that banking involves transforming long-run, illiquid assets—loans—into short-run, liquid assets—deposits. Recall that liquidity is the ease with which an asset can be sold. Households and firms want the loans they receive from a bank to be illiquid in the sense that they don’t want the bank to be able to demand that the funds borrowed be repaid, except on a set schedule. Someone receiving a mortgage loan to buy a house wouldn’t want the bank to be able to insist on being paid back any time the bank chose. But households and firms also want the assets they hold to be liquid so that they can quickly convert the assets into money if they need the funds. By taking in deposits and using the funds to make loans, banks provide a service to households and firms by providing both a source of long-run credit and a source of short-term assets.
But Diamond and Dybvig note that because banks hold long-terms assets that can’t easily be sold, if a large number of people attempt simultaneously to withdraw their deposits, the banks lack the funds to meet these withdrawals. The result is a run on a bank as depositors become aware that unless they quickly withdraw their deposits, they may not receive their funds for a considerable time. If the bank is insolvent—the value of its loans and other assets is less than the value of its deposits and other liabilities—the bank may fail and some households and firms will never receive the full value of their deposits. In the Diamond and Dybvig model, if depositors expect that other depositors will not withdraw their funds, the system can be stable because banks won’t experience runs. But because banks know more about the value of their assets and liabilities than depositors do, depositors may have trouble distinguishing solvent banks from insolvent banks. As a result of this information problem, households and firms may decide to withdraw their deposits even from solvent banks. Households and firms may withdraw their deposits from a bank even if they know with certainty that the bank is solvent if they expect that other households and firms—who may lack this knowledge—will withdraw their deposits. The result will be a bank panic, in which many banks simultaneously experience a bank run.
With many banks closing or refusing to make new loans in order to conserve funds, households and firms that depend on bank loans will be forced to reduce their spending. As a result, production and employment will decline. Falling production and employment may cause more borrowers to stop paying on their loans, which may cause more banks to be insolvent, leading to further runs, and so on. We illustrate this process in Figure 14.3.
Diamond and Dybvig note that a system of deposit insurance—adopted in the United States when Congress established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1934—or a central bank acting as a lender of last resort to banks experiencing runs are necessary to stabilize the banking system. When Congress established the Federal Reserve System in 1914, it gave the Fed the ability to act as a lender of last resort by making discount loans to banks that were solvent but experiencing temporary liquidity problems as a result of deposit withdrawals.
During the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2007 and accelerated following the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, it became clear that the financial firms in the shadow banking system could also be subject to runs because, like commercial banks, shadow banks borrow short term to financial long term investments. Included in the shadow banking system are money market mutual funds, investment banks, and insurance companies. By 2008 the size of the shadow banking system had grown substantially relative to the commercial banking system. The shadow banking system turned out to be more fragile than the commercial banking system because those lending to shadow banks by, for instance, buying money market mutual fund shares, do not receive government insurance like bank depositors receive from the FDIC and because prior to 2008 the Fed did not act as a lender of last resort to shadow banks.
Bernanke believes that his study of financial problems the U.S. experienced during the Great Depression helped him as Fed chair to deal with the Global Financial Crisis. In particular, Bernanke concluded from his research that in the early 1930s the Fed had committed a major error in failing to act more vigorously as a lender of last resort to commercial banks. The result was severe problems in the U.S. financial system that substantially worsened the length and severity of the Great Depression. During the financial crisis, under Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed established several lending facilities that allowed the Fed to extend its role as a lender of last resort to parts of the shadow banking system. (In 2020, the Fed under the leadership of Chair Jerome Powell revived and extended these lending facilities.) Bernanke is rare among economists awarded the Nobel Prize in having had the opportunity to implement lessons from his academic research in economic policymaking at the highest level. (Bernanke discusses the relationship between his research and his policymaking in his memoir. A more complete discussion of the financial crises of the 1930s, 2007-2009, and 2020 appears in Chapter 14 of our textbook Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Fourth Edition.)
We should note that Bernanke’s actions at the Fed have been subject to criticism by some economists and policymakers. As a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors beginning in 2002 and then as Fed chair beginning in 2006, Bernanke, like other members of the Fed and most economists, was slow to recognize the problems in the shadow banking system and, particularly, the problems caused by the rapid increase in housing prices and increasing number of mortgages being granted to borrowers who had either poor credit histories or who made small down payments. Some economists and policymakers also argue that Bernanke’s actions during the financial crisis took the Fed beyond the narrow role of stabilizing the commercial banking system spelled out by Congress in the Federal Reserve Act and may have undermined Fed independence. They also argue that by broadening the Fed’s role as a lender of last resort to include shadow banks, Bernanke may have increased the extent of moral hazard in the financial system.
Finally, Laurence Ball of Johns Hopkins University argues that the worst of the financial crisis could have been averted if Bernanke had acted to save the Lehman Brothers investment bank from failing by making loans to Lehman. Bernanke has argued that the Fed couldn’t legally make loans to Lehman because the firm was insolvent but Ball argues that, in fact, the firm was solvent. Decades later, economists continue to debate whether the Fed’s actions in allowing the Bank of United States to fail in 1930 were appropriate and the debate over the Fed’s actions with respect to Lehman may well last as long. (A working paper version of Ball’s argument can be found here. He later extended his argument in a book. Bernanke’s account of his actions during the failure of Lehman Brothers can be found in his memoir cited earlier.)
Sources: Paul Hannon, “Nobel Prize in Economics Winners Include Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022; David Keyton, Frank Jordans, and Paul Wiseman, “Former Fed Chair Bernanke Shares Nobel for Research on Banks,” apnews.com, October 10, 2022; and Greg Ip, “Most Nobel Laureates Develop Theories; Ben Bernanke Put His Into Practice,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022.
In a blog post at the end of August, we noted that real GDP declined during the first two quarters of 2022. On September 29, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) slightly revised the real GDP data, but after the revisions the BEA’s estimates still showed real GDP declining during those quarters.
A popular definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP. But, as we noted in the earlier blog post, most economists do not follow this definition. Instead, for most purposes, economists rely on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s business cycle dating, which is based on a number of macroeconomic data series. The NBER defines a recession as “a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.” The NBER discusses its approach to business cycle dating here.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s invaluable FRED economic data site has collected the data series that the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee relies on when deciding when a recession began. The FRED page collecting these data can be found here.
Note that although the Business Cycle Dating Committee analyzes a variety of data series, “In recent decades, the two measures we have put the most weight on are real personal income less transfers and nonfarm payroll employment.” The following figures show movements in those two data series. These data series don’t give a strong indication that the economy was in recession during the first half of 2022. Real personal income minus transfer payments did decline by 0.4 percent between January and June 2022 (before increasing during July and August), but nonfarm payroll employment increased by 1.4 percent during the same period (and increased further in July and August).
As we noted in our earlier blog post, the message from most data series other than real GDP seems to be that the U.S. economy was not in a recession during the first half of 2022.
Supports:Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Economics, Chapter 28, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 19.
Between June 2021 and September 2022, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and an average of the currencies of the major trading partners of the United States increased by 14 percent. (This movement is shown in the figure above.) An article in the New York Times had the headline “The Dollar Is Strong. That Is Good for the U.S. but Bad for the World.”
Briefly explain what the headline means by a “strong” dollar.
Do you agree with the assertion in the headline that a stronger dollar is good for the United States but bad for the economies that the United States trades with? Briefly explain.
During this period the Federal Reserve was taking actions that raised U.S. interest rates. The article noted that “Those interest rate increases are pumping up the value of the dollar ….” Why would increases in U.S. interest rates relative to interest rates in other countries increase the value of the dollar?
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the effect of fluctuations in the exchange rate and the relationship between interest rates and exchange rates, so you may want to review Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Section 8.2, “The Foreign Exchange Market and Exchange Rates,” or the corresponding sections in Economics, Chapter 28 or Essentials of Economics, Chapter 19.
Step 2:Answer part a. by explaining what a “strong” dollar means. A strong dollar is one that exchanges for more units of foreign currencies, such as British pounds or euros. (A “weak” dollar means the opposite: A dollar that exchanges for fewer units of foreign currencies.)
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining whether you agree with the assertion that a stronger dollar is good for the United States but bad for the economies of other countries. A stronger U.S. dollar produces winners and losers both in the United States and in other countries. U.S. consumers win because a stronger dollar means that fewer dollars are needed to buy the same quantity of a foreign currency, which reduces the dollar price of imports from that country. For example, a stronger dollar reduces the number of dollars U.S. consumers pay to buy a bottle of French wine that has a 40 euro price. A strong dollar is bad news for foreign consumers because they must pay more units of their currency to buy goods imported from the United States. For example, Japanese consumers will have to pay more yen to buy an imported Hershey’s candy bar with a $1.25 price.
The situation is reversed for U.S. and foreign firms exporting goods. Because foreign consumers have to pay higher prices in their own currencies for goods imported from the United States, they are likely to buy less of them, buying more domestically produced goods or goods imported from other countries. U.S. firms will either to have accept lower sales, or cut the prices they charge for their exports. In either case, U.S. exporters’ revenue will decline. Foreign firms that export to the United States will be in the opposite situation: The dollar prices of their exports will decline, increasing their sales.
We can conclude that the article’s headline is somewhat misleading because not all groups in the United States are helped by a strong dollar and not all groups in other countries are hurt by a strong dollar.
Step 4: Answer part c. by explaining why higher interest rates in the United States relative to interest rates in other countries will increase the exchange value of the dollar. If interest rates in the United States rise relative to interest rates in other countries—as was true during the period from the spring of 2021 to the fall of 2022—U.S. financial assets, such as U.S. Treasury bills, will be more desirable, causing investors to increase their demand for the dollars they need to buy U.S. financial assets. The resulting shift to the right in the demand curve for dollars will cause the equilibrium exchange rate between the dollar and other currencies to increase.
Source: Patricia Cohen, “The Dollar Is Strong. That Is Good for the U.S. but Bad for the World,” New York Times, September 26, 2022.
