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Are the Fed’s Forecasts of Inflation and Unemployment Inconsistent?

The Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

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.

  Median Forecast Meidan Forecast Median Forecast 
 202220232024Longer runActual values, March 2022
Change in real GDP2.8%2.2%2.2%1.8%3.5%
Unemployment rate3.5%3.5%3.6%4.0%3.6%
PCE inflation4.3%2.7%2.3%2.0%6.6%
Core PCE inflation4.1%2.6%2.3%No forecast5.2%

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

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Does Majoring in Economics Increase Your Income?

Image by Andrea D’Aquino in the Wall Street Journal.

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 CareerMedian Wage Mid-Career
Economics majors$55,000$93,000
All majors$42,000$70,000

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.

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Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser on the Importance of Working on Site

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).

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A Day in the Life of a Price Checker for the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Emily Mascitis checks prices at an auto-repair shop in Philadelphia. (Photo from the Wall Street Journal.)

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4, (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4) in calculating the consumer price index (CPI) each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics sends hundreds of employees to gather price data from stores and offices. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal followed a price checker as she visited an auto-repair shop, a grocery store, and other businesses.

The article provides an excellent discussion of the care with which prices are collected, particularly with respect to making sure that the prices are for the same good or service each month. For instance, while in a grocery, the price checker almost made the mistake of recording the price of a can of low sodium chicken noodle soup, rather than the price of regular chicken noodle soup as in previous months.

At one point, the price checker noted that the price of clementines had been increasing rapidly and remarked that when buying fruit for her own family “We need to pick a less expensive fruit.” Switching from buying a fruit, in this case clementines, with a price that is increasing rapidly to a fruit with a price that is increasing more slowly, say regular oranges, is an example of the substitution bias. That’s one of the four biases discussed in Section 9.4 that can cause the measured increase in the CPI to overstate the true rate of inflation.

The article can be found here. (A subscription may be required.)

Source: Rachel Wolfe, “How the Inflation Rate Is Measured: 477 Government Workers at Grocery Stores,” Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2022.

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Interest Rates, the Yen, the Dollar, and the International Financial System 

Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

From early March to early May 2022, the Japanese yen persistently lost value versus the U.S. dollar. Between March 1 and May 9, the yen declined by 14% against the dollar, which is a substantial loss in value during such a short time period.  What explains the decline in the exchange rate between the yen and the dollar during that time? In Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Section 18.2 (Economics, Chapter 28, Section 28.2), we saw that the exchange rate between most pairs of currencies fluctuates in response to these factors:

  • The foreign demand for U.S. goods
  • U.S. interest rates relative to foreign interest rates
  • Foreign demand for making direct investments or portfolio investments in the United States
  • The U.S. demand for foreign goods
  • Foreign interest rates relative to U.S interest rates
  • U.S. demand for making direct investments or portfolio investments in other countries

The following figure shows movements in the exchange rate between the yen and the U.S. dollar since 2010.  During different periods, the factor that is most important in explaining fluctuations in an exchange rate varies.  (Important note: The figure follows the convention of expressing the exchange between the yen and dollar in terms of yen per dollar. Therefore, in the figure, an increase in the exchange rate corresponds to a decrease in the value of the yen versus the dollar because it takes more yen to buy one dollar.)

From early March to early May 2022, the decline in value of the yen versus the dollar was mainly the result of U.S. interest rates increasing relative to Japanese interest rates. As the inflation rate increased rapidly in the spring of 2022, both short-term and long-term interest rates in the United States increased, partly in response to policy actions taken by the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve was attempting to increase interest rates in order to raise borrowing costs for households and firms, thereby slowing spending and inflation.  Japan was experiencing much lower rates of inflation—well below the Bank of Japan’s 2% annual inflation target—so the BOJ was reluctant to increase interest rates. As a consequence, the gap between the interest rate on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes and the interest rate on 10-year Japanese government bonds had risen to 2.9 percentage points.

Higher U.S. interest rates caused a shift to the right in the demand for dollars in exchange for yen as foreign investors exchanged their yen for dollars in order to buy U.S. Treasury securities and other U.S. financial assets.  As we show in Chapter 18, Figure 18.13, an increase in the demand for dollars (holding all other factors constant) increases the equilibrium exchange rate between the yen and the dollar.  

What effect does a stronger dollar and a weaker yen have on the two countries’ economies?  A weaker yen means that the yen price of imports from the United States will be higher. The higher prices will increase the Japanese inflation rate, but with inflation being low in in the spring of 2022, Japanese policymakers weren’t concerned by this effect. And because the value of U.S. imports is small relative to the size of the Japanese economy, the effect on the inflation rate wouldn’t be large in any case. The dollar price of Japanese exports to the United States will be lower, which should help Japanese firms exporting to the United States.

The effect on the U.S. economy will be the mirror image of the effect on the Japanese economy. The dollar price of Japanese imports being lower will help reduce the U.S. inflation rate, but not to a great extent because the value of Japanese imports is small relative to the size of the U.S. economy. The yen price of U.S. exports to Japan will be higher, which will be bad news for U.S. firms exporting to Japan.

Finally, many banks, other financial firms, and non-financial firms borrow money in dollars. They do so because over time the advantages of borrowing dollars has increased, even for foreign firms that receive most of their revenue in their domestic currency rather than dollars. In particular, the value of the dollar is relatively stable compared with the value of many other currencies. In addition, the Federal Reserve has made available short-term dollar loans to foreign central banks that allow those banks to provide short-term loans to local firms that are having temporary difficulty making dollar payments on their loans. By late 2021, the total amount of dollar loans made outside of the United States had risen to more than $13 trillion. In the spring of 2022, the value of the dollar was rising not just against the Japanese yen but also against many other currencies. The increase was bad news for foreign firms borrowing in U.S. dollars because it would take more of their domestic currency to buy the dollars necessary to make their loans payments. A large and prolonged increase in the value of the U.S. dollar could possibly upset the stability of the international financial system. 

Sources:  Yuko Takeo and Komaki Ito, “Japan’s Stepped-Up Warnings Fail to Stem Yen’s Slide Past 128,” bloomberg.com, April 19, 2022; Jacky Wong, “Japan Gets a Taste of the Wrong Type of Inflation,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2022; Megumi Fujikawa, “Yen Hits Lowest Level Since 2015, and Japan, U.S. Are OK With That,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2022; Bank for International Settlements, “BIS International Banking Statistics and Global Liquidity Indicators at End-September 2021,” January 28, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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Are We at the Start of a Recession?

On Thursday morning, April 28, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “advance” estimate for the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2022. As shown in the first line of the following table, somewhat surprisingly, the estimate showed that real GDP had declined by 1.4 percent during the first quarter. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s “GDP Now” forecast had indicated that real GDP would increase by 0.4 percent in the first quarter. Earlier in April, the Wall Street Journal’s panel of academic, business, and financial economists had forecast an increase of 1.2 percent. (A subscription may be required to access the forecast data from the Wall Street Journal’s panel.)

Do the data on real GDP from the first quarter of 2022 mean that U.S. economy may already be in recession? Not necessarily, for several reasons:

First, as we note in the Apply the Concept, “Trying to Hit a Moving Target: Making Policy with ‘Real-Time’ Data,” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.3): “The GDP data the BEA provides are frequently revised, and the revisions can be large enough that the actual state of the economy can be different for what it at first appears to be.”

Second, even though business writers often define a recession as being at least two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP, the National Bureau of Economic Research has a broader definition: “A recession is a significant decline in activity across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.” Particularly given the volatile movements in real GDP during and after the pandemic, it’s possible that even if real GDP declines during the second quarter of 2022, the NBER might not decide to label the period as being a recession.

Third, and most importantly, there are indications in the underlying data that the U.S. economy performed better during the first quarter of 2022 than the estimate of declining real GDP would indicate. In a blog post in January discussing the BEA’s advance estimate of real GDP during the fourth quarter of 2021, we noted that the majority of the 6.9 percent increase in real GDP that quarter was attributable to inventory accumulation. The earlier table indicates that the same was true during the first quarter of 2022: 60 percent of the decline in real GDP during the quarter was the result of a 0.84 decline in inventory investment.

We don’t know whether the decline in inventories indicates that firms had trouble meeting demand for goods from current inventories or whether they decided to reverse some of the increases in inventories from the previous quarter. With supply chain disruptions continuing as China grapples with another wave of Covid-19, firms may be having difficulty gauging how easily they can replace goods sold from their current inventories. Note the corresponding point that the decline in sales of domestic product (line 2 in the table) was smaller than the decline in real GDP.

The table below shows changes in the components of real GDP. Note the very large decline exports and in purchases of goods and services by the federal government. (Recall from Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, the distinction between government purchases of goods and services and total government expenditures, which include transfer payments.) The decline in federal defense spending was particularly large. It seems likely from media reports that the escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will lead Congress and President Biden to increase defense spending.

Notice also that increases in the non-government components of aggregate demand remained fairly strong: personal consumption expenditures increased 2.7 percent, gross private domestic investment increased 2.3 percent, and imports surged by 17.7 percent. These data indicate that private demand in the U.S. economy remains strong.

So, should we conclude that the economy will shrug off the decline in real GDP during the first quarter and expand during the remainder of the year? Unfortunately, there are still clouds on the horizon. First, there are the difficult to predict effects of continuing supply chain problems and of the war in Ukraine. Second, the Federal Reserve has begun tightening monetary policy. Whether Fed Chair Jerome Powell will be able to bring about a soft landing, slowing inflation significantly while not causing a large jump in unemployment, remains the great unknown of economic policy. Finally, if high inflation rates persist, households and firms may respond in ways that are difficult to predict and, may, in particular decide to reduce their spending from the current strong levels.

In short, the macroeconomic forecast is cloudy!

Source: The BEA’s web site can be found here.

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You’ve Decided to Buy Twitter, So Who Are You Going to Call?  Investment Banks, of Course

Elon Musk. (Photo from the Associated Press.)

That’s what Elon Musk did in April 2022.  In early April, Musk purchased about 9% of Twitter’s shares.  On April 25, he became the owner of Twitter by buying the roughly 90% remaining shares for $54.20 per share. The total he paid for these remaining shares came to $44 billion. Following his often unorthodox style, Musk announced his plans in a tweet on Twitter. Where did he get the money to fund such a large purchase? 

According to Forbes magazine, in March 2022, Musk was by far the richest person in the world with total wealth of about $270 billion—nearly $100 billion more than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is the second-richest person.  While it appears that Musk could afford to buy Twitter without having to borrow any money,  Bloomberg estimated that in April 2022 Musk had only $3 billion in cash. Much of his wealth was in Tesla stock or his ownership shares in SpaceX and the Boring Company, both of which are private companies that, therefore, don’t have publicly traded stock. Musk was reluctant to fund all of his offer for Twitter by selling Tesla stock or finding investors willing to buy into SpaceX and Boring.

Musk turned to investment banks to help him raise the necessary funds. Investment banks, such as Goldman Sachs, differ from commercial banks in that they don’t accept deposits, and they rarely lend directly to households. Instead, investment banks have traditionally concentrated on providing advice to firms issuing stocks and bonds or to firms (and billionaires!) who are looking for ways to finance mergers or acquisitions.  A syndicate of investment banks, including Morgan Stanley (which served as Musk’s lead adviser), Bank of America, Barclays, and what an article in the Wall Street Journal described as “nearly every global blue-chip investment bank aside from the two [Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase] advising Twitter,” put together the following financing package. Initially, Musk wanted to raise $46.5 billion in financing—more than in the end he needed. Of that amount, Musk would provide $21 billion and the investment banks would provide loans for the remaining $25.5 billion. As collateral for the loans, Musk pledged $60 billion of his Tesla stock. 

Musk’s financing was a combination of equity—the $21 billion in cash—and debt—the $25.5 billion in loans from investment banks. To fund his equity investment, he was considering selling some of his stock in Tesla but hoped to attract other equity investors who would put up cash in exchange for part ownership of Twitter. According to press reports, Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm was considering becoming an equity investor. (As we saw in Chapter 9, Section 9.2, private equity firms raise equity capital to invest in other firms.)  Musk’s purchase is called a leveraged buyout (LBO) because (1) he relied  on borrowing for a substantial part of his purchase of Twitter and  (2) he intended to take the company private—the company would no longer have publicly traded stock.

Why would Musk want to buy Twitter? He shared the view of some industry analysts that Twitter’s management had failed to take advantage of opportunities to increase the firm’s profit. The actions of Musk and the investment banks were part of the market for corporate control. As we discuss in Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.1 (Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.1), in large corporations there is often a separation of ownership from control. Although the shareholders legally own the firm, the firm’s top management controls the firm’s day-to-day operations. The result can be a principal-agent problem with the management of a large firm failing to act in the best interests of the firm’s shareholders. The existence of a market for corporate control in which outsiders buy stakes in firms that appear to be poorly managed can make firms more efficient by overcoming these moral hazard problems.

             But Musk had another reason for buying Twitter. As he stated in an interview, “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”  It was unclear whether this and similar statements meant that  after gaining control of Twitter he might take actions that won’t necessarily increase the firm’s profitability. 

            Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is a high profile example of the role that investment banks can play in determining control of large corporations. 

Sources: Kurt Wagner, “Elon Musk Lands Deal to Take Twitter Private for $44 Billion,” bloomberg.com, April 25, 2022; Cara Lombardo and Liz Hoffman, “How Elon Musk Won Twitter,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2022; Michele F. Davis, “Elon Musk Vets Potential Equity Partners for Twitter Bid,” bloomberg.com, April 21, 2022; Sabrina Escobar, “Elon Musk Isn’t Twitter’s Only Problem. It Faces a Number of Short-Term Headwinds,” barrons.com, April 21, 2022; Cara Lombardo and Liz Hoffman, “Elon Musk Says He Has $46.5 Billion in Funding for Twitter Bid,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2022; Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jason Karaian, Vivian Giang, Stephen Gandel, Lauren Hirsch, Ephrat Livni, and Anna Schaverien, “Elon Musk Wants All of Twitter,” New York Times, April 14, 2022; Rob Copeland, Rebecca Elliott, and Cara Lombardo, “Elon Musk Makes $43 Billion Bid for Twitter, Says ‘Civilization’ At Stake,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2022; “The World’s Real-Time Billionaires,” forbes.com, April 24, 2022; Musk’s tweet announcing his offer to buy Twitter can be found here.

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Glenn on Economic Growth and Its Social Consequences

Adam Smith bronze statue on Royal Mile Market square in front of Saint Gilles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Growth matters. A lot. A slightly higher rate of economic growth, sustained over time, can make the difference between a big increase in living standards and relative stagnation. Whether we can still generate strong and steady growth is a “$64,000 question” for the economy — the question. Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Lucas famously observed that once economists think of long-term growth, it is hard to think of anything else. A pro-growth policy agenda is a good idea because growth is a good idea.

But a deeper question remains: Is public support for growth guaranteed? Oren Cass of American Compass refers to growth and economists’ fealty to economic participation for all as “economic piety.” This critique resonates for a simple reason: Forces that propel growth invariably leave a wake of economic disruption for people in many places and political disruption for the nation. A serious discussion of pro-growth policy must account for that disruption.

A conventional pro-growth policy agenda can be enhanced by support for openness to markets, ideas, and new ways of doing things, and for the ability of firms to adapt to change. Such an enhanced agenda would center on infrastructure broadly defined, development and dissemination of better management practices, and reduced barriers to competition.

Yet the political process, and even many a conservative, is openly skeptical of such an agenda. This skepticism is rooted not in disagreement over the future of scientific advances or of organizational adaptation — but in a concern that growth’s benefits be shared broadly. Addressing this skepticism head-on is essential for rebuilding social support for growth and for countering well-meaning but potentially harmful policies.

The system that needs defending is a mature and successful one. Adam Smith, the great proponent of the “invisible hand” (not the visible hand of a state-directed economy), saw openness and competition as worth the candle. His 1776 publication of The Wealth of Nations came before what we would recognize today as industrial capitalism, though technological change and globalization were features of economic debates in the aftermath of Smith’s ideas.

Smith’s radical insight is central to economic policy today: National prosperity (the “wealth of a nation”) is represented by consumption of goods and services by its people — i.e., their living standards. The goal of the economy in Smith’s telling was to make the economic pie as large as possible. His advocacy of free markets and competition rested on their ability to boost consumption possibilities.

Two centuries later, Nobel laureates Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu added the jargon and mathematics of contemporary economics to formalize Smith’s intuition. While individuals and firms act independently, competitive markets lead to an efficient allocation of resources and a maximized economic pie. Friedrich Hayek, another Nobel laureate, hailed the virtue of a decentralized competitive price system in maximizing economic activity.

Smith’s radicalism draws from his attack on mercantilism—the economic orthodoxy of the day—which stressed a zero-sum view of trade and state intervention to promote and protect certain firms and industries. (Sound familiar?) His second radical insight was that the “nation” did not mean the sovereign and the well-connected. In Smith’s view, individuals as consumers—all people—were kings. Finally, channeling the sympathetic concern espoused in his earlier classic, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith championed mass participation in the productive economy as a precondition for human flourishing.

It is fair to say that Smith lacked a theory of per capita growth in the economy over time; indeed, he wrote before the massive increase in living standards attendant upon the Industrial Revolution. After 1800, per capita income in the United Kingdom — and the United States — witnessed a 30-fold increase. There have also been major improvements in the quality of goods and services that such a statistic doesn’t quite capture. And, of course, many of today’s offerings — from smartphones to computers to air-conditioning — were not available even in 1900, let alone 1800.

That lacuna in Smith’s theory partly reflects technical difficulties in modeling growth. Higher output can come from growth in inputs such as labor and capital, but what determines their growth? Today’s economists highlight population growth and society’s willingness to work, save, and invest. Still more important is growth in productivity, or the efficiency with which inputs are used to produce goods and services.

Smith’s pin-factory example — in which output rose with the specialization of tasks — links how things are done with the level of productivity. But what factors determine productivity growth over time? Today’s economic analysis focuses on technology and the process of generating ideas. Since economic growth is still crucial for people seemingly marginalized by capitalism, it’s worth asking whether the economic foundations expressed in The Wealth of Nations are still relevant today. Where does growth come from now? And do those sources still require openness and competition?

The short answer is that they do, but to see why, we need to focus on the ideas of two prominent economists after 1800: Edmund Phelps and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.

Phelps, a Nobel laureate, has done much to connect growth to Smith’s foundational ideas. He starts with Smith’s emphasis on a great many individuals (not the state or privileged firms) searching for new and better ways of doing things. This relentless search produces innovative ideas, processes, and goods that drive growth — but only if the political economy allows openness. Smith’s messy, “bottom up” version of the market therefore puts mass innovation at the heart of economic growth. Phelps’s argument reflects how Smithian societies committed to openness are best able to prosper and promote growth.

This argument has two important applications. The first is to debunk the sometimes fashionable view of secular productivity decline — that we have run short of new things to discover and exploit. The second is to give an answer to economies struggling with growth in a period of structural changes from technology and globalization. Slowdowns in innovation are likely not due to scientific barrenness but to walls against openness and change — that is, fears of disruption.

Phelps’s concern with economic dynamism draws him to Smith’s arguments against mercantilist tinkering in the economy. Like Smith, he worries about the hidden costs of tinkering with competition by blocking change from the outside and by enabling rent-seeking on the inside. These “corporatist” policies — fashionable among some conservatives at present — inevitably embolden vested interests and cronyism, slowing change and growth. Even seemingly small interventions can subtly diminish innovation, a point to which I’ll return.

Yet such a critique must acknowledge the political consequences of disruption. Dynamism is messy. It creates growth in the aggregate, but with many individual losers as well as individual gainers.

McCloskey, an economic historian, has similarly identified the continuous, large-scale, voluntary, and unfocused search for betterment as the source of new ideas that can produce economic growth. She sees this “innovism” as primarily a cultural force, preferring the term to the more familiar “capitalism,” and connects innovism to economic liberalism. Echoing Smith, she emphasizes how an open economy allows individuals—from the moderately to the spectacularly talented—to “have a go.” This economic liberalism allows competition to enshrine liberty and mass flourishing.