In the Federal Reserve Act, Congress charged the Federal Reserve with conducting monetary policy so as to achieve both “maximum employment” and “stable prices.” These two goals are referred to as the Fed’s dual mandate. (We discuss the dual mandate in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.1, Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.1, and Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 15, Section 15.1.) Accordingly, when Fed chairs give their semiannual Monetary Policy Reports to Congress, they reaffirm that they are acting consistently with the dual mandate. For example, when testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in June 2022, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that: “The Fed’s monetary policy actions are guided by our mandate to promote maximum employment and stable prices for the American people.”
Despite statements of that kind, some economists argue that in practice during some periods the Fed’s policymaking Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) acts as if it were more concerned with one of the two mandates. In particular, in the decades following the Great Inflation of the 1970s, FOMC members appear to have put more emphasis on price stability than on maximum employment. These economists argue that during these years, FOMC members were typically reluctant to pursue a monetary policy sufficiently expansionary to lead to maximum employment if the result would be to cause the inflation rate to rise above the Fed’s target of an annual target of 2 percent. (Although the Fed didn’t announce a formal inflation target of 2 percent until 2012, the FOMC agreed to set a 2 percent inflation target in 1996, although they didn’t publicly announce at the time. Implicitly, the FOMC had been acting as if it had a 2 percent target since at least the mid–1980s.)
In July 2019, the FOMC responded to a slowdown in economic growth in late 2018 and early 2019 but cutting its target for the federal funds rate. It made further cuts to the target rate in September and October 2019. These cuts helped push the unemployment rate to low levels even as the inflation rate remained below the Fed’s 2 percent target. The failure of inflation to increase despite the unemployment rate falling to low levels, provides background to the new monetary policy strategy the Fed announced in August 2020. The new monetary policy, in effect, abandoned the Fed’s previous policy of attempting to preempt a rise in the inflation rate by raising the target for the federal funds rate whenever data on unemployment and real GDP growth indicated that inflation was likely to rise. (We discussed aspects of the Fed’s new monetary policy in previous blog posts, including here, here, and here.)
In particular, the FOMC would no longer see the natural rate of unemployment as the maximum level of employment—which Congress has mandated the Fed to achieve—and, therefore, wouldn’t necessarily begin increasing its target for the federal funds rate when the unemployment rate dropped by below the natural rate. As Fed Chair Powell explained at the time, “the maximum level of employment is not directly measurable and [it] changes over time for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. The significant shifts in estimates of the natural rate of unemployment over the past decade reinforce this point.”
Many economists interpreted the Fed’s new monetary strategy and the remarks that FOMC members made concerning the strategy as an indication that the Fed had turned from focusing on the inflation rate to focusing on unemployment. Of course, given that Congress has mandated the Fed to achieve both stable prices and maximum employment, neither the Fed chair nor other members of the FOMC can state directly that they are focusing on one mandate more than the other.
The sharp acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall of 2022 (shown in the following figure) has caused members of the FOMC to speak more forcefully about the need for monetary policy to bring inflation back to the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent. For example, in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual monetary policy conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Fed Chair Powell spoke very directly: “The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) overarching focus right now is to bring inflation back down to our 2 percent goal.” According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Powell had originally planned a longer speech discussing broader issues concerning monetary policy and the state of the economy—typical of the speeches that Fed chairs give at this conference—before deciding to deliver a short speech focused directly on inflation.
Members of the FOMC were concerned that a prolonged period of high inflation rates might lead workers, firms, and investors to no longer expect that the inflation rate would return to 2 percent in the near future. If the expected inflation rate were to increase, the U.S. economy might enter a wage–price spiral in which high inflation rates would lead workers to push for higher wages, which, in turn, would increase firms’ labor costs, leading them to raise prices further, in response to which workers would push for even higher wages, and so on. (We discuss the concept of a wage–price spiral in earlier blog posts here and here.)
With Powell noting in his Jackson Hole speech that the Fed would be willing to run the risk of pushing the economy into a recession if that was required to bring down the inflation rate, it seemed clear that the Fed was giving priority to its mandate for price stability over its mandate for maximum employment. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Richard Clarida, who served on the Fed’s Board of Governors from September 2018 until January 2022, as arguing that: “Until inflation comes down a lot, the Fed is really a single mandate central bank.”
This view was reinforced by the FOMC’s meeting on September 21, 2022 at which it raised its target for the federal funds rate by 0.75 percentage points to a range of 3 to 3.25 percent. The median projection of FOMC members was that the target rate would increase to 4.4 percent by the end of 2022, up a full percentage point from the median projection at the FOMC’s June 2022 meeting. The negative reaction of the stock market to the announcement of the FOMC’s decision is an indication that the Fed is pursuing a more contractionary monetary policy than many observers had expected. (We discuss the relationship between stock prices and economic news in this blog post.)
Some economists and policymakers have raised a broader issue concerning the Fed’s mandate: Should Congress amend the Federal Reserve Act to give the Fed the single mandate of achieving price stability? As we’ve already noted, one interpretation of the FOMC’s actions from the mid–1980s until 2019 is that it was already implicitly acting as if price stability were a more important goal than maximum employment. Or as Stanford economist John Cochrane has put it, the Fed was following “its main mandate, which is to ensure price stability.”
The main argument for the Fed having price stability as its only mandate is that most economists believe that in the long run, the Fed can affect the inflation rate but not the level of potential real GDP or the level of employment. In the long run, real GDP is equal to potential GDP, which is determined by the quantity of workers, the capital stock—including factories, office buildings, machinery and equipment, and software—and the available technology. (We discuss this point in Macroeconomics, Chapter 13, Section 13.2 and in Economics, Chapter 23, Section 23.2.) Congress and the president can use fiscal policy to affect potential GDP by, for example, changing the tax code to increase the profitability of investment, thereby increasing the capital stock, or by subsidizing apprentice programs or taking other steps to increase the labor supply. But most economists believe that the Fed lacks the tools to achieve those results.
Economists who support the idea of a single mandate argue that the Fed would be better off focusing on an economic variable they can control in the long run—the inflation rate—rather than on economic variables they can’t control—potential GDP and employment. In addition, these economists point out that some foreign central banks have a single mandate to achieve price stability. These central banks include the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
Economists and policymakers who oppose having Congress revise the Federal Reserve Act to give the Fed the single mandate to achieve price stability raise several points. First, they note that monetary policy can affect the level of real GDP and employment in the short run. Particularly when the U.S. economy is in a severe recession, the Fed can speed the return to full employment by undertaking an expansionary policy. If maximum employment were no longer part of the Fed’s mandate, the FOMC might be less likely to use policy to increase the pace of economic recovery, thereby avoiding some unemployment.
Second, those opposed to the Fed having single mandate argue that the Fed was overly focused on inflation during some of the period between the mid–1980s and 2019. They argue that the result was unnecessarily low levels of employment during those years. Giving the Fed a single mandate for price stability might make periods of low employment more likely.
Finally, because over the years many members of Congress have stated that the Fed should focus more on maximum employment than price stability, in practical terms it’s unlikely that the Federal Reserve Act will be amended to give the Fed the single mandate of price stability.
In the end, the willingness of Congress to amend the Federal Reserve Act, as it has done many times since initial passage in 1914, depends on the performance of the U.S. economy and the U.S. financial system. It’s possible that if the high inflation rates of 2021–2022 were to persist into 2023 or beyond, Congress might revise the Federal Reserve Act to change the Fed’s approach to fighting inflation either by giving the Fed a single mandate for price stability or in some other way.
Sources: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Federal Reserve Issues FOMC Statement,” federalreserve.gov, September 21, 2022; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Summary of Economic Projections,” federalreserve.gov, September 21, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Jerome Powell’s Inflation Whisperer: Paul Volcker,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2022; Matthew Boesler and Craig Torres, “Powell Talks Tough, Warning Rates Are Going to Stay High for Some Time,” bloomberg.com, August 26, 2022; Jerome H. Powell, “Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress,” June 22, 2022, federalreserve.gov; Jerome H. Powell, “Monetary Policy and Price Stability,” speech delivered at “Reassessing Constraints on the Economy and Policy,” an economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, federalreserve.gov, August 26, 2022; John H. Cochrane, “Why Isn’t the Fed Doing its Job?” project-syndicate.org, January 19, 2022; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee Meeting on July 2–3, 1996,” federalreserve.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
On September 16, 2022 an article in the Wall Street Journal had the headline: “Economic Worries, Weak FedEx Results Push Stocks Lower.” Another article in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “The company’s downbeat forecasts, announced Thursday, intensified investors’ macroeconomic worries.”
Why would the news that FedEx had lower revenues than expected during the preceding weeks cause a decline in stock market indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500? As the article explained: “Delivery companies [such as FedEx and its rival UPS) are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the economy.” In other words, investors were using FedEx’s decline in revenue as a leading indicator of the business cycle. A leading indicator is an economic data series—in this case FedEx’s revenue—that starts to decline before real GDP and employment in the months before a recession and starts to increase before real GDP and employment in the months before a recession reaches a trough and turns into an expansion.
So, investors were afraid that FedEx’s falling revenue was a signal that the U.S. economy would soon enter a recession. And, in fact, FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam was quoted as believing that the global economy would fall into a recession. As firms’ profits decline during a recession so, typically, do the prices of the firms’ stock. (As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and in Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2, stock prices reflect investors’ expectations of the future profitability of the firms issuing the stock.)
Monitoring fluctuations in FedEx’s revenue for indications of the future course of the economy is nothing new. When Alan Greenspan was chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, he spoke regularly with Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx and at the time CEO of the firm. Greenspan believed that changes in the number of packages FedEx shipped gave a good indication of the overall state of the economy. FedEx plays such a large role in moving packages around the country that most economists agree that there is a close relationship between fluctuations in FedEx’s business and fluctuations in GDP. Some Wall Street analysts refer to this relationship as the “FedEx Indicator” of how the economy is doing.