In McCloskey’s telling, growth depends on a liberal tolerance and openness to change, which encourage many people to be alert to opportunity. Sustaining that tolerance as structural shifts bring economic misfortune to many individuals, however, requires more than devotion to Smith.

Therein lies the current economic-policy rub. Economists’ theories of growth bring to mind a coin: Sunny descriptions of growth and dynamism are “heads,” and hand-wringing over disruption is “tails.” As I observed earlier, growth is messy. It can push some individuals, firms, and even industries off well-worn and comfortable paths.

But Smith offers more in defense of growth than paeans to laissez-faire. Though he is sometimes caricatured as being anti-government in all cases, Smith was principally opposed to mercantilist privileges for specific businesses and industries and to the governmentalization of social affairs. He wanted government to provide what economists today call “public goods,” such as national defense, the criminal-justice system, and enforcement of property rights and contracts the institutional underpinnings of commerce and trade. He also favored support for infrastructure to keep commerce flowing freely.

But Smith went further: To prepare workers and enrich their lives, he called for government to provide universal education, and he drew a connection between education and liberty as well as work in a free society. But boosting participation in today’s economy—participation that provides support for growth—will require a bit more.

Not surprisingly, political reaction to economic disruption brings about — pardon the econ-speak—a “demand” for and “supply” of policy actions. Job losses, firm failures, and diminished industry fortunes bring about a demand for help, for adaptation. The political process responds with a supply of ideas in one of two forms: walls or bridges. Walls are protections against disruption or change. Bridges, ways to get somewhere or back, prepare individuals for the changed economy and help those whose economic participation has been disrupted reenter the workforce.

Proposals for walls are familiar. They can be physical, of course, but they needn’t be. Conservative populists advocate limits on trade and technology, in order to advance industrial policy. Some progressives advocate universal basic income. All these policies would diminish the prospects for economic advances.

The most prominent sort of wall today is what I call “modern corporatism.” It assumes that Smith was wrong: The “wealth of a nation” lies not in consumption or living standards (and so ultimately in growth) but in jobs, good jobs, even particular good jobs, with good manufacturing jobs the very paradigm. The sort of tinkering with the market that drew Smith’s ire may actually be a necessary way of recentering economic policy on jobs, so the theory goes. Opportunities for work, and for the dignity it can bring, are surely important.

A gentle industrial policy devised by social scientists who are worried about jobs is not the answer. It results in state tinkering for special interests, precisely the kind of thing that prompted Smith’s criticism of mercantilism. Moreover, as University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales argues in A Capitalism for the People, it risks a vicious cycle: A little bit of tinkering becomes a lot of tinkering—and anyone who cannot justify special privileges is left out, calling into question social support for growth. Nevertheless, industrial policy has caught the attention of elected officials on the right, from Donald Trump to Josh Hawley to Marco Rubio. While national security and the border can be exceptions as concerns, advice from Milton Friedman to the party of Ronald Reagan this is not.

That said, economists’ invocation of Smith as a proponent of let-’er-rip laissez-faire is neither faithful to Smith nor particularly helpful to individuals and communities buffeted by disruption. With today’s rapid and long-lasting technological change and globalization, “having a go” requires support for acquiring new skills when they are needed.

That is why we need more bridges. Bridges take us somewhere and bring us back. The journey to somewhere is about preparation for new opportunities. The journey back is about reconnecting to the productive economy when economic forces beyond our control have knocked us away.

Economic bridges have three features. The first is that they help people overcome a specific challenge on their way to economic flourishing — they don’t provide that outcome directly. The second is that wider society builds the bridge, through private organizations, governments, or public–private partnerships, as globalization and technological change have introduced significant risks that individuals by themselves cannot avoid. The third feature is that they avoid restraints on openness to changes in markets and ideas.

We once did better, much better. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln worked with Congress to pass the Morrill Act, directing resources to the development of land-grant colleges around the country, extending higher education to citizens of modest means, and enabling workers to develop skills for new industries, particularly in manufacturing. As World War II drew to a close, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress came together to enact the G.I. Bill, helping to educate returning troops for a changing economy.

Supporting economic growth and undergirding broad participation in the economy require similarly bold ideas. To begin, community colleges are the logical workhorses of skill development and retraining, and their presence in regional economies makes them attractive partners for employers. Yet community colleges have seen their state-level public support wither. The Biden administration calls for free tuition, which would boost demand but provide no support for community college to offer a practical education and an emphasis on completion. Amy Ganz, Austan Goolsbee, Melissa Kearney, and I proposed an alternative approach based on the land-grant-college model. We proposed a supply-side program of federal grants to strengthen community colleges — contingent on improved degree-completion rates and labor-market outcomes. To further encourage training, the federal government could offer a tax credit to compensate firms for the risk of losing trained workers. It could also increase the earned-income tax credit for workers with or without children.

New ideas are also needed to promote workers’ reentry into the workforce. Personal reemployment accounts, for example, would support dislocated workers and offer them a reemployment bonus if they found a new job within a certain period of time. The “personal” refers to individuals’ choosing from a range of training and support services. Another idea is to beef up support for place-based assistance to areas with stubbornly high rates of long-term nonemployment. Such support could be integrated with an increase in the earned-income tax credit and the supply-side investment in community colleges. Building on the decentralized approach in the land-grant colleges and grants to community colleges, expanded place-based aid would be delivered via flexible block grants encouraging business and employment.

Broad public support required for growth and dynamism requires both bridge-building and a political language that frames it. Growth, opportunity, and participation are good, and we do not need a new economics. But phrases like “transition cost” and “inevitable economic forces” must give way to bridges of preparation and reconnection.

‘Why did nobody see it coming?” a quizzical Queen of England questioned a quorum of economists at the London School of Economics about the global financial crisis as it emerged in late 2008. How could major disruptive forces build up over time and yet escape the attention of experts and leaders?

Of the disruptive structural changes accompanying economic dynamism, one might ask a similar question. Growth matters. But that growth is one side of a coin whose flip side is disruption is known, certainly to economists. Why has our political discourse not emphasized this basic point?

Why did we not see fatigue with change coming among the people who most had to bear its ill effects?

However foolishly, we did not. Some so-called conservatives today have responded by saying that we should limit change. Surely a better response is that we should seek ever more growth by allowing unfettered change, but also facilitate the establishing of ever more connections in a growing economy. That classical-liberal answer has the better place in American conservatism — and in American economic life.

— This essay is sponsored by National Review Institute. Originally published here.

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Hoover Institution Podcast with Lawrence Summers and John Cochrane

Lawrence Summers (Photo from harvardmagazine.com.)
John Cochrane (Photo from hoover.org.)

In several of our blog posts and podcasts, we’ve discussed Lawrence Summers’s forecasts of inflation. Beginning in February 2021, Summers, an economist at Harvard who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, argued that the United States was likely to experience rates of inflation that would be higher and persist longer than Federal Reserve policymakers were forecasting. In March 2021, the members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee had an average forecast of inflation of 2.4 percent in 2021, falling to 2.0 percent in 2022. (The FOMC projections can be found here.)

In fact, inflation measured by the CPI has been above 5 percent every month since June 2021; the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation—the percentage change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures—has been above 5 percent every month since October 2021. Summers’s forecasts of inflation have turned out to be more accurate than those of the members of the Federal Open Committee. 

In this podcast, Summers discusses his analysis of inflation with four scholars from the Hoover Institution, including economist John Cochrane. Summers explains why he came to believe in early 2021 that inflation was likely to be much higher than generally expected, how long he believes high rates of inflation will persist, and whether the Fed is likely to be able to achieve a soft landing by bringing inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession. The first half of the podcast, in particular, should be understandable to students who have completed the monetary and fiscal policy chapters (Macroeconomics, Chapters 15 and 16; Economics, Chapters 25 and 26).  Background useful for understanding the podcast discussion of monetary policy during the 1970s can be found in Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3.

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Is the Fed Becoming Too Political to Remain Independent?

Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.
Pat Toomey, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Photo from http://www.toomey.senate.gov.

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.4 (Economics, Chapter 27, Section 27.4), the Federal Reserve is unusual among federal government agencies in being able to operate largely independently of Congress and the president.  Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, which established the Federal Reserve System, in 1913, and has amended it several times in the years since. (Note that, as we discuss in the Apply the Concept, “End the Fed?” in this chapter, the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly authorized the federal government to establish a central bank.) Section 2A of the act gives the Federal Reserve System the following charge:

“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”

Elsewhere in the act, the Fed was given other specified responsibilities, such as supervising commercial banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System and serving on the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which is charged with assessing risks to the financial system. 

Because Congress can change the structure and operations of the Fed at any time and because Congress has given the Fed only certain specific responsibilities, traditionally the Fed has avoided becoming involved in policy debates that are not directly concerned with its responsibilities. Over the years, most members of the Board of Governors have believed that if the Fed were to become involved in issues beyond monetary policy and the working of the financial system, Congress might decide to revise the Federal Reserve Act to reduce, or even eliminate, Fed independence.

In the spring of 2022, though, there were two instances where some members of Congress argued that the Fed had become involved in policy issues that went beyond the Fed’s responsibilities under the Federal Reserve Act. The first instance involved President Joe Biden’s nomination in January 2022 of Sarah Bloom Raskin to serve on the Fed’s Board of Governors. In 2010, Raskin was nominated to the Board of Governors by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote without significant opposition. (In 2014, she resigned from the Board to accept a position in the Treasury Department.)

Her nomination by President Biden encountered significant opposition, however, largely because in July 2020 she had suggested that when the Fed expanded its lending programs during the Covid-19 pandemic it should have excluded firms in the oil, natural gas, and coal industries: “The Fed is ignoring clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis by taking action that will lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment.” Although her supporters argued that in formulating policy the Fed should take into account the threats to financial stability caused by climate change, when it became clear that a majority of the Senate disagreed, Raskin withdrew her nomination. 

In April 2022, some members of Congress, including Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, questioned whether it was appropriate for President Neel Kashkari of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to formally support the campaign to amend the Minnesota state constitution to include a provision stating that, “All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education …. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”

The Bank defended its support for the amendment in a statement on its website: “The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ support of the Page amendment is closely linked to the mission of the Federal Reserve. Congress assigned the Federal Reserve the dual goals of achieving (1) stable prices and (2) maximum employment, and one of the greatest determinants of success in the job market is education.”