In September 2022, the FedEx indicator was blinking red. But the U.S. economy is complex and fluctuations in any indicator can sometimes provide an inaccurate forecast of when a recession will begin or end. And, in fact, some investment analysts believed that problems at FedEx may have been due as much to mistakes the firms’ managers had made as to general problems in the economy. As one analyst put it: “We believe a meaningful portion of FedEx’s missteps here are company-specific.”
At this point, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the Federal Open Market Committee are still hoping that they can bring the economy in for a soft landing—bringing inflation down closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target, without bringing on a recession—despite some signals, like those being given by the FedEx indicator, that the probability of the United States entering a recession was increasing.
Sources: Will Feuer, “FedEx Stock Tumbles More Than 20% After Warning on Economic Trends,” Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2022; Alex Frangos and Hannah Miao, “ FedExt Stock Hit by Profit Warning; Rivals Also Drop Amid Recession Fears,” Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2022; Richard Clough, “FedEx has Biggest Drop in Over 40 Years After Pulling Forecast,” bloomberg.com, September 16, 2022; and David Gaffen, “The FedEx Indicator,” Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2007.
There are multiple ways to measure inflation. Economists and policymakers use different measures of inflation depending on the use they intend to put the measure of inflation to. For example, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) constructs the consumer price index (CPI) as measure of the cost of living of a typical urban household. So the BLS intends the percentage change in the CPI to measure inflation in the cost of living as experienced by the roughly 93 percent of the population that lives in an urban household. (We are referring here to what the BLS labels CPI–U. As we discuss in this blog post, the BLS also compiles a CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W).)
As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 15, Section 15.5, because the Fed is charged by Congress with ensuring stability in the general price level, the Fed is interested in a broader measure of inflation than the CPI. So its preferred measure of inflation is the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) issues monthly. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Because the PCE price index includes more goods and services than the CPI, it is suits the Fed’s need for a broader measure of inflation. The Fed uses changes in the PCE to evaluate whether it’s meeting its target of a 2 percent annual inflation rate.
In using either the percentage change in the CPI or the percentage change in the PCE, we are looking at what inflation has been over the previous year. But economists and policymakers are also looking for indications of what inflation may be in the future. Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the BLS issues data on the CPI excluding food and energy prices and the BEA does the same with respect to the PCE. These two measures help avoid the problem that, for example, a period of high gasoline prices might lead the inflation rate to temporarily increase. Note that inflation caclulated by excluding the prices of food and energy is called core inflation.
During the surge in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall of 2022, some economists noted that supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic on labor and product markets caused the prices of some goods and services to spike. For example, a shortage of computer chips led to a reduction in the supply of new cars and sharp increases in car prices. As with temporary spikes in prices of energy and food, spikes resulting from supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic might lead the CPI and PCE—even excluding food and energy prices—to give a misleading measure of the underlying rate of inflation in the economy.
To correct for this problem, some economists have been more attention to the measure of inflation calculated using the median CPI, which is compiled monthly by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The median CPI is calculated by ranking the price changes of every good or service in the index from the largest price change to the smallest price change, and then choosing the price change in the middle. The idea is to eliminate the effect on measured inflation of any short-lived events that cause the prices of some goods and services to be particularly high or particularly low. Economists at the Cleveland Fed have conducted research that shows that, in their words, “the median CPI provides a better signal of the underlying inflation trend than either the all-items CPI or the CPI excluding food and energy. The median CPI is even better at forecasting PCE inflation in the near and longer term than the core PCE price index.”
The following figure shows the three measures of inflation using the CPI for each month since January 2019. The red line shows the unadjusted CPI, the green line shows the CPI excluding food and energy prices, and the blue line shows median CPI. To focus on the inflation rate in a particular month, in this figure we calculate inflation as the percentage change in the index at an annual rate. That is, we calculate the annual inflation rate assuming that the inflation rate in that month continued for a year.
Note that for most of the period since early 2021, during which the inflation rate accelerated, median inflation was well below inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI. That difference reflects some of the distortions in measuring inflation arising from the effects of the pandemic.
But the last two values—for July and August 2022—tell a different story. In those months, inflation measured by changes in the CPI excluding food and energy prices or by changes in median CPI were well above inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI. In August 2022, the unadjusted CPI shows a low rate of inflation—1.4 percent—whereas the CPI excluding food and energy prices shows an inflation rate of 7.0 percent and the median CPI shows an inflation rate of 9.2 percent.
We should always be cautious when interpreting any economic data for a period as short as two months. But data for inflation measured by the change in median CPI may be sending a signal that the slowdown in inflation that many economists and policymakers had been predicting would occur in the summer of 2022 isn’t actually occurring. We’ll have to await the release of future data to draw a firmer conclusion.
Sources: Michael S. Derby, “Inflation Data Scrambles Fed Rate Outlook Again,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2022; Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “Median CPI,” clevelandfed.org; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Supports: Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1,Economics Chapter 19, Section 19.1, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 13, Section 13.1.
As it does on the first Friday of each month, on September 2, 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its “Employment Situation” report for August 2022. According to the household survey data in the report, total employment in the U.S. economy increased in August by 442,000 compared with July. The unemployment rate rose from 3.5 percent in July to 3.7 percent in August. According to the establishment survey, the total number of workers on payrolls increased in August by 315,000 compared with July.
How are the data in the household survey collected? How are the data in the establishment survey collected?
Why are the estimated increases in employment from July to August 2022 in the two surveys different?
Briefly explain how it is possible for the household survey to report in a given month that both total employment and the unemployment rate increased.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about how the BLS reports data on employment and unemployment, so you may want to review Chapter 9, Section 9.1, “Measuring the Unemployment Rate, the Labor Force Participation Rate, and the Employment–Population Ratio.”
Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining how the data from the two surveys are collected. As discussed in Section 9.1, the data in the household survey is from interviews with a sample of 60,000 households, chosen to represent the U.S. population. The data in the establishment survey—sometimes called the payroll survey in media stories—is from a sample of 300,000 establishments (factories, stores, and offices).
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining why the estimated increase in employment is different in the two surveys. First note that the BLS intends the surveys to estimate two different measures of employment. The household survey includes people working at jobs of all types, including people who are self-employed or who are unpaid family workers, whereas the establishment survey includes only people who appear on a non-agricultural firm’s payroll, so the self-employed, farm workers, and unpaid family workers aren’t counted. Second, the data are collected from surveys and so—like all estimates that rely on surveys—will have some measurement error. That is, the actual increase in employment—either total employment in the household survey or payroll employment in the establishment survey—is likely to be larger or smaller than the reported estimates. The estimates in the establishment survey are revised in later months as the BLS receives additional data on payroll employment. In contrast, the estimates in household survey are ordinarily not revised because they are based only on a survey conducted once per month.
Step 4: Answer part c. by explaining how in a given month the household survey may report an increase in both employment and the unemployment rate. The BLS’s estimate of the unemployment is calculated from responses to the household survey. (The establishment survey doesn’t report an estimate of the unemployment rate.) The unemployment rate equals the total number of people unemployed divided by the labor force, multiplied by 100. The labor force equals the sum of the employed and the unemployed. If the number of people employed increases—thereby increasing the denominator in the unemployment rate equation—while the number of people unemployed remains the same or falls, as a matter of arithmetic the unemployment rate will have to fall.
The BLS reported that the unemployment rate in August 2022 rose even though total employment increased. That outcome is possible only if the number of people who are unemployed also increased, resulting in a proportionally larger increase in the numerator in the unemployment equation relative to the denominator. In fact, the BLS estimated that the number of people unemployed increased by 344,000 from July to August 2022. Employment and unemployment both increasing during a month happens fairly often during an economic expansion as some people who had been out of the labor force—and, therefore, not counted by the BLS as being unemployed—begin to search for work during the month but don’t find jobs.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Employment Situation—August 2022,” bls.gov, September 2, 2022.
On Tuesday, August 30, 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report for July 2022. The report indicated that the U.S. labor market remained very strong, even though, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), real gross domestic product (GDP) had declined during the first half of 2022. (In this blog post, we discuss the possibility that during this period the real GDP data may have been a misleading indicator of the actual state of the economy.)
As the following figure shows, the rate of job openings remained very high, even in comparison with the strong labor market of 2019 and early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting the U.S. economy. The BLS defines a job opening as a full-time or part-time job that a firm is advertising and that will start within 30 days. The rate of job openings is the number of job openings divided by the number of job openings plus the number of employed workers, multiplied by 100.
In the following figure, we compare the total number of job openings to the total number of people unemployed. The figure shows that in July 2022 there were almost two jobs available for each person who was unemployed.
Typically, a strong job market with high rates of job openings indicates that firms are expanding and that they expect their profits to be increasing. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 (Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2) the price of a stock is determined by investors’ expectations of the future profitability of the firm issuing the stock. So, we might have expected that on the day the BLS released the July JOLTS report containing good news about the labor market, the stock market indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq Composite Index would rise. In fact, though the indexes fell, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average declining a substantial 300 points. As a column in the Wall Street Journal put it: “A surprisingly tight U.S. labor market is rotten news for stock investors.” Why did good news about the labor market could cause stock prices to decline? The answer is found in investors’ expectations of the effect the news would have on monetary policy.
In August 2022, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) were in the process of tightening monetary policy to reduce the very high inflation rates the U.S. economy was experiencing. In July 2022, inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) was 8.5 percent. Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index—which is the measure of inflation that the Fed uses when evaluating whether it is hitting its target of 2 percent annual inflation—was 6.3 percent. (For a discussion of the Fed’s choice of inflation measure, see the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline,” in Macroeconomics, chapter 15, Section 15.5 and in Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.)
To slow inflation, the FOMC was increasing its target for the federal funds rate—the interest rate that banks charge each other on overnight loans—which in turn was leading to increases in other interest rates, such as the interest rate on residential mortgage loans. Higher interest rates would slow increases in aggregate demand, thereby slowing price increases. How high would the FOMC increase its target for the federal funds rate? Fed Chair Powell had made clear that the FOMC would monitor economic data for indications that economic activity was slowing. Members of the FOMC were concerned that unless the inflation rate was brought down quickly, the U.S. economy might enter a wage-price spiral in which high inflation rates would lead workers to push for higher wages, which, in turn, would increase firms’ labor costs, leading them to raise prices further, in response to which workers would push for even higher wages, and so on. (We discuss the concept of a wage-price spiral in this earlier blog post.)
In this context, investors interpretated data showing unexpected strength in the economy—particularly in the labor market—as making it likely that the FOMC would need to make larger increases in its target for the federal fund rate. The higher interest rates go, the more likely that the U.S. economy will enter an economic recession. During recessions, as production, income, and employment decline, firms typically experience lower profits or even suffer losses. So, a good JOLTS report could send stock prices falling because news that the labor market was stronger than expected increased the likelihood that the FOMC’s actions would push the economy into a recession, reducing profits. Or as the Wall Street Journal column quoted earlier put it:
“So Tuesday’s [JOLTS] report was good news for workers, but not such good news for stock investors. It made another 0.75-percentage-point rate increase [in the target for the federal funds rate] from the Fed when policy makers meet next month seem increasingly likely, while also strengthening the case that the Fed will keep raising rates well into next year. Stocks sold off sharply following the report’s release.”
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover–July 2022,” bls.gov, August 30, 2022; Justin Lahart, “Why Stocks Got Jolted,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2022; Jerome H. Powell, “Monetary Policy and Price Stability,” speech at “Reassessing Constraints on the Economy and Policy,” an economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 26, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Supports: Microeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.3 and Chapter 10, Section 10.3, Economics Chapter 6, Section 6.3 and Chapter 10, Section 10.3, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 7, Section 7.4 and Section 7.7.
In August 2022, an article in the Wall Street Journal discussed the Disney Company increasing the prices it charges for admission to its Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks. As a result of the price increases, “For the quarter that ended July 2 , the business unit that includes the theme parks … posted record revenue of $5.42 billion and record operating income of $1.65 billion.” The increase in revenue occurred even though “attendance at Disney’s U.S. parks fell by 17% compared with the previous year….”
The article also contains the following observations about Disney’s ticket price increases:
“Disney’s theme-park pricing is determined by ‘pure supply and demand,’ said a company spokeswoman.”
“[T]he changes driving the increases in revenue and profit have drawn the ire of what Disney calls ‘legacy fans,’ or longtime parks loyalists.”
Briefly explain what must be true of the demand for tickets to Disney’s theme parks if its revenue from ticket sales increased even though 17 percent fewer tickets were sold. [For the sake of simplicity, ignore any other sources of revenue Disney earns from its theme parks apart from ticket sales.]
In Chapter 10, Section 10.3 the textbook discusses social influences on decision making, in particular, the business implications of fairness. Briefly discuss whether the analysis in that section is relevant as Disney determines the prices for tickets to its theme parks.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the effects of price increases on firms’ revenues and on whether firms should pay attention the possibility that consumers might be concerned about fairness when making their consumption decisions, so you may want to review Chapter 6, Section 6.3, “The Relationship between Price Elasticity of Demand and Total Revenue” and Chapter 10, Section 10.3, “Social Influences on Decision Making,” particularly the topic “Business Implications of Fairness.”
Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what must be true of the demand for tickets to Disney’s theme parks if revenue from ticket sales increased even though Disney sold fewer tickets. Assuming that the demand curve for tickets to Disney’s theme parks is unchanged, a decline in the quantity of tickets sold will result in a move up along the demand curve for tickets, raising the price of tickets. Only if the demand curve for theme park tickets is price inelastic will the revenue Disney receives from ticket sales increase when the price of tickets increases. Revenue increases in this situation because with an inelastic demand curve, the percentage increase in price is greater than the percentage decrease in quantity demanded.
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining whether the textbook’s discussion of the business implications of fairness is relevant as Disney as determines ticket prices. Section 10.3 may be relevant to Disney’s decisions because the section discusses that firms sometimes take consumer perceptions of fairness into account when deciding what prices to charge. Note that ordinarily economists assume that the utility consumers receive from a good or service depends only on the attributes of the good or service and is not affected by the price of the good or service. Of course, in making decisions on which goods and services to buy with their available income, consumers take price into account. But consumers take price into account by comparing the marginal utilities of products realtive to their prices, with the marginal utilities assumed not to be affected by the prices.
In other words, a consumer considering buying a ticket to Disney World will compare the marginal utility of visiting Disney World relative to the price of the ticket to the marginal utility of other goods and services relative to their prices. The consumer’s marginal utility from spending a day in Disney World will not be affected by whether he or she considers the price of the ticket to be unfairly high.
The textbook gives examples, though, of cases where a business may fail to charge the price that would maximize short-run profit because the business believes consumers would see the price as unfair, which might cause them to be unwilling to buy the product in the future. For instance, restaurants frequently don’t increase their prices during a particularly busy night, even though doing so would increase the profit they earn on that night. They are afraid that if they do so, some customers will consider the restaurants to have acted unfairly and will stop eating in the restaurants. Similarly, the National Football League doesn’t charge a price that would cause the quantity of Super Bowl tickets demanded to be equal to the fixed supply of seats available at the game because it believes that football fans would consider it unfair to do so.
The Wall Street Journal article quotes a Disney spokeswomen as saying that the company sets the price of tickets according to demand and supply. That statement seems to indicate that Disney is charging the price that will maximize the short-run profit the company earns from selling theme park tickets. But the article also indicates that many of Disney’s long-time ticket buyers are apparently upset at the higher prices Disney has been charging. If these buyers consider Disney’s prices to be unfair, they may in the future stop buying tickets.
In other words, it’s possible that Disney might find itself in a situation in which it has increased its profit in the short run at the expense of its profit in the long run. The managers at Disney might consider sacrificing some profit in the long run to increase profit in the short run an acceptable trade-off, particularly because it’s difficult for the company to know whether in fact many of its customers will in the future stop buying admission tickets because they believe current ticket prices to be unfairly high.
Sources: Robbie Whelan and Jacob Passy, “Disney’s New Pricing Magic: More Profit From Fewer Park Visitors,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2022.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) publishes data on gross domestic product (GDP) each quarter. Economists and media reports typically focus on changes in real GDP as the best measure of the overall state of the U.S. economy. But, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.4 (Economics, Chapter 18, Section 18.4), the BEA also publishes quarterly data on gross domestic income (GDI). As we discuss in Chapter 8, Section 8.1 when discussing the circular-flow diagram, the value of every final good and services produced in the economy (GDP) should equal the value of all the income in the economy resulting from that production (GDI). The BEA has designed the two measures to be identical by including in GDI some non-income items, such as sales taxes and depreciation. But as we discuss in the Apply the Concept, “Should We Pay More Attention to Gross Domestic Income?” GDP and GDI are compiled by the BEA from different data sources and can sometimes significantly diverge.
A large divergence between the two measures occurred in the first half of 2022. During this period real GDP declined—as shown by the blue line in the following figure—after which some stories in the media indicated that the U.S. economy was in a recession. But real GDI—as shown by the red line in the figure—increased during the same two quarters. So, was the U.S. economy still in the expansion that began in the third quarter of 2020, rather than in a recession? Or, as an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “A Different Take on the U.S. Economy: Maybe It Isn’t Really Shrinking.”
In fact, most economists do not follow the popular definition of a recession as being two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP. Instead, as we discuss in Chapter 10, Section 10.3, economists typically follow the definition of a recession used by the National Bureau of Economic Research: “A recession is a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.”
During the first half of 2022, most measures of economic activity were expanding, rather than contracting. For example, the first of the following figures shows payroll employment increasing in each month in the first half of 2022. The second figure shows industrial production also increasing during most months in the first half of 2022, apart from a very slight decline from April to May after which it continued to increase.
Taken together, these data indicate that the U.S. economy was likely not in a recession during the first half of 2022. The BEA revises the data on real GDP and real GDI over time as various government agencies gather more information on the different production and income measures included in the series. Jeremy Nalewaik of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has analyzed the BEA’s adjustments to its initial estimates of real GDP and real GDI. He has found that when there are significant differences between the two series, the BEA revisions usually result in the GDP values being revised to be closer to the GDI values. Put another way, the initial GDI estimates may be more accurate than the initial GDP estimates.
If that generalization holds true in 2022, then the BEA may eventually revise its estimates of GDP upward, which would show that the U.S. economy was not in a recession in the first of half of 2022 because economic activity was increasing rather than decreasing.
Sources: Jon Hilsenrath, “A Different Take on the U.S. Economy: Maybe It Isn’t Really Shrinking,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2022; Reade Pickert, “Key US Growth Measures Diverge, Complicating Recession Debate,” bloomberg.com, August 25, 2022; Jeremy L. Nalewaik, “The Income- and Expenditure-Side Estimates of U.S. Output Growth,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2010, pp. 71-127; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
In the textbook, we discuss several measures of inflation. In Macroeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.4 (Economics, Chapter 18, Section 18.4) we discuss the GDP deflator as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the GDP deflator as a measure of inflation. In Chapter 9, Section 9.4, we discuss the consumer price index (CPI) as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the CPI as the most widely used measure of inflation.
In Chapter 15, Section 15.5 we examine the reasons that the Federal Reserve often looks at the core inflation rate—the inflation rate excluding the prices of food and energy—as a better measure of the underlying rate of inflation. Finally, in that section we note that the Fed uses the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index to assess of whether it’s achieving its goal of a 2 percent inflation rate.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss two other aspects of measuring inflation that we don’t cover in the textbook. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes two versions of the CPI: (1) The familiar CPI for all urban consumers (or CPI–U), which includes prices of goods and services purchased by households in urban areas, and (2) the less familiar CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W), which includes the same prices included in the CPI–U. The two versions of the CPI give slightly different measures of the inflation rate—despite including the same prices—because each version applies different weights to the prices when constructing the index.