Senator Toomey strongly disagreed, arguing in a letter of Bank President Kashkari that: “This amendment is highly political, as it wades into an ongoing debate about whether government-run school systems are preferable to parental choice in education.” Toomey asserted that: “These political lobbying efforts by you and other Minneapolis Fed officials … are well beyond the Federal Reserve’s mandate, violate Federal Reserve Bank policies, constitute a misuse of Minneapolis Fed resources, and ultimately undermine the Federal Reserve’s independence and credibility.”

It remains to be seen whether Congress will ultimately accept the arguments of Federal Reserve policymakers such as Kashkari and Raskin that the Fed needs to interpret its mandate from Congress more broadly, or whether Congress will decide to amend the Federal Reserve Act to more explicitly limit the boundaries of Fed action—or to reduce Fed independence in some other ways. 

Sources: Sarah Bloom Raskin, “Why Is the Fed Spending So Much Money on a Dying Industry?” New York Times, May 28, 2020; Andrew Ackerman and Ken Thomas, “Sarah Bloom Raskin Withdraws as Biden’s Pick for Top Fed Banking Regulator,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2022; Michael S. Derby, “GOP Senator Criticizes Minneapolis Fed Over Education Issue,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2022; Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “Page Amendment: Every Child Deserves a Quality Public Education,” minneapolisfed.org; and Pat Toomey, “Letter to Neel Kashkari,” banking.senate. gov, April 11, 2022.

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New! – 4/07/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien revisit the role of inflation in today’s economy & likely Fed responses in trying to manage it.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien reconsider the role of inflation in today’s economy. They discuss the Fed’s possible responses by considering responses to similar inflation threats in previous generations – notably the Fed’s response led by Paul Volcker that directly led to the early 1980’s recession. The markets are reflecting stark differences in our collective expectations about what will happen next. Listen to find out more about the Fed’s likely next steps.

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Did the Fed Make a Mistake by Not Preempting Inflation?

Warning: Long post!

It now seems clear that the new monetary policy strategy the Fed announced in August 2020 was a decisive break with the past in one respect: With the new strategy, the Fed abandoned the approach dating to the 1980s of preempting inflation. That is, the Fed would no longer begin raising its target for the federal funds rate when data on unemployment and real GDP growth indicated that inflation was likely to rise. Instead, the Fed would wait until inflation had already risen above its target inflation rate. 

Since 2012, the Fed has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent. As we discussed in a previous blog post, with the new monetary policy the Fed announced in August 2020, the Fed modified how it interpreted its inflation target: “[T]he Committee seeks to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, and therefore judges that, following periods when inflation has been running persistently below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.”

The Fed’s new approach is sometimes referred to as average inflation targeting (AIT) because the Fed attempts to achieve its 2 percent target on average over a period of time. But as former Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida discussed in a speech in November 2020, the Fed’s monetary policy strategy might be better called a flexible average inflation target (FAIT) approach rather than a strictly AIT approach. Clarida noted that the framework was asymmetric, meaning that inflation rates higher than 2 percent need not be offset with inflation rates lower than 2 percent: “The new framework is asymmetric. …[T]he  goal of monetary policy … is to return inflation to its 2 percent longer-run goal, but not to push inflation below 2 percent.” And: “Our framework aims … for inflation to average 2 percent over time, but it does not make a … commitment to achieve … inflation outcomes that average 2 percent under any and all circumstances ….”

Inflation began to increase rapidly in mid-2021. The following figure shows three measure of inflation, each calculated as the percentage change in the series from the same month in the previous year: the consumer price index (CPI), the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index, and the core PCE—which excludes the prices of food and energy. Inflation as measured by the CPI is sometimes called headline inflation because it’s the measure of inflation that most often appears in media stories about the economy. The PCE is a broader measure of the price level in that it includes the prices of more consumer goods and services than does the CPI. The Fed’s target for the inflation rate is stated in terms of the PCE. Because prices of food and inflation fluctuate more than do the prices of other goods and services, members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) generally consider changes in the core PCE to be the best measure of the underlying rate of inflation. 

The figure shows that for most of the period from 2002 through early 2021, inflation as measured by the PCE was below the Fed’s 2 percent target. Since that time, inflation has been running well above the Fed’s target. In February 2022, PCE inflation was 6.4 percent. (Core PCE inflation was 5.4 percent and CPI inflation was 7.9 percent.) At its March 2022 meeting the FOMC begin raising its target for the federal funds rate—well after the increase in inflation had begun. The Fed increased its target for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percent, which raised the target from 0 to 0.25 percent to 0.25 to 0.50 percent.

Should the Fed have taken action to reduce inflation earlier? To answer that question, it’s first worth briefly reviewing Fed policy during the Great Inflation of 1968 to 1982. In the late 1960s, total federal spending grew rapidly as a result of the Great Society social programs and the war in Vietnam. At the same time,  the Fed increased the rate of growth of the money supply. The result was an end to the price stability of the 1952-1967 period during which the annual inflation rate had averaged only 1.6 percent. 

The 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks also contributed to accelerating inflation. Between January 1974 and June 1982, the annual inflation rate averaged 9.3 percent. This was the first episode of sustained inflation outside of wartime in U.S. history—until now. Although the oil price shocks and expansionary fiscal policy contributed to the Great Inflation, most economists, inside and outside of the Fed, eventually concluded that Fed policy failures were primarily responsible for inflation becoming so severe.

The key errors are usually attributed to Arthur Burns, who was Fed Chair from January 1970 to March 1978. Burns, who was 66 at the time of his appointment, had made his reputation for his work on business cycles, mostly conducted prior to World War II at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Burns was skeptical that monetary policy could have much effect on inflation. He was convinced that inflation was mainly the result of structural factors such as the power of unions to push up wages or the pricing power of large firms in concentrated industries.

Accordingly, Burns was reluctant to raise interest rates, believing that doing so hurt the housing industry without reducing inflation. Burns testified to Congress that inflation “poses a problem that traditional monetary and fiscal remedies cannot solve as quickly as the national interest demands.” Instead of fighting inflation with monetary policy he recommended “effective controls over many, but by no means all, wage bargains and prices.” (A collection Burns’s speeches can be found here.)

Few economists shared Burns’s enthusiasm for wage and price controls, believing that controls can’t end inflation, they can only temporarily reduce it while causing distortions in the economy. (A recent overview of the economics of price controls can be found here.) In analyzing this period, economists inside and outside the Fed concluded that to bring the inflation rate down, Burns should have increased the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate until it was higher than the inflation rate. In other words, the real interest rate, which equals the nominal—or stated—interest rate minus the inflation rate, needed to be positive. When the real interest rate is negative, a business may, for example, pay 6% on a bond when the inflation rate is 10%, so they’re borrowing funds at a real rate of −4%. In that situation, we would expect  borrowing to increase, which can lead to a boom in spending. The higher spending worsens inflation.

Because Burns and the FOMC responded only slowly to rising inflation, workers, firms, and investors gradually increased their expectations of inflation. Once higher expectation inflation became embedded, or entrenched, in the U.S. economy it was difficult to reduce the actual inflation rate without increasing the target for the federal funds rate enough to cause a significant slowdown in the growth of real GDP and a rise in the unemployment rate. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3 (Economics, Chapter 27, Sections 27.2 and 27.3), the process of the expected inflation rate rising over time to equal the actual inflation rate was first described in research conducted separately by Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps during the 1960s. 

An implication of Friedman and Phelps’s work is that because a change in monetary policy takes more than a year to have its full effect on the economy, if the Fed waits until inflation has already increased, it will be too late to keep the higher inflation rate from becoming embedded in interest rates and long-term labor and raw material contracts.  

Paul Volcker, appointed Fed chair by Jimmy Carter in 1979, showed that, contrary to Burns’s contention, monetary policy could, in fact, deal with inflation. By the time Volcker became chair, inflation was above 11%. By raising the target for the federal funds rate to 22%—it was 7% when Burns left office—Volcker brought the inflation rate down to below 4%, but only at the cost of a severe recession during 1981–1982, during which the unemployment rate rose above 10 percent for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Note that whereas Burns had largely failed to increase the target for the federal funds as rapidly as inflation had increased—resulting in a negative real federal funds rate—Volcker had raised the target for the federal funds rate above the inflation rate—resulting in a positive real federal funds rate. 

Because the 1981–1982 recession was so severe, the inflation rate declined from above 11 percent to below 4 percent. In Chapter 17, Figure 17.10 (reproduced below), we plot the course of the inflation and unemployment rates from 1979 to 1989.

Caption: Under Chair Paul Volcker, the Fed began fighting inflation in 1979 by reducing the growth of the money supply, thereby raising interest rates. By 1982, the unemployment rate had risen to 10 percent, and the inflation rate had fallen to 6 percent. As workers and firms lowered their expectations of future inflation, the short-run Phillips curve shifted down. The adjustment in expectations allowed the Fed to switch to an expansionary monetary policy, which by 1987 brought unemployment back to the natural rate of unemployment, with an inflation rate of about 4 percent. The orange line shows the actual combinations of unemployment and inflation for each year from 1979 to 1989.

The Fed chairs who followed Volcker accepted the lesson of the 1970s that it was important to head off potential increases in inflation before the increases became embedded in the economy. For instance, in 2015, then Fed Chair Janet Yellen in explaining why the FOMC was likely to raise to soon its target for the federal funds rate noted that: “A substantial body of theory, informed by considerable historical evidence, suggests that inflation will eventually begin to rise as resource utilization continues to tighten. It is largely for this reason that a significant pickup in incoming readings on core inflation will not be a precondition for me to judge that an initial increase in the federal funds rate would be warranted.”

Between 2015 and 2018, the FOMC increased its target for the federal funds rate nine times, raising the target from a range of 0 to 0.25 percent to a range of 2.25 to 2.50 percent. In 2018, Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta justified these rate increases by noting that “… we shouldn’t forget that [the Fed’s] credibility [with respect to keeping inflation low] was hard won. Inflation expectations are reasonably stable for now, but we know little about how far the scales can tip before it is no longer so.”

He used the following figure to illustrate his point.