As we explain in Chapter 9, Section 9.4, the weights in the CPI–U (the only version of the CPI we discuss in the chapter) are determined by a survey of 36,000 households nationwide on their spending habits. The more the households surveyed spend on a good or service, the larger the weight the price of the good or service receives in the CPI–U. To calculate the weights in the CPI–W the BLS uses only expenditures by households in which at least half of the household’s income comes from a clerical or wage occupation and in which at least one member of the household has worked 37 or more weeks during the previous year. The BLS estimates that the sample of households used in calculating the CPI–U includes about 93 percent of the population of the United States, while the households included in the CPI–W include only about 29 percent of the population.
Because the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–U is so much larger than the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–W, it’s not surprising that most media coverage of inflation focuses on the CPI–U. As the following figure shows, the measures of inflation from the two versions of the CPI aren’t greatly different, although inflation as measured by the CPI–W—the red line—tends to be higher during economic expansions and lower during economic recessions than inflation measured by the CPI–U—the blue line.
One important use of the CPI–W is in calculating cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) applied to Social Security payments retired and disabled people receive. Each year, the federal government’s Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates the average for the CPI–W during June, July, and August in the current year and in the previous year and then measures the inflation rate as the percentage increase between the two averages. The SSA then increases Social Security payments by that inflation rate. Because the increase in CPI–W is often—although not always—larger than the increase in CPI–U, using CPI–W to calculate Social Security COLAs increases the payments recipients of Social Security receive.
A second aspect of measuring inflation that we don’t mention in the textbook was the subject of discussion following the release of the July 2022 CPI data. In June 2022, the value for the CPI–U was 295.3. In July 2022, the value for the CPI–U was also 295.3. So, was there no inflation during July—an inflation rate of 0 percent? You can certainly make that argument, but typically, as we note in the textbook (for instance, see our display of the inflation rate in Chapter 10, Figure 10.7) we measure the inflation rate in a particular month as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year. Using that approach to measuring inflation, the inflation rate in July 2022 was the percentage change in the CPI from its value in July 2021, or 8.5 percent. Note that you could calculate an annual inflation rate using the increase in the CPI from one month to the next by compounding that rate over 12 months. In this case, because the CPI was unchanged from June to July 2022, the inflation rate calculated as a compound annual rate would be 0 percent.
During periods of moderate inflation rates—which includes most of the decades prior to 2021—the difference between inflation calculated in these two ways was typically much smaller. Focusing on just the change in the CPI for one month has the advantage that you are using only the most recent data. But if the CPI in that month turns out to be untypical of what is happening to inflation over a longer period, then focusing on that month can be misleading. Note also that inflation rate calculated as the compound annual change in the CPI each month results in very large fluctuations in the inflation rate, as shown in the following figure.
Sources: Anne Tergesen, “Social Security Benefits Are Heading for the Biggest Increase in 40 Years,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2022; Neil Irwin, “Inflation Drops to Zero in July Due to Falling Gas Prices,” axios.com, August 10, 2022; “Consumer Price Index Frequently Asked Questions,” bls.gov, March 23, 2022; Stephen B. Reed and Kenneth J. Stewart, “Why Does BLS Provide Both the CPI–W and CPI–U?” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Beyond the Numbers, Vol. 3, No. 5, February 2014; “Latest Cost of Living Adjustment,” ssa.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.6, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission have merger guidelines that they typically follow when deciding whether to oppose a merger between two firms in the same industry—these mergers are called horizontal mergers. The guidelines are focused on the effect a potential merger would have on market price of the industry’s output. We know that if the price in a market increases, holding everything else constant, consumer surplus will decline and the deadweight loss in the market will increase. But, as we note in Chapter 15, if a merger increases the efficiency of the merged firms, the result can be a decrease in costs that will lower the price, increase consumer surplus, and reduce the deadweight loss.
The merger guidelines focus on the effect of two firms combining on the merged firms’ market power in the output market. For example, if two book publishers merge, what will be the effect on the price of books? But what if the newly merged firm gains increased market power in input markets and uses that power to force its suppliers to accept lower prices? For example, if two book publishers merge will they be able to use their market power to reduce the royalties they pay to writers? The federal antitrust authorities have traditionally considered market power in the output market—sometimes called monopoly power—but rarely considered market power in the input market—sometimes called monopsony power.
In Chapter 16, Section 16.6, we note that a pure monopsony is the sole buyer of an input, a rare situation that might occur in, for example, a small town in which a lumber mill is the sole employer. A monopoly in an output market in which a single firm is the sole seller of a good is also rare, but many firms have some monopoly power because they have the ability to charge a price higher than marginal cost. Similarly, although monopsonies in input markets are rare, some firms may have monopsony power because they have the ability to pay less than the competitive equilibrium price for an input. For example, as we noted in Chapter 14, Section 14.4, Walmart is large enough in the market for some products, such as detergent and toothpaste, that it is able to insist that suppliers give it discounts below what would otherwise be the competitive price.
Monopsony power was the key issue involved in November 2021 when the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit to keep the book publisher Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster, another one of the five largest publishers. The merged firm would account for 31 percent of books published in the U.S. market. The lawsuit alleged that buying Simon & Schuster would allow “Penguin Random House, which is already the largest book publisher in the world, to exert outsized influence over which books are published in the United States and how much authors are paid for their work.”
We’ve seen that when two large firms propose a merger, they often argue that the merger will allow efficiency gains large enough to result in lower prices despite the merged firm having increased monopoly power. In August 2022, during the antitrust trial over the Penguin–Simon & Schuster merger, Markus Dohle, the CEO of Penguin made a similar argument, but this time in respect to an input market—payments to book authors. He argued that because Penguin had a much better distribution network, sales of Simon & Schuster books would increase, which would lead to increased payments to authors. Authors would be made better off by the merger even though the newly merged firm would have greater monopsony power. Penguin’s attorneys also argued that the market for book publishing was larger than the Justice Department believed. They argued that the relevant book market included not just the five largest publishers but also included Amazon and many medium and small publishers “all capable of competing for [the right to publish] future titles from established and emerging authors.” The CEO of Hachette Book Group, another large book publisher, disagreed, arguing at the trial that the merger between Penguin and Simon & Schuster would result in lower payments to authors.
The antitrust lawsuit against Penguin and Simon & Schuster was an example of the more aggressive antitrust policy being pursued by the Biden administration. (We discussed the Biden administration’s approach to antitrust policy in this earlier blog post.) An article in the New York Times quoted a lawyer for a legal firm that specializes in antitrust cases as arguing that the lawsuit against Penguin and Simon & Schuster was unusual in that the lawsuit “declines to even allege the historically key antitrust harm—increased prices.” The outcome of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Penguin and Simon & Schuster may provide insight into whether federal courts will look favorably on the Biden administration’s more aggressive approach to antitrust policy.
Sources: Jan Wolfe, “Penguin Random House CEO Defends Publishing Merger at Antitrust Trial,” Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2022; David McCabe, “Justice Dept. and Penguin Random House’s Sparring over Merger Has Begun,” New York Times, August 1, 2022; Eduardo Porter, “A New Legal Tactic to Protect Workers’ Pay,” New York Times, April 14, 2022; Janet H. Cho and Karishma Vanjani, “Justice Department Seeks to Block Penguin Random House Buy of Viacom’s Simon & Schuster,” barrons.com, November 2, 2021; United States Department of Justice, “Justice Department Sues to Block Penguin Random House’s Acquisition of Rival Publisher Simon & Schuster,” justice.gov, November 2, 2021;
Buying athletic shoes and reselling them for a higher price has become a popular way for some people to make money. The mostly young entrepreneurs involved in this business are often called sneakerheads. Note that economists call buying a product at a low price and reselling it at a high price arbitrage. The profits received from engaging in arbitrage are called arbitrage profits. One estimate puts the total value of sneakers being resold at $2 billion per year.
Why would anybody buy sneakers from a sneakerhead that they could buy at a lower price online or from a retail store? Most people wouldn’t, which is why most sneakerheads resell only shoes that shoe manufacturers like Nike or Adidas produce in limited quantities—typically fewer than 50,000 pairs. To obtain the shoes, shoe resellers use two main strategies: (1) waiting in line at retail stores on the day that a new limited quantity shoe will be introduced, or (2) buying shoes online using a software application called a bot. A bot speeds up a buyer’s checkout process for an online sale. Typical customers buying at an online shoe site take a few minutes to choose a size, fill in their addresses, and provide their credit card information. But a few minutes is enough time for shoe resellers using bots to buy all of the newly-released shoes available on the site.
In addition to reselling shoes on their own sites, many sneakerheads use dedicated resale sites like StockX and GOAT. These sites have greatly increased the liquidity of sneakers, or the ease with which sneakers can be resold. In effect, limited-edition sneakers have become an asset like stocks, bonds, or gold because they can be bought and sold in the secondary market that exists on the online resale sites. (We discuss the concepts of primary and secondary markets for assets in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2.)
An article in the New York Times gives an example of the problems that bots can cause for retail shoe stores. Bodega, a shoe store in Boston, offered the limited-edition New Balance 997S sneaker on its online site. Ten minutes later, the shoe was sold out. One of the store’s owner was quoted as saying: “We got destroyed by bots. It was making it impossible for our average customers to even have a shot at the shoes.” Although the store had a policy of allowing customers to buy a maximum of three pairs of shoes, shoe resellers were able to get around the policy by having shoes shipped to their friends’ addresses or by having a group of people coordinate their purchases. An article on bloomberg.com described how one reseller along with 15 of his friends used bots to buy 600 pairs of Adidas’s Yeezy sneakers from an online site on the morning the sneakers were released. Adidas has a rule that each customer can buy only one pair of its limited-edition shoes, but the company has trouble enforcing the rule.
Shopify and other firms have developed software that retailers can use to make it difficult for resellers to use bots on the retailers’ sites. But the developers of bot software have often been able to modify the bots to get around the defenses used by the anti-bot software.
In contrast with owners of retail stores, Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and the other shoe manufacturers have a more mixed reaction to sneakerheads using bots scooping up most pairs of limited-edition shoes shortly after the shoes are released. Like the owners of retail stores, the shoe manufacturers know that they risk upsetting the typical customer if the customer can only buy hot new shoe releases from resellers at prices well above the original retail price. But an active resale market increases the demand for shoes, just as individual investors increased their demand for individual stocks when it became possible to easily buy and sell stocks online using sites like TD Ameritrade, E*Trade, and Fidelity. So manufacturers benefit from knowing that most of their limited-edition shoes will sell out. One industry analyst singled out “The durability of Nike’s … ability to fuel the sneaker resale ecosystem ….” as a particular strength of the company. In addition, manufacturers may believe that the publicity about limited edition shoes rapidly selling out may spill over to increased demand for other shoes the manufacturers sell. (In Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3 we note that some consumers may receive utility from buying goods that are widely seen as popular and fashionable.)
In the long run, is it possible for sneakerheads to make a profit reselling shoes? It seems unlikely for the reasons we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 12, Section 12.5. The barriers to entry in reselling sneakers are very low. Anyone can list shoes for sale on StockX or one of the other resale sites. Waiting in line in front of a retail store on the day a new shoe is released is something that anyone who is willing to accept the opportunity cost of the time lost can do. Similarly, bots that can be used to scoop up newly released shoes from online sites are widely available for sale. So, we would expect that in the long run entry into sneaker reselling will compete away any economic profit that sneakerheads were earning.
In fact, by the summer of 2022, prices on reselling sites were falling. In just the month of June, the average price of sneakers listed on StockX declined by 20 percent. Resellers who had stockpiled shoes waiting for prices to increase were instead selling them because they feared that prices would go even lower. And new limited-edition shoes were taking longer to sell out. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “A pair of Air Jordans released on July 13  that might have once vanished in minutes took days to sell out from Nike Inc.’s virtual shelves.” One reseller quoted in the Wall Street Journal article indicated that entry was the reason that prices were falling: “You don’t want prices to go down, but they’re going down anyways, just because of how many people are selling in general.”
Although a seemingly unusual market, sneaker reselling is subject to the same rules of competition that we see in other markets.
Sources: Inti Pacheco, “Flipping Air Jordans Is No Longer a Slam Dunk,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2022; Shoshy Ciment, “Sneaker Reselling Side Hustle: Your Guide to Making Thousands Flipping Hyped Pairs of Dunks, Jordans, and Yeezys,” businessinsider.com, May 3, 2022; Teresa Rivas, “A Strong Sneaker-Resale Market Is Another Boon for Nike,” barrons.com, May 24, 2022; Curtis Bunn, “Sneakers Are So Hot, Resellers Are Making a Living Off of Coveted Models,” nbcnews.com, October 23, 2021; Daisuke Wakabayashi, “The Fight for Sneakers,” New York Times, October 15, 2021; and Joshua Hunt, “Sneakerheads Have Turned Jordans and Yeezys Into a Bona Fide Asset Class,” bloomberg.com, February 15, 2021.
As we’ve discussed in several previous blog posts, in early 2021 Lawrence Summers, professor of economics at Harvard and secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration, argued that the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, was likely to cause a sharp acceleration in inflation. When inflation began to rapidly increase, Summers urged the Federal Reserve to raise its target for the federal funds rate in order to slow the increase in aggregate demand, but the Fed was slow to do so. Some members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) argued that much of the inflation during 2021 was transitory in that it had been caused by lingering supply chain problems initially caused by the Covid–19 pandemic.
At the beginning of 2022, most members of the FOMC became convinced that in fact increases in aggregate demand were playing an important role in causing high inflation rates. Accordingly, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022. After two more rate increases, on the eve of the FOMC’s meeting on July 26–27, the federal funds rate target was a range of 1.50 percent to 1.75 percent. The FOMC was expected to raise its target by at least 0.75 percent at the meeting. The following figure shows movements in the effective federal funds rate—which can differ somewhat from the target rate—from January 1, 2015 to July 21, 2022.
In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that the FOMC was making a mistake by increasing its target for the federal funds rate. She also criticized Summers for supporting the increases. Warren worried that the rate increases were likely to cause a recession and argued that Congress and President Biden should adopt alternative measures to contain inflation. Warren argued that a better approach to dealing with inflation would be to, among other steps, increase the federal government’s support for child care to enable more parents to work, provide support for strengthening supply chains, and lower prescription drug prices by allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices with pharmaceutical firms. She also urged a “crack down on price gouging by large corporations.” (We discussed the argument that monopoly power is responsible for inflation in this blog post.)
Summers responded to Warren in a Twitter thread. He noted that: “In the 18 months since the massive stimulus policies & easy money that [Senator Warren] has favored & I have opposed, the inflation rate has risen from below 2 to above 9 percent & workers purchasing power has, as a consequence, declined more rapidly than in any year in the last 50.” And “[Senator Warren] opposes restrictive monetary policy or any other measure to cool off total demand. Why does she think at a time when there are twice as many vacancies as jobs that inflation will come down without some drop in total demand?”
Clearly, economists and policymakers continue to hotly debate monetary policy.
Source: Elizabeth Warren, “Jerome Powell’s Fed Pursues a Painful and Ineffective Inflation Cure,” Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2022.
Supports: Microeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.3 and Chapter 15, Section 15.6,Economics Chapter 6, Section 6.3 and Chapter 15, Section 15.6, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 7, Section 7.7 and Chapter 10, Section 10.5.
In July 2022, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted that “The chip shortage and broader supply constraints have hampered vehicle production … Many major car companies on Friday reported U.S. sales declines of 15% or more for the first half of the year.” But the Wall Street Journal also reported that car makers were experiencing increases in revenues. For example, Ford Motor Company reported an increase in revenue even though it had sold fewer cars than during the same period in 2021.
Briefly explain what must be true of the demand for new cars if car makers can sell 15 percent fewer cars while increasing their revenue.
Eventually, the chip shortage and other supply problems facing car makers will end. At that point, would we expect that car makers will expand production to prepandemic levels or will they continue to produce fewer cars in order to maintain higher levels of profits? Briefly explain.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the effects of price increases on firms’ revenues and on the ability of firms to restrict output in order increase profits, so you may want to review Chapter 6, Section 6.3, “The Relationship between Price Elasticity of Demand and Total Revenue” and Chapter 15, Section 15.6, “Government Policy toward Monopoly.”
Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what must be true of the demand for new cars if car makers are increasing their profits while selling fewer cars. Assuming that the demand curve for cars is unchanged, a decline in the quantity of cars sold will result in a move up along the demand curve for cars, raising the price of cars. Only if the demand curve for new cars is price inelastic will the revenue car markers receive increase when the price increases. Revenue increases in this situation because with an inelastic demand curve, the percentage increase in price is greater than the percentage decrease in quantity demanded.
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining whether we should expect that once the car industry’s supply problems are resolved, car makers will continue to produce fewer cars. Although as a group car makers would be better off if they could continue to reduce the supply of cars, they are unlikely to be able to do so. Any one car maker that decided to keep producing fewer cars would lose sales to other car makers who increased their production to prepandemic levels. Because this increased production would result in a movement down along the demand curve for new cars, the price would fall. So a car maker that reduced output would receive a lower price on its reduced output, causing its profit to decline. (Note that this situation is effectively a prisoner’s dilemma as discussed in Chapter 14, Section 14.2.)
The firms could attempt to keep output of new cars at a low level by explicitly agreeing to do so. But colluding in this way would violate the antitrust laws, and executives at the firms would risk being fined or even imprisoned. The firms could attempt to implicitly collude by producing lower levels of output without explicitly agreeing to do so. (We discus implicit collusion in Chapter 14, Section 14.2.) But implicit collusion is unlikely to succeed because firms have an incentive to break an implicit agreement by increasing output.
We can conclude that once the chip and other supply problems facing car makers are resolved, production of cars is likely to increase.
Sources: Mike Colias and Nora Eckert, “GM Says Unfinished Cars to Hurt Quarterly Results,” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2022; and Nora Eckert, “Ford’s U.S. Sales Increase 32% in June, Outpacing Broader Industry,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2022.
In economics, index numbers play an important role in gauging the state of the economy. For instance, rather than measure inflation by looking at the price of one or a few goods and services, we use the consumer price index (CPI), which combines the prices of many goods and services into a single number. (In Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4, we discuss how the Bureau of Labor Statistics constructs the consumer price index.) Similarly, the S&P 500 provides an index of stock prices and the Federal Reserve compiles an index of industrial production that measures the output of factories, mines, and utilities.
The advantage of indexes is that they provide broader measures of an economic variable. Important as the price of gasoline is in the average family’s budget, the prices of food, clothing, and other goods and services are also important. So, the CPI is a better measure of inflation than is just the price of gasoline.
But in some cases it can be difficult for economists to construct an index. This problem is particularly likely when an index would not be comprised of similar data, such as prices of goods and services in the case of the CPI. For example, when the Covid–19 pandemic first began to affect the United States in March 2020, the U.S. economy began to experience “supply chain problems.” News articles reported supply chains problems persisting into the summer of 2022. These reports highlighted specific problems, such as shortages of semiconductors that reduced automobile production and ships being backed up at ports leading to delays in U.S. firms receiving imported products. Just as we don’t want to measure inflation by looking only at gasoline prices, we don’t want to measure supply chain problems by looking only at shortages of semiconductors. It would be better to use an index that summarizes what is happening with supply chains in a way that’s analogous to how the CPI summarizes what is happening with the price level. But the very different aspects of supply chain problems make constructing an index that summarizes these problems more difficult than constructing the CPI.
Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have tried to overcome these technical difficulties in devising an index of supply chain problems: the Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI). Here’s the New York Fed’s description of the economic data included in the index:
“The GSCPI integrates a number of commonly used metrics with the aim of providing a comprehensive summary of potential supply chain disruptions. Global transportation costs are measured by employing data from the Baltic Dry Index (BDI)and the Harpex index, as well as airfreight cost indices from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The GSCPI also uses several supply chain-related components from Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) surveys, focusing on manufacturing firms across seven interconnected economies: China, the euro area, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”
Some more detail on components of the index that may be unfamiliar: The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) and the Harpex indexes both measure rates shippers charge firms to move cargo by sea. (Note that the name “Baltic” has historical significance but doesn’t mean that the index covers only the price of shipping in the Baltic Sea.) The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) is derived from surveying purchasing managers at firms around the world about such aspects of their businesses as order backlogs, new orders, delivery time of goods from suppliers, inventories, and costs.