Bostic interpreted the figure as follows:

“[The red areas in the figure are] periods of time when the actual unemployment rate fell below what the U.S. Congressional Budget Office now estimates as the so-called natural rate of unemployment. I refer to these episodes as “high-pressure” periods. Here is the punchline. Dating back to 1960, every high-pressure period ended in a recession. And all but one recession was preceded by a high-pressure period….

I think a risk management approach requires that we at least consider the possibility that unemployment rates that are lower than normal for an extended period are symptoms of an overheated economy. One potential consequence of overheating is that inflationary pressures inevitably build up, leading the central bank to take a much more “muscular” stance of policy at the end of these high-pressure periods to combat rising nominal pressures. Economic weakness follows [resulting typically, as indicated in the figure by the gray band, in a recession].”

By July 2019, a majority of the members of the FOMC, including Chair Powell, had come to believe that with no sign of inflation accelerating, they could safely cut the federal funds rate. But they had not yet explicitly abandoned the view that the FOMC should act to preempt increases in inflation. The formal change came in August 2020 when, as discussed earlier, the FOMC announced the new FAIT. 

At the time the FOMC adopted its new monetary policy strategy, most members expected that any increase in inflation owing to problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic—particularly the disruptions in supply chains—would be transitory. Because inflation has proven to be more persistent than Fed policymakers and many economists expected, two aspects of the FAIT approach to monetary policy have been widely discussed: First, the FOMC did not explicitly state by how much inflation can exceed the 2 percent target or for how long it needs to stay there before the Fed will react. The failure to elaborate on this aspect of the policy has made it more difficult for workers, firms, and investors to gauge the Fed’s likely reaction to the acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021. Second, the FOMC’s decision to abandon the decades-long policy of preempting inflation may have made it more difficult to bring inflation down to the 2 percent target without causing a recession. 

Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard recently remarked that “it is of paramount importance to get inflation down” and some Fed policymakers believe that the FOMC will have to begin increasing its target for the federal funds rate more aggressively. (The speech in which Governor Brainard discusses her current thinking on monetary policy can be found here.) For instance James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has argued in favor of raising the target to above 3 percent this year. With the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation running above 5 percent, it would take substantial increases int the target to achieve a positive real federal funds rate.

It is an open question whether Jerome Powell finds himself in a position similar to that of Paul Volcker in 1979:  Rapid increases in interest rates may be necessary to keep inflation from accelerating, but doing so risks causing a recession. In a recent speech (found here), Powell pledged that: “We will take the necessary steps to ensure a return to price stability. In particular, if we conclude that it is appropriate to move more aggressively by raising the federal funds rate by more than 25 basis points at a meeting or meetings, we will do so.”

But Powell argued that the FOMC could achieve “a soft landing, with inflation coming down and unemployment holding steady” even if it is forced to rapidly increase its target for the federal funds rate:

“Some have argued that history stacks the odds against achieving a soft landing, and point to the 1994 episode as the only successful soft landing in the postwar period. I believe that the historical record provides some grounds for optimism: Soft, or at least softish, landings have been relatively common in U.S. monetary history. In three episodes—in 1965, 1984, and 1994—the Fed raised the federal funds rate significantly in response to perceived overheating without precipitating a recession.”

Some economists have been skeptical that a soft landing is likely. Harvard economist and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has been particularly critical of Fed policy, as in this Twitter thread. Summers concludes that: “I am apprehensive that we will be disappointed in the years ahead by unemployment levels, inflation levels, or both.” (Summers and Harvard economist Alex Domash provide an extended discussion in a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper found here.)

Clearly, we are in a period of great macroeconomic uncertainty. 

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Is Vladimir Putin Acting Rationally?

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Wall Street Journal.

On February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an assault on Ukraine he apparently expected within a few days to achieve his main objectives, including occupying the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and replacing the Ukrainian government. After three weeks, the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces have resulted in his failing to achieve these objectives. Although the Russian military had expected to experience few casualties or losses of equipment, in fact Russia has already lost more military personnel killed than the United States has since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, as well as experiencing the destruction of many tanks, planes, and other equipment. 

The United States, the European Union, and other countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia that have reduced the country’s ability to import or export most goods, other than oil and natural gas. The sanctions have the potential to reduce the standard of living of the average Russian citizen.

Most importantly, the war has killed thousands of Ukrainians and inflicted horrendous damage on many Ukrainian cities.

Despite all this, is Putin’s persistence in the invasion rational or if he were acting rationally would he instead withdraw his troops or accept a political comprise (at this writing, negotiations between representatives of Russia and Ukraine are continuing)?  First, recall the economic definition of rationality: People are rational when they take actions that are appropriate to achieve their goals given the information available to them. (We discuss rationality in Microeconomics, Chapter 10, Section 10.4, and in Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.4.) Note that rationality does not deal with whether a person’s goals are good or bad. In this discussion, we are considering whether Putin is acting rationally in attempting to achieve the—immoral—goal of subjugating a foreign country.

Peter Coy, a columnist for the New York Times, discusses three reasons Putin may continue his attack on Ukraine even though, “The bloody invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster” for Putin. The first reason, Coy recognizes, involves an economic concept. His other two reasons can also be understood within the economic framework we employ in Microeconomics.

First, Coy argues that Putin may have fallen into one of the pitfalls to decision making we discuss in Chapter 10: A failure to ignore sunk costs. Coy notes that Putin may want to continue the attack to justify the death and destruction that has already occurred. However, those costs are sunk because no subsequent action Putin takes can reduce them. If Putin is continuing the attack for this reason, then Coy is correct that Putin is not acting rationally because he is failing to ignore sunk costs in making his decision. 

There is a subtle point, though, that Coy may be overlooking: Putin is effectively a dictator, but he may still believe he needs to avoid Russian public opinion turning too sharply against him. In that case, even if recognizes that he should ignore sunk costs he may believe that the Russian public may not be willing to ignore the costs of the death and destruction that has already occurred. In that case, his refusal to ignore this sunk cost be rational.

Coy’s second reason why Putin may continue the attack is that he may believe “just another few weeks of fighting will be enough to subdue Ukraine.”  Although Coy doesn’t discuss the point in these terms, it would be rational for Putin to continue the attack if he believes that the marginal benefit of doing so exceeds the marginal cost. (We discuss this point directly in Chapter 1, Section 1.1 “Optimal Decisions Are Made at the Margin,” and provided many examples throughout the text.)  The marginal cost includes the additional Russian military casualties and losses of equipment from prolonging the war and the cost of economic sanctions to the Russian economy. (It seems unlikely that Putin is taking into account the additional loss of life among Ukrainians and the additional devastation to Ukrainian cities from prolonging the war.)

The marginal benefit from continuing the attack would be either winning the war or obtaining a more favorable peace settlement in negotiations with the Ukrainian government. If Putin believes that the marginal benefit is greater than the marginal cost, he is acting rationally in continuing to attack. 

Coy’s final reason why Putin may continue the attack is that “he has little to lose by fighting on.” Although Coy doesn’t discuss the point in these terms, Russia may be suffering from a principal-agent problem. As we discuss in Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.1 (also Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.1 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.1) the principal-agent problem arises when an agent pursues the agent’s interst rather than the interests of the principal in whose behalf the agent is supposed to act. In this case, Putin is the agent and the Russian people are the principal. Putin’s own interest may be in prolonging the war indefinitely in the hopes of ultimately winning, despite the additional Russian soldiers who will be wounded or killed and despite the economic suffering of the Russian people resulting from the sanctions.

Although as president of Russia, Putin should be acting in the best interests of the Russian people, as a dictator, he can largely disregard their interests. Unlike his soldiers, Putin isn’t exposed to the personal dangers of being in battle. And unlike the average Russian, Putin will not suffer a decline in his standard of living because of economic sanctions.

Appalling as the consequences will be, Putin’s continuing his attack on Ukraine may be rational.

Sources: Peter Coy, “Here Are Three Reasons Putin Might Fight On,” New York Times, March 14, 2022; Alan Cullison, “Talks to End Ukraine War Pause as Russia’s Offensive Intensifies,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2022; and Thomas Grove, “Russia’s Military Chief Promised Quick Victory in Ukraine, but Now Faces a Potential Quagmire,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2022.

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Macro Solved Problems on Treasury Bonds and Defining Inflation

Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait circa 1963. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB Photos)

With the owners of the Major Labor Baseball teams and the Major League Players Association having finally settled on a new collective bargaining agreement, the baseball season will soon begin. Ernie Banks, the late Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, was known for his upbeat personality. However bad the weather might be at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Banks would run on the field and say, “What a great day for baseball! Let’s play two.”

In honor of Ernie Banks, today let’s do two Solved Problems in macro. They both involve errors that students in principles courses often make. So, in that sense they would also work as Don’t Let This Happen to You features. 

Solved Problem 1.: Bond Yields and Bond Prices

An article in the Financial Times had the following headline:  “U.S. Government Bond Prices Drop Ahead of Federal Reserve Meeting.” The first sentence of the article reads: “U.S. government bond yields rose to multiyear highs on Monday ahead of this week’s Federal Reserve meeting ….”

a. When a media article mentions “U.S. government bonds,” what type of bonds are they referring to?

b. Is there a contradiction between the headline and the first sentence of the article? Is the article telling us that U.S. government bonds went up or down? Briefly explain.

Solving the Problem

Step 1:  Review the chapter material. This problem is about the inverse relationship between bond yields and bond prices, so you may want to review Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Appendix, “Using Present Value” (Economics, Chapter 8, Appendix, “Using Present Value”). You may also want to review the discussion of U.S. Treasury bonds in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6, “Deficits, Surpluses, and Federal Government Debt” (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6, “Deficits, Surpluses, and Federal Government Debt”).

Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what media articles are referring to when they use the phrase “U.S. government bonds.” As discussed in Chapter 16, Section 16.6, most of the bonds issued by the federal government of the United States are U.S. Treasury bonds. The Treasury sells these bonds to investors when the federal government doesn’t collect enough in tax revenues to pay for all of its spending. So, when the media refers to U.S. government bonds, without further explanation, the reference is always to U.S. Treasury bonds. 

Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining that there is no contradiction between the headline and the first sentence of the article. An important fact about bond markets is that when the price of a bond falls, the yield—or interest rate—on the bond rises. The reverse is also true: When the price of a bond rises, the yield on the bond falls.  The reason why this relationship holds is explained in the Appendix to Chapter 6: The price of a bond (or other financial asset) should be equal to the present value of the payments an investor receives from owning that asset. If you buy a U.S. Treasury bond, the price will equal the present value of the coupon payments the Treasury sends you during the life of the bond and the final payment to you by the Treasury of the principal, or face value of the bond. Remember that present value is the value in today’s dollars of funds to be received in the future. The higher the interest rate, the lower the present value of a payment to be received in the future. So a higher yield, or interest rate, on a bond results in a lower price of the bond because the higher yield reduces the present value of the payments to be received from the bond.

Therefore, whenever the yield on a bond rises, the price of the bond must fall (and whenever the yield on a bond falls, the price of the bond must rise. So, we can conclude that the headline of the Financial Times article and the first sentence of the article are consistent, not contradictory:  Because the prices of Treasury bonds fell, the yields on the bonds must have risen.

Source: Nicholas Megaw, Naomi Rovnick, George Steer, and Hudson Lockett, “U.S. Government Bond Prices Drop Ahead of Federal Reserve Meeting,” ft.com, March 14, 2022.

Solved Problem 2: Being Careful about the Definition of Inflation

An article in the New York Times contrasted inflation during the 1970s with inflation today:

“Price increases had run high for more than a decade by the time Mr. Volcker became chair [of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors] in 1979 …. Shopper expected prices to go up, businesses knew that, and both acted accordingly. This time, inflation has been anemic for years (until recently), and most consumers and investors expect costs to return to lower levels before long, survey and market data show.”

a. What does the article mean by “inflation has been anemic for years”?

b. In the last sentence what “costs” is the article referring to?

c. Is the article correctly using the definition of inflation in the last sentence? Briefly explain.

Solving the Problem

Step 1:  Review the chapter material. This problem is about the definition of inflation, so you may want to review Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4, “Measuring Inflation” (Economics, Chapter 20, Section 20.4, “Measuring Inflation”).

Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what the phrase “inflation has been anemic for years” means. Anemia is a medical disorder that usually has the symptom of fatigue. So, the word “anemic” is often used to mean weak. The article is arguing that until recently, the inflation rate had been weak, or slow.  

Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining what the article is referring to by “costs.” Economists typically use the word costs for the amount that firm pays to produce a good—labor costs, raw material costs, and so on. Here, though, the article is using “costs” to mean “prices.”  Costs is often used this way in everyday conversation: “I didn’t buy a new car because they cost too much.” Or: “Has the cost of a movie ticket increased?” 

Step 4: Answer part c. by explaining whether the article is correctly using the definition of inflation. In writing “consumers and investors expect costs to return to lower levels” the article is making a common mistake. The article seems to mean that consumers and investors expect that the rate of inflation will be lower in the future. But even if the rate of inflation declines from nearly 8 percent in early 2022 to, say, 3 percent in 2023, prices will still be increasing. So, prices (“costs” in the sentence) will still be higher next year even if the rate of inflation is lower. In other words, even if the rate of increase in prices—inflation—declines, the price level will still be higher. 

It’s a common mistake to think that a decline in the inflation rate means that prices will be lower, when actually prices will still be increasing, just more slowly.

Source: Jeanna Smialek, “Powell Admires Volcker. He May Have to Act Like Him,” New York Times, March 14, 2022.

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Inflation, Supply Chain Disruptions, and the Peculiar Process of Purchasing a Car

Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from the same month in the previous year was 7.9 percent in February 2022, the highest rate since January 1982—near the end of the Great Inflation that began in the late 1960s. The following figure shows inflation in the new motor vehicle component of the CPI.  The 12.4 percent increase in new car prices was the largest since April 1975.

The increase in new car prices was being driven partly by increases in aggregate demand resulting from the highly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies enacted in response to the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and partly from shortages of semiconductors and some other car components, which reduced the supply of new cars.

As the following figure shows, inflation in used car prices was even greater. With the exception of June and July of 2021, the 41.2 percent increase in used car prices in February 2022 was the largest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing these data in 1954. 

Because used cars are a substitute of new cars, rising prices of new cars caused an increase in demand for used cars. In addition, the supply of used cars was reduced because car rental firms, such as Enterprise and Hertz, had purchased fewer new cars during the worst of the pandemic and so had fewer used cars to sell to used car dealers. Increased demand and reduced supply resulted in the sharp increase in the price of used cars.

Another factor increasing the prices consumers were paying for cars was a reduction in bargaining—or haggling—over car prices.  Traditionally, most goods and services are sold at a fixed price. For example, some buying a refrigerator usually pays the posted price charged by Best Buy, Lowes, or another retailer. But houses and cars have been an exception, with buyers often negotiating prices that are lower than the seller was asking.

In the case of automobiles, by federal law, the price of a new car has to be posted on the car’s window. The posted price is called the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), often referred to as the sticker price.  Typically, the sticker price represents a ceiling on what a consumer is likely to pay, with many—but not all—buyers negotiating for a lower price. Some people dislike the idea of bargaining over the price of a car, particularly if they get drawn into long negotiations at a car dealership. These buyers are likely to pay the sticker price or something very close to it.

As a result, car dealers have an opportunity to practice price discrimination:  They charge buyers whose demand for cars is more price elastic lower prices and buyers whose demand is less price elastic higher prices. The car dealers are able to separate the two groups on the basis of the buyers willingness to haggle over the price of a car. (We discuss price discrimination in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.)  Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of car dealers to practice this form of price discrimination had been eroded by the availability of online car buying services, such as Consumer Reports’ “Build & Buy Service,” which allow buyers to compare competing price offers from local car dealers. There aren’t sufficient data to determine whether using an online buying service results in prices as low as those obtained by buyers willing to haggle over price face-to-face with salespeople in dealerships.

In any event, in 2022 most car buyers were faced with a different situation: Rather than serving as a ceiling on the price, the MSRP, had become a floor. That is, many buyers found that given the reduced supply of new cars, they had to pay more than the MSRP. As one buyer quoted in a Wall Street Journal article put it: “The rules have changed so dramatically…. [T]he dealer’s position is ‘This is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.’” According to the website Edmunds.com, in January 2021, only about 3 percent of cars were sold in the United States for prices above MSRP, but in January 2022, 82 percent were.

Car manufacturers are opposed to dealers charging prices higher than the MSRP, fearing that doing so will damage the car’s brand. But car manufacturers don’t own the dealerships that sell their cars. The dealerships are independently owned businesses, a situation that dates back to the beginning of the car industry in the early 1900s. Early automobile manufacturers, such as Henry Ford, couldn’t raise sufficient funds to buy and operate a nationwide network of car dealerships. The manufacturers often even had trouble financing the working capital—or the funds used to finance the daily operations of the firm—to buy components from suppliers, pay workers, and cover the other costs of manufacturing automobiles.

The manufacturers solved both problems by relying on a network of independent dealerships that would be given franchises to be the exclusive sellers of a manufacturer’s brand of cars in a given area. The local businesspeople who owned the dealerships raised funds locally, often from commercial banks. Manufacturers generally paid their suppliers 30 to 90 days after receiving shipments of components, while requiring their dealers to pay a deposit on the cars they ordered and to pay the balance due at the time the cars were delivered to the dealers. One historian of the automobile industry described the process:

The great demand for automobiles and the large profits available for [dealers], in the early days of the industry … enabled the producers to exact substantial advance deposits of cash for all orders and to require cash payment upon delivery of the vehicles ….  The suppliers of parts and materials, on the other hand, extended book-account credit of thirty to ninety days. Thus the automobile producer had a month or more in which to assemble and sell his vehicles before the bills from suppliers became due; and much of his labor costs could be paid from dealers’ deposits.

The franchise system had some drawbacks for car manufacturers, however. A car dealership benefits from the reputation of the manufacturer whose cars it sells, but it has an incentive to free ride on that reputation. That is, if a local dealer can take an action—such as selling cars above the MSRP—that raises its profit, it has an incentive to do so even if the action damages the reputation of Ford, General Motors, or whichever firm’s cars the dealer is selling.  Car manufacturers have long been aware of the problem of car dealers free riding on the manufacturer’s reputation. For instance, in the 1920s, Ford sent so-called road men to inspect Ford dealers to check that they had clean, well-lighted showrooms and competent repair shops in order to make sure the dealerships weren’t damaging Ford’s brand.

As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3, consumers often believe it’s unfair of a firm to raise prices—such as a hardware store raising the prices of shovels after a snowstorm—when the increases aren’t the result of increases in the firm’s costs. Knowing that many consumers have this view, car manufacturers in 2022 wanted their dealers not to sell cars for prices above the MSRP. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “Historically, car companies have said they disapprove of their dealers charging above MSRP, saying it can reflect poorly on the brand and alienate customers.”

But the car manufacturers ran into another consequence of the franchise system. Using a franchise system rather than selling cars through manufacturer owned dealerships means that there are thousands of independent car dealers in the United States. The number of dealers makes them an effective lobbying force with state governments. As a result, most states have passed state franchise laws that limit the ability of car manufacturers to control the actions of their dealers and sometimes prohibit car manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers. Although Tesla has attained the right in some states to sell directly to consumers without using franchised dealers, Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers still rely exclusively on dealers. The result is that car manufacturers can’t legally set the prices that their dealerships charge. 

Will the situation of most people paying the sticker price—or more—for cars persist after the current supply chain problems are resolved? AutoNation is the largest chain of car dealerships in the United States. Recently, Mike Manley, the firm’s CEO, argued that the substantial discounts from the sticker price that were common before the pandemic are a thing of the past. He argued that car manufacturers were likely to keep production of new cars more closely in balance with consumer demand, reducing the number of cars dealers keep in inventory on their lots: “We will not return to excessively high inventory levels that depress new-vehicle margins.” 

Only time will tell whether the situation facing car buyers in 2022 of having to pay prices above the MSRP will persist. 