The following figure shows movements in the GSCPI from January 1998 through June 2022 and is derived from data on the New York Fed site. Higher values indicate more supply chain problems in the world economy. Movements in the index indicate that supply chain problems reached a peak in April 2020 during the height of the initial disruptions caused by the pandemic. Supply chains then improved through September 2020 before worsening again. The worst reading for the index occurred in December 2021. Supply problems then eased during the first half of 2022, although the index still remained high in June 2022. (Note that the values on the vertical axis are standard deviations from the average values of the index over the whole period. The standard deviation is a statistical measure of how spread out values of a series are relative to the series’ average value. That the value for the index during the first half of 2022 was two to four standards deviations above the average of the index indicates that supply chain problems were much more severe than normal.)
Sources: Liz Young, “Companies Face Rising Supply-Chain Costs Amid Inventory Challenges,” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2022; Ana Monteiro, “Supply Constrainst a Headache for U.S. Firms as Outlook Dims,” bloomberg.com, June 2, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Global Supply Chain Pressure Index, https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/gscpi.html.
On Friday, July 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its monthly “Employment Situation” report for June 2022. The BLS estimated that nonfarm employment had increased by 372,000 during the month. That number was well above what economic forecasters had expected and seemed inconsistent with other macroeconomic data that showed the U.S. economy slowing. (Note that the increase in employment is from the establishment survey, sometimes called the payroll survey, which we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 and Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1.)
Data indicating that the economy was slowing during the first half of 2022 include the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s (BEA) estimate that real GDP had declined by 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2022. The BEA’s advance estimate—the agency’s first estimate for the quarter—for the change in real GDP during the second quarter of 2022 won’t be released until July 28, but there are indications that real GDP will have declined again during the second quarter. For instance, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta compiles a forecast of real GDP called GDPNow. The GDPNow forecast uses data that are released monthly on 13 components of GDP. This method allows economists at the Atlanta Fed to issue forecasts of real GDP well in advance of the BEA’s estimates. On July 8, the GDPNow forecast was that real GDP in the second quarter of 2022 would decline by 1.2 percent.
Two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP seems inconsistent with employment strongly growing. At a basic level, if firms are producing fewer goods and services—which is what causes a decline in real GDP—we would expect the firms to be reducing, rather than increasing, the number of people they employ. How can we reconcile the seeming contradiction between rising employment and falling output? One possibility is that either the real GDP data or the employment data—or, possibly, both—are inaccurate. Both GDP data and employment data from the establishment survey are subject to potentially substantial future revisions. (Note that because they are constructed from a survey of households, the employment data in the household survey aren’t revised. As we discuss in the text, economists and policymakers typically rely more on the establishment survey than on the household survey in gauging the current state of the labor market.) Substantial revisions are particularly likely for data released during the beginning of a recession.
In Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1), we give an example of substantial revisions in the employment data. Figure 9.5 (reproduced below) shows that the declines in employment during the 2007–2009 recession were initially greatly underestimated. For example, the BLS initially reported that employment declined by 159,000 during September 2008. But after additional data became available, the BLS revised its estimate to a much larger decline of 460,000.
Similarly, in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15,3, in the Apply the Concept “Trying to Hit a Moving Target: Making Policy with ‘Real-Time Data’,” we show the BEA’s estimates of the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2008 have been revised substantially over time. The BEA’s advance estimate of the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2008 was an increase of 0.6 percent at an annual rate. But that estimate of real GDP growth has been revised a number of times over the years, mostly downward. Currently, BEA data indicate that real GDP actually declined by 1.6 percent at an annual rate during the first quarter of 2008. This swing of more than 2 percentage points from the advance estimate is a large difference, which changes the picture of what happened during the first quarter of 2008 from one of an economy experiencing slow growth to one of an economy suffering a sharp downturn as it fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The changes to the estimates of both employment and real GDP during the beginning of the 2007–2009 recession are not surprising. The initial estimates of employment and real GDP rely on incomplete data. The estimates are revised as additional data are collected by government agencies. During the beginning of a recession, these additional data are likely to show lower levels of employment and output than were indicated by the initial estimates. If the U.S. economy is in a recession in the second quarter of 2022, we can expect that the BLS and BEA will revise their initial estimates of employment and real GDP downward, which—depending on the relative magnitudes of the revisions to the two series—may resolve the paradox of rising employment and falling output.
Or it’s possible that the U.S. economy is not in a recession. In that case, the employment data may be correct in showing an increase in the number of people working, and the real GDP data may be revised upward to show that output has actually been expanding during the first six months of 2022. Economists and policymakers will have to wait to see which of these alternatives turns out to be the case.
Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (CPI is discussed in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will instead use the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.
A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone. The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify which part of the price increases are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. For instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent. As the inflation rate increased beginning in the spring of 2021, a number of observers pointed to hidden inflation that was occurring. There were two main types of hidden inflation:
The quality of some services was declining
Some packaged goods contained smaller quantities at the same price
Here’s one example of the deteriorating quality of some services. Because during 2021 and 2022 many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table. Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price, but receiving less. Alan Cole, a former senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, discussed these other examples on his blog: “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays, shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.” And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”
A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts. In all of these cases, the actual prices of the services had increased more than had the listed prices because the deterioration in quality meant that people were receiving less for their money.
In addition to deterioration in the quality of services, hidden inflation during this period also took the form of consumers buying some packaged goods in which the quantities had been reduced, although the price was unchanged. For example, in June 2022, an article by the Associated Press noted that:
• “A small box of Kleenex now has 60 tissues; a few months ago, it had 65.” • “Chobani Flips yogurts have shrunk from 5.3 ounces to 4.5 ounces.” • “Earth’s Best Organic Sunny Days Snack Bars went from eight bars per box to seven, but the price listed at multiple stores remains $3.69.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal observed that: “Shrinkflation, as economists call it, tends to be easier for companies to pass on to consumers. Despite labels that show price by weight, research shows that most customers look at only the overall price.”
The BLS does try to adjust the measurement of the CPI for shrinkflation, which it can do because the BLS keeps careful track of the quantities included in the packaged goods that are included in its survey.
But the BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for the deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin observes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?” And an economist at the BLS noted that, “We do not capture the decrease in service quality associated with cleaning a [hotel] room every two days rather than one.”
As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate. This bias may have been more than offset during 2021–2022 by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.
Sources: Dee-Ann Durbin, “No, You’re Not Imagining It—Package Sizes Are Shrinking,” apnews.com, June 8, 2022; Annie Gasparro and Gabriel T. Rubin, “The Hidden Ways Companies Raise Prices,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2022; Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” New York Times, October 14, 2021.
To answer the question in the title: Negative supply shocks—shifts to the left in the short-run aggregate supply (SRSAS) curve—and positive demand shocks—shifts to the right in the aggregate demand (AD) curve—both contributed to the acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021. But were the aggregate supply shifts, such as the semiconductor shortage that reduced the supply of new automobiles, more or less important than the aggregate demand shifts, such as the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies?
Adam Hale Shapiro of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco used a basic piece of microeconomic analysis to estimate the contribution of shifts in aggregate supply and shifts in aggregate demand to inflation during this period. He looked at the prices of the more than 100 categories of goods and services in the personal consumption expenditures(PCE) price index. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Changes in the PCE price index are the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of the inflation rate because that index includes the prices of more goods and services than are included in the consumer price index (CPI).
Shapiro explains how he used microeconomic reasoning to determine whether prices in one of the more than 100 categories of goods and services were increasing because of shifts in supply or because of shifts in demand:
“Shifts in demand move both prices and quantities in the same direction along the upward-sloping supply curve, meaning prices rise as demand increases. Shifts in supply move prices and quantities in opposite directions along the downward-sloping demand curve, meaning prices rise when supplies decline.”
For example, the figure on the left shows the effect on the market for toys of an increase in the demand for toys. (We discuss how shifts in demand and supply curves in a market affect equilibrium price and quantity in Chapter 3, Section 3.4 of Economics, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics.) The demand curve for toys shifts to the right from D1 to D2, the equilibrium price increases from P1 to P2, and the equilibrium quantity increases from Q1 to Q2. The figure on the right shows the effect on the market for toys if the price increase results from a decrease in the supply of toys rather than from an increase in demand. The supply curve shifts to the left from S1 to S2, the equilibrium price increases from P1 to P2, and the equilibrium quantity decreases from Q1 to Q2.
Shapiro used statistical methods to determine the part of a change in price or quantity that was unexpected. He took this approach in order to focus on short-run changes in these markets caused by shifts in demand and supply rather than long-run changes resulting from “factors such as technological improvements, cost-of-living adjustments to wages, or demographic changes like population aging.” In some cases, the quantity or the price in a market were very close to their expected values, so Shapiro labeled the cause of a price increase in this market as “ambiguous.”
Shapiro notes that: “Categories that experience frequent supply-driven price changes include food and household products such as dishes, linens, and household paper items. Categories that experience frequent demand-driven price changes include motor vehicle-related products, used cars, and electricity.”
The following figure shows Shapiro’s results for the period from January 2020 through April 2022. The height of each column gives the inflation rate in the month measured as the percentage change in the PCE price index from the same month in the previous year. For example, in March 2022, the inflation rate was 6.6 percent. The height of the yellow segment is the part of inflation in that month attributable to increases in demand, the height of the green segment is the part of the inflation in that month that is attributable to decreases in supply, and the height of the green segment is the part of the inflation that Shapiro can’t assign to either demand or supply. In March 2022, increased in demand accounted for 2.2 percentage points of the total 6.6 percentage point increase in inflation. Decreases in supply accounted for 3.3 percentage points, and the remaining 1.2 percentage points had an ambiguous cause.
We can conclude that, measured this way, the increase in inflation from the spring of 2021 through the spring of 2022 was due more to negative supply shocks than to positive demand shocks.