Sources: Mike Colias  and Nora Eckert, “A New Brand of Sticker Shock Hits the Car Market,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022; Nora Eckert and Mike Colias, “Ford and GM Warn Dealers to Stop Charging So Much for New Cars,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2022; Gabrielle Coppola, “Car Discounts Aren’t Coming Back After Pandemic, AutoNation Says,” bloomberg.com, February 9, 2022; cr.org/buildandbuy; Lawrence H. Seltzer, A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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Will the U.S. Ban on Russian Oil Imports Reduce Russian Oil Revenue?

Photo of Russian oil refinery from the New York Times.

On March 8, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would no longer allow new shipments of oil from Russia to the United States. Russian oil made up about 8 percent of total U.S. oil imports and about 2 percent of U.S. oil consumption.  European countries, which are much more heavily dependent on oil imports from Russia, announced plans to gradually reduce Russian oil imports.

The point of these policy actions was to reduce the revenues Russia would receive from oil exports as retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beyond the effect of direct action against Russian oil imports, Russian oil exports were reduced further as a result of other sanctions imposed on the Russian economy by the United States and other countries. These sanctions made it difficult for Russia to access shipping services and the international payments system.

The decline in Russian oil exports reduced the total supply of oil on the international oil market, pushing up the price of the oil. The following figure shows the daily price in dollars per barrel of Brent crude oil, which is the most commonly used benchmark price of oil.

Will the actions taken by the United States and other countries reduce Russian oil revenues? As we discuss in Microeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.3, whether a seller’s total revenue will decrease as a result of a decrease in the quantity sold depends on the price elasticity of demand for the seller’s product. If demand is price elastic, the revenue the seller receives will fall. If demand is price inelastic, the revenue the seller receives will rise. 

In this case, Russia’s oil revenue will decline if the percentage increase in the price of oil is less than the percentage decrease in the quantity of oil Russia is selling. The energy information firm Energy Intelligence has estimated that Russian oil exports have declined by about one-third. On the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the price of Brent crude oil was about $99 per barrel. It then rose to $129 per barrel on March 7 before falling to $109 per barrel on March 10.  Based on these values, the price Russia received per barrel of oil increased between 9 and 29 percent or by less than the 33 percent decline in the quantity of oil Russia sold.

Because the percentage decline in quantity was greater than the percentage increase in price, we can conclude that the actions taken by the United States and other countries reduced Russian oil revenue. In fact, the reduction in revenue is probably larger than indicated by the change in the price of Brent crude oil. Media reports indicate that to find buyers Russia is having to discount its oil by more than $10 per barrel from the Brent price.  In addition, the countries of the European Union have pledged to reduce Russian oil imports by two-thirds by the end of 2022 and the United Kingdom has pledged to end them entirely. Although Russia might be able to redirect to other countries some oil it had been exporting to Europe and the United States, it seems likely that Russia’s total oil exports will eventually decline by more than the initial one-third.

Sources: Andrew Restuccia and Josh Mitchell, “Biden Bans Imports of Russian Oil, Natural Gas, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2022; Stanley Reed, “The Future Turns Dark for Russia’s Oil Industry,” New York Times, March 8, 2022; Collin Eaton, “How Much Oil Does the U.S. Import From Russia and Why Is Biden Banning It?” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2022; “Russian Oil Exports Fall by One-Third,” energyintel.com, March 2, 2022; and Tsuyoshi Inajima and Serene Cheong, “More Russian Oil Deeply Discounted as Ban Risk Alarms Buyers,” bloomberg.com, March 7, 2022. Brent crude oil price data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the Wall Street Journal.

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Glenn’s Opinion Column on the Economics of an Increase in Defense Spending

Graphic from the Wall Street Journal.

Glenn published the following opinion column in the Wall Street Journal. Link here and full text below.

NATO Needs More Guns and Less Butter

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has challenged Western assumptions about security, economics and the postwar world order. In Europe and the U.S., public finances have long favored social spending over public goods such as defense. While President Biden doubled down on his proposal to increase social spending during his State of the Union address, Russia’s aggression highlights the shortcomings of this model. Western democracies now face a more uncertain and dangerous world than they did two weeks ago. Navigating it will require significantly higher levels of defense and security spending.

But change will be difficult, and the magnitude of what needs to be done is sobering. The U.S. currently spends 3.2% of gross domestic product on defense—roughly half of Cold War spending levels relative to GDP. An increase in spending of even 1% of GDP would amount to about $210 billion. That’s about 5% of the total federal spending level using a 2019 pre-Covid baseline. While Covid spending was large, it was transitory. Defense outlays would be much longer-lasting, an insurance premium or transaction cost for dealing with a more dangerous world.

The U.S. is not alone. Germany’s announcement of €100 billion in additional defense spending this year represents an increase of just over 0.25% of GDP, leaving Berlin still under the 2% commitment agreed to by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. Increasing Europe’s defense spending merely to the agreed-on level would require significant outlays. Such spending increases would occur against the backdrop of elevated public debt relative to GDP, brought on in part by heightened borrowing during the Covid pandemic and the earlier global financial crisis. High levels of public debt make it unlikely that countries will want to pay to increase their defense spending with new borrowing.

Paying for higher levels of defense spending will force most governments either to raise taxes or cut spending. Tax increases raise risks to growth. The larger non-U.S. NATO economies are already taxed to the hilt. Tax revenue relative to the size of the economy in France (45%), Germany (38%), Canada (34%) and the U.K. (32%) doesn’t leave much room to tax more without depressing economic activity. The U.S. has a lower tax share of GDP—about 17.5% at the federal level and 25.5% in total—but its patchwork quilt of income and payroll taxes makes tax increases more costly by distorting household and business decisions about consumption and investment.

A significant tax increase in the U.S. would need to be accompanied by fundamental tax reform, dialing back income taxes (as with the 2017 reduction in corporate tax rates) and increasing reliance on consumption taxes. A broad-based consumption tax could be implemented by imposing a tax at the business level on revenue minus purchases from other firms (a “subtraction method” value-added tax). Alternatively, the tax system could impose a broad-based wage and business cash-flow tax, with a progressive wage surtax on high earners. These consumption-tax alternatives would be efficient and equitable in a revenue-neutral tax reform. And they are crucial in avoiding decreases in savings, investment and entrepreneurship that accompany a tax increase.

Since the 1960s, spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has come to dominate the federal budget. Outlays for these programs have almost doubled since then as a share of GDP to 10.2% today, and the Congressional Budget Office projects they will consume about another 5% of GDP annually by 2040. Spending offsets to accommodate higher defense spending would surely require slowing the growth in social-insurance spending. As with tax increases, there are trade-offs. It is possible to slow the growth of this spending while preserving access to such support for lower-income Americans. Accomplishing that will require focusing net taxpayer subsidies on lower-income Americans, along with undertaking market-oriented health reforms. Such changes require serious attention.

The U.S. and its NATO allies will face a challenging set of economic trade-offs and political realities in achieving higher defense spending. The challenge will be exacerbated by additional private investment needs in a more dangerous world of investment risks, skepticism about globalization, and cybersecurity threats. 

In the U.S., the failure of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission’s proposed spending and tax reforms to spark a serious discussion is a warning sign. So, too, is the antipathy of Democratic and Republican officials alike toward creating the fiscal space necessary to accommodate greater defense spending. Such challenges don’t cause threats to vanish. They require leadership—now.

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Fanatics: The Unlikely Unicorn

Image from fanatics.com website.

unicorn is a startup, or newly formed firm, that has yet to begin selling stock publicly and has a value of $1 billion or more. (We discuss the difference between private firms and public firms in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, chapter opener and Section 8.2, and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, chapter opener and Section 6.2.) Usually, when we think of unicorns, we think of tech firms. That assumption is largely borne out by the following list of the 10 highest-valued U.S.-based startups, as compiled by cbinsights.com.

FirmValue
SpaceX$100.3 B
Stripe$95 B
Epic Games$42 B
Instacart$39 B
Databricks$38 B
Fanatics$27 B
Chime$25 B
Miro$17.5 B
Ripple$15 B
Plaid$13.4 B

Nine of the ten firms are technology firms, with six being financial technology—fintech—firms. (We discuss fintech firms in the Apply the Concept, “Help for Young Borrowers: Fintech or Ceilings on Interest Rates,” which appears in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.3, and Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.3.) The one non-tech firm on the list is Fanatics, whose main products are sports merchandise and sports trading cards.  Because a unicorn doesn’t issue publicly traded stock, the firm’s valuation is determined by how much an investor pays for a percentage of the firm. In Fanatics’s case, the valuation was based on a $1.5 billion investment in the firm made in early March 2022 by a group of investors, including Fidelity, the large mutual find firm; Blackrock, the largest hedge fund in the world; and Michael Dell, the founder of the computer company.

These investors were expecting that Fanatics would earn an economic profit. But, as we discuss in Chapter 14, Section 14.1 and Chapter 15, Section 15.2, a firm will find its economic profit competed away unless other firms that might compete against it face barriers to entry. Although Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin has plans for the firm to expand into other areas, including sports betting, the firm’s core businesses of sports merchandise and trading cards would appear to have low barriers to entry. There are already many firms selling sportswear and there are many firms selling trading cards. The investment required to establish another firm to sell those products is low. So, we would expect competition in the sports merchandise and trading card markets to eliminate economic profit.

The key to Fanatics success is that it is selling differentiated products in those markets. Its differentiation is based on a key resource that competitors lack access to: The right to produce sportswear with the emblems of professional sports teams and the right to produce trading cards that show images of professional athletes. Fanatics has contracts with the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Soccer (MLS)—the five most important professional sports leagues in North America—to produce jerseys, caps, and other sportswear that uses the copyrighted brands of the leagues’ teams. (In some cases, as with the NBA, Fanatics shares the right with another firm.)

Similarly, Fanatics has the exclusive right to produce trading cards bearing the images of NFL, NBA, and MLB players. In January 2022, Fanatics bought Topps, the firm that for decades had held the right to produce MLB trading cards. 

Fanatics has paid high prices to these sports leagues and their players to gain the rights to sell branded merchandise and cards. Some business analysts questioned whether Fanatics will be able to sell the merchandise and cards for prices high enough to earn an economic profit on its investments. Fanatics CEO Rubin is counting on an increase in the popularity of trading cards and the increased interest in sports caused by more states legalizing sports gambling. 

That Fanatics has found a place on the list of the most valuable startups that is otherwise dominated by tech firms indicates that many investors agree with Rubin’s business strategy.

Sources:  “The Complete List of Unicorn Companies,” cbinsights.com; Miriam Gottfried and Andrew Beaton, “Fanatics Raises $1.5 Billion at $27 Billion Valuation,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2022; Tom Baysinger, “Fanatics Scores $27 Billion Valuation,” axios.com March 2, 2022; Lauren Hirsch, “Fanatics Is Buying Mitchell & Ness, a Fellow Sports Merchandiser,” New York Times, February 18, 2022; and Kendall Baker, “Fanatics Bets Big on Trading Card Boom,” axios.com, January 5, 2022.

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Solved Problem: U.S. Treasury Bonds and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Supports: Macroeconomics, Chapter 10, Section 10.5, Economics Chapter 20, Section 20.5, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 14, Section 14.2.

On March 2, 2022, as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensified, an article in the Wall Street Journal had the headline “Investors Pile Into Treasurys as Growth Concerns Flare.” The article noted that: “The 10-year Treasury yield just recorded its largest two-day decline since March 2020, while two-year Treasury yields plunged the most since 2008.”

a. What does it mean for investors to “pile into” Treasury bonds?

b. Why would investors piling into Treasury bonds cause their yields to fall?

c. What are “growth concerns”? What kind of growth are investors concerned about?

d. Why might growth concerns cause investors to buy Treasury bonds?

Solving the Problem

Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the effects of slowing economic growth on interest rates, so you may want to review Chapter 10, Section 10.5, “Saving, Investment and the Financial System.” You may also want to review Chapter 6, Appendix A (in Economics, Chapter 8, Appendix A), which explains the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. 

Step 2: Answer part a. by explaining what the article meant by the phrase “pile into” Treasury bonds. The article is using a slang phrase that means that investors are buying a lot of Treasury bonds.

Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining why investors piling into Treasury bonds will cause the yields on the bonds to fall. As the Appendix to Chapter 6 explains, the price of a bond represents the present value of the payments that an investor will receive over the life of the bond. Lower interest rates result in a higher present value of the payments received and, therefore, higher bond prices or—which is restating the same point—higher bond prices result in lower interest rates. If investors are increasing their demand for Treasury bonds, the increased demand will cause the prices of the bonds to increase and cause the yields—or the interest rates—on the bonds to fall.

Step 4: Answer part c. by explaining the phrase “growth concerns.” In this context, the growth being discussed is economic growth—changes in real GDP.  The headline indicates that investors were concerned that the Russian invasion of Ukraine might lead to slower economic growth in the United States.

Step 5: Answer part d. by explaining why investors might purchase Treasury bonds if they were concerned about economic growth slowing. Using the model of the loanable funds markets discussed in Chapter 10, Section 10.5, we know that if economic growth slows, firms are likely to engage in fewer new investment projects, which would shift the demand curve for loanable funds to the left and result in a lower equilibrium interest rate. Investors who have purchased Treasury bonds will gain from a lower interest rate because the price of the Treasury bonds they own will increase. In addition, stock prices depend on investors’ expectations of the future profitability of firms issuing the stock. Typically, if investors believe that economic growth is likely to be slower in the future than they had previously expected, stock prices will fall, which would make Treasury bonds a more attractive investment. Finally, investors believe there is no chance that the U.S. Treasury will default on its bonds by not making the interest payments on the bonds. During an economic slowdown, investors may come to believe that the default risk on corporate bonds has increased because some corporations may run into financial problems. An increase in the default risk on corporate bonds increases the relative attractiveness of Treasury bonds as an investment.

Source: Gunjan Banerji, “Investors Pile Into Treasurys as Growth Concerns Flare,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2022.

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New 3/01/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.

Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien reflect on the global economic effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week. They consider the impact on the global commodity market, US monetary policy, and the impact on the financial markets in the US. Impact touches Introductory Economics, Money & Banking, International Economics, and Intermediate Macroeconomics as the effects of Russia’s aggression moves into its second week.

A map of Europe with Ukraine in the middle right below Belarus and to the east of Poland.

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Ukraine

On Tuesday, March 1, Glenn and Tony will record a podcast on the economic consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The recording will be posted to this blog and also available through iTunes.

Some useful links

General information on developments (political and military, as well as economic):

Updates on the website of the Financial Times (note that the FT has dropped its paywall to allow non-subscribers to read this content). This article on the possible effects on the global economy is particularly worth reading.

The Twitter feed of Max Seddon, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, is here.

The website of the New York Times has an extensive series of updates focused on military and political developments (subscription may be required).

Streaming updates on the website of the Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required).

A Twitter feed that provides timely updates on the military situation.

An article in the New Yorker discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims about the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

A pessimistic blog post by a retired U.S. Army Colonel on whether the U.S. military is equipped to fight a war in Europe.

Discussions focused on economics:

As background, the following figure from the Our World in Data site shows the growth in real GDP per capita for several countries. The underlying data were compiled by the World Bank and are measured in constant international dollars, which means that they are corrected for inflation and for variations across countries in the purchasing power of the domestic currency.

In 2020, Russian GDP per capita was less than half that of U.S. GDP per capita although about 50 percent greater than GDP per capita in China. GDP per capita in Lithuania, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and Poland, part of the Soviet bloc until 1989, are significantly higher than in Russia. These two countries have become integrated into the European economy and have grown more rapidly than has Russia, which continues to rely heavy on exports of oil, natural gas, and other commodities. Ukraine is not as well integrated into the European economy as are Poland and Lithuania and Ukraine experienced little economic growth since attaining independence in 1991. In fact, Ukraine’s real GDP per capita was lower in 2020 than it had been in 1991.

Here is a transcript of President Joe Biden’s speech imposing sanctions on Russia.

Informative Full Stack Economics blog post by Alan Cole explaining the likely reasons why U.S. and European sanctions on Russia excluded energy. Useful explanation of the role of correspondent banking in international trade.

An article in the Economist discussing sanctions (subscription may be required).

An article in the New York Times discussing the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) service, which is based in Belgium, and is a key component of the international financial system. Some policymakers have proposed cutting Russia off from SWIFT. The article discusses why some countries have been opposed to taking that step (subscription may be required).

An opinion column by Justin Fox on bloomberg.com examines in what sense the United States is energy independent and the economic reasons that the U.S. still imports some oil from Russia (subscription may be required).

Blog post by economic writer Noah Smith on the possible effects of the invasion on the post-World War II international economic system.

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Would Cutting the Federal Excise Tax on Gasoline Lower the Price that Consumers Pay?

Photo from bloomberg.com.

The federal government levies an excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. (An excise tax is a tax that a government imposes on a particular product. In addition to the tax on gasoline, the federal government imposes excise taxes on tobacco, alcohol, airline tickets, and a few other products.) In February 2022, inflation was running at the highest level in several decades. The average retail price of gasoline across the country had risen to $3.50 per gallon from $2.60 per gallon a year earlier. The following figure shows fluctuations in the retail price of gasoline since January 2000. 

Policymakers were looking for ways to lessen the effects of inflation on consumers. An article in the Wall Street Journalreported that several Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, including Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Raphael Warnock of Georgia proposed that the federal excise tax on gasoline be suspended for the remainder of 2022. The sponsors of the proposal believed that cutting the tax would reduce the price of gasoline that consumers pay at the pump. Other members of the Senate weren’t so sure, with one quoted as saying that cutting the tax was “not going to change anything” and another arguing that oil companies would receive most of the benefit of the tax cut.

Some members of Congress were opposed to suspending the gasoline tax because the revenue raised from the tax is placed in the highway trust fund, which helps to pay for federal contributions to highway building and repair and for mass transit. In that sense, the gasoline tax follows the benefits-received principle, under which people who receive benefits from a government program—in this case, highway maintenance—should help pay for the program. (We discuss the principles for evaluating taxes in Microeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2 and in Economics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2) Other members of Congress were opposed to suspending the tax because they believe that the tax helps to reduce the quantity of gasoline consumed, thereby helping to slow climate change. 

Focusing just on the question of the effect of suspending the tax on the retail price of gasoline, what can we conclude? The question is one of tax incidence, which looks at the actual division of the burden of a tax between buyers and sellers in a market. In other words, tax incidence looks beyond the fact that gasoline stations collect the tax and send the revenue to federal government to the issue of who actually pays the tax. As we note in Chapter 17, Section 17.3:

When the demand for a product is less elastic than supply, consumers pay the majority of the tax on the product. When the demand for a product is more elastic than supply, firms pay the majority of the tax on the product. 

Consumers would receive all of the tax cut—that is, the retail price of gasoline would fall by 18.4 cents—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline were perfectly price inelastic. Similarly, consumers would receive none of the tax cut and the price of gasoline would remain unchanged—so oil companies would receive all of the tax cut—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline is perfectly price inelastic. (It’s a worthwhile exercise to show these two cases using demand and supply graphs.)

In the real world, we would expect to be somewhere in between these two cases, with consumers receiving some of the benefit of suspending the tax and producers receiving the remainder of the benefit. The short-run price elasticity of demand for gasoline is quite small; according to one estimate it is only −.06.  The short-run price elasticity of supply of gasoline is likely to be somewhat larger than that in absolute value, which means that we would expect that consumers would receive the majority of the tax cut. (Note that we would expect the long-run price elasticities of demand and supply to both be larger for reasons we discuss in Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and 6.6.) In other words, the retail price of gasoline would fall, holding all other factors constant, but not by the full tax cut of 18.4 cents.

Joseph Doyle of MIT and Krislert Samphantharak of the University of California, San Diego studied the effect of suspension in the state excise tax on gasoline in Indiana and Illinois in 2000. In that year, Indiana suspended collecting its gasoline excise tax for 120 days and Illinois suspended its tax for 184 days. The authors estimate that consumers received about 70 percent of the tax cut in the form of lower gasoline prices. If we apply that estimate to the federal gasoline tax, then suspending the tax would lower the price of gasoline by about 12.9 cents per gallon, holding all other factors that affect the price of gasoline constant. As the above figure shows, the retail price of gasoline frequently fluctuates up and down by more than 12.9 cents, even over fairly brief periods of time. In that sense, the effect on the gasoline market of suspending the federal excise tax on gasoline