Source: Adam Hale Shapiro, “How Much Do Supply and Demand Drive Inflation?” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Economic Letter, 22-15, June 21, 2022.
Four times per year, the members of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) publish their projections, or forecasts, of the values of the inflation rate, the unemployment, and changes in real gross domestic product (GDP) for the current year, each of the following two years, and for the “longer run.” The following table, released following the FOMC meeting held on March 15 and 16, 2022, shows the forecasts the members made at that time.
Actual values, March 2022
Change in real GDP
Core PCE inflation
Recall that PCE refers to the consumption expenditures price index, which includes the prices of goods and services that are in the consumption category of GDP. Fed policymakers prefer using the PCE to measure inflation rather than the consumer price index (CPI) because the PCE includes the prices of more goods and services. The Fed uses the PCE to measure whether it is hitting its target inflation rate of 2 percent. The core PCE index leaves out the prices of food and energy products, including gasoline. The prices of food and energy products tend to fluctuate for reasons that do not affect the overall long-run inflation rate. So Fed policymakers believe that core PCE gives a better measure of the underlying inflation rate. (We discuss the PCE and the CPI in the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5)).
The values in the table are the median forecasts of the FOMC members, meaning that the forecasts of half the members were higher and half were lower. The members do not make a longer run forecast for core PCE. The final column shows the actual values of each variable in March 2022. The values in that column represent the percentage in each variable from the corresponding month (or quarter in the case of real GDP) in the previous year. Links to the FOMC’s economic projections can be found on this page of the Federal Reserve’s web site.
At its March 2022 meeting, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate with the expectation that a less expansionary monetary policy would slow the high rates of inflation the U.S. economy was experiencing. Note that in that month, inflation measured by the PCE was running far above the Fed’s target inflation rate of 2 percent.
In raising its target for the federal funds rate and by also allowing its holdings of U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities to decline, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the FOMC were attempting to achieve a soft landing for the economy. A soft landing occurs when the FOMC is able to reduce the inflation rate without causing the economy to experience a recession. The forecast values in the table are consistent with a soft landing because they show inflation declining towards the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent while the unemployment rate remains below 4 percent—historically, a very low unemployment rate—and the growth rate of real GDP remains positive. By forecasting that real GDP would continue growing while the unemployment rate would remain below 4 percent, the FOMC was forecasting that no recession would occur.
Some economists see an inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of unemployment and inflation as shown in the table. They argued that to bring down the inflation rate as rapidly as the forecasts indicated, the FOMC would have to cause a significant decline in aggregate demand. But if aggregate demand declined significantly, real GDP would either decline or grow very slowly, resulting in the unemployment rising above 4 percent, possibly well above that rate. For instance, writing in the Economist magazine, Jón Steinsson of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the FOMC’s “combination of forecasts [of inflation and unemployment] has been dubbed the ‘immaculate disinflation’ because inflation is seen as falling rapidly despite a very tight labor market and a [federal funds] rate that is for the most part negative in real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation).”
Similarly, writing in the Washington Post, Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers noted that “over the past 75 years, every time inflation has exceeded 4 percent and unemployment has been below 5 percent, the U.S. economy has gone into recession within two years.”
In an interview in the Financial Times, Olivier Blanchard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, agreed. In their forecasts, the FOMC “had unemployment staying at 3.5 percent throughout the next two years, and they also had inflation coming down nicely to two point something. That just will not happen. …. [E]ither we’ll have a lot more inflation if unemployment remains at 3.5 per cent, or we will have higher unemployment for a while if we are actually to inflation down to two point something.”
While all three of these economists believed that unemployment would have to increase if inflation was to be brought down close to the Fed’s 2 percent target, none were certain that a recession would occur.
What might explain the apparent inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of inflation and unemployment? Here are three possibilities:
Fed policymakers are relatively optimistic that the factors causing the surge in inflation—including the economic dislocations due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the surge in federal spending in early 2021—are likely to resolve themselves without the unemployment rate having to increase significantly. As Steinsson puts it in discussing this possibility (which he believes to be unlikely) “it is entirely possible that inflation will simply return to target as the disturbances associated with Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine dissipate.”
Fed Chair Powell and other members of the FOMC were convinced that business managers, workers, and investors still expected that the inflation rate would return to 2 percent in the long run. As a result, none of these groups were taking actions that might lead to a wage-price spiral. (We discussed the possibility of a wage-price spiral in earlier blog post.) For instance, at a press conference following the FOMC meeting held on May 3 and 4, 2022, Powell argued that, “And, in fact, inflation expectations [at longer time horizons] come down fairly sharply. Longer-term inflation expectations have been reasonably stable but have moved up to—but only to levels where they were in 2014, by some measures.” If Powell’s assessment was correct that expectations of future inflation remained at about 2 percent, the probability of a soft landing was increased.
We should mention the possibility that at least some members of the FOMC may have expected that the unemployment rate would increase above 4 percent—possibly well above 4 percent—and that the U.S. economy was likely to enter a recession during the coming months. They may, however, have been unwilling to include this expectation in their published forecasts. If members of the FOMC state that a recession is likely, businesses and households may reduce their spending, which by itself could cause a recession to begin.
Sources: Martin Wolf, “Olivier Blanchard: There’s a for Markets to Focus on the Present and Extrapolate It Forever,” ft.com, May 26, 2022; Lawrence Summers, “My Inflation Warnings Have Spurred Questions. Here Are My Answers,” Washington Post, April 5, 2022; Jón Steinsson, “Jón Steinsson Believes That a Painless Disinflation Is No Longer Plausible,” economist.com, May 13, 2022; Federal Open Market Committee, “Summary of Economic Projections,” federalreserve.gov, March 16, 2022; and Federal Open Market Committee, “Transcript of Chair Powell’s Press Conference May 4, 2022,” federalreserve.gov, May 4, 2022.
Studying economics provides students in any major with useful tools for understanding business decision making and for evaluating government policies. As we discuss in Chapter 1, Section 1.5 of Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Economics, majoring in economics can lead to a career in business, government, or at nonprofit organizations. Many students considering majoring in economics are interested in how the incomes of economics majors compare with the incomes of students who pursue other majors.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York maintains a web page that uses data collected by the U.S. Census to show the incomes of people with different college majors. The following table shows for economics majors and for all majors the median annual wage received by people early in their careers and in the middle of their careers. The median is a measure of the average calculated as the annual wage at which half of people in the group have a higher annual wage and half have a lower annual wage. “Early career” refers to people aged 22 to 27, and “mid-career” refers to people aged 35 to 45. The data are for people with a bachelor’s degree only, so people with a masters or doctoral degree are not included.
Median Wage Early Career
Median Wage Mid-Career
The table shows that early in their careers, on average, economics majors earn an annual wage about 31 percent higher than annual wage earned by all majors. At mid-career, in percentage terms, the gap increases slightly to 33 percent.
How should we interpret these data? In Chapter 1, Section 1.3, in discussing how to evaluate economic models, we made the important distinction between correlation and causality. Just because two things are correlated, or happen at the same time, doesn’t mean that one caused the other. In this case, are the higher than average incomes of economics majors caused by majoring in economics or is majoring in economics correlated with higher incomes, but not actually causing the higher incomes. It might be true, for instance, that on average economics majors have certain characteristics—such as being more intelligent or harder workers—than are students who choose other majors. Because being intelligent and working hard can lead to successful careers, students majoring in economics might have earned higher incomes on average even if they had chosen a different major.
(Here’s a more advanced point about identifying causal relationships in data: The problem with determining causality described in the previous paragraph is called selection bias. Students aren’t randomly assigned majors; they choose, or self-select, them. If students with characteristics that make it more likely that they will earn high incomes are also more likely to choose to major in economics, then the higher incomes earned by economics majors weren’t caused by (or weren’t entirely caused by) majoring in economics.)
Economists Zachary Bleemer of the University of California, Berkeley and Aashish Mehta of the University of California, Santa Barbara have found a way to evaluate whether majoring in economics causes students to earn higher incomes. The authors gathered data on all the students admitted to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) between 2008 and 2012 and on their incomes in 2017 and 2018. To major in economics, students at UCSC needed a grade point average (GPA) of 2.8 or higher in the two principles of economics courses. The authors compared the choices of majors and the average early career earnings of students who just met or just failed to meet the 2.8 GPA threshold for majoring in economics. The authors use advanced statistical analysis to reach the conclusion that: “Comparing the major choices and average wages of above-and-below-threshold students shows that majoring in economics caused a $22,000 (46 percent) increase in annual early-career wages of barely above-threshold students.”
The authors attribute half of the higher wages earned by economics majors to their being more likely to pursue careers in finance, insurance, real estate, and accounting, which tend to pay above average wages. The authors note that their findings from this study “imply that students’ major choices could have financial implications roughly as large as their decision to enroll in college ….”
Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates, https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/college-labor-market/index.html; and Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Meta, “Will Studying Economics Make You Rich? A Regression Discontinuity Analysis of the Returns to College Major,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 14, No. 2, April 2022, pp. 1-22.
Recently Tunku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Edward Glaeser on whether the increases in working remotely due to the pandemic are likely to persist.
Glaeser notes that compared with the period before the pandemic, office attendance is still down 19% nationwide. In some large cities, it’s down considerably more, including being down more than 50% in San Francisco and 32% in New York and Boston.
Glaeser believes that a decline in working on site can be a particular problem for young workers:
“Cities—and face-to-face contact at work—have ‘this essential learning component that is valuable and crucial for workers who are young,’ [Glaeser] says. The acquisition of experience and improvement in productivity, ‘month by month, year by year,’ ensures that individual earnings are higher in cities than elsewhere.”
According to Glaeser, people who work remotely face a 50% reduction in the probably of being promoted.
Glaeser is not a fan of remote teaching:
“Delivering a lecture to 100 students on Zoom, he says, is ‘just a bad movie, a really bad movie. None of the magic that comes from live lecturing and live interaction with students is there when you’re doing it via Zoom.'”
There is much more in the article, which is well worth reading. It can be found here (a subscription may be required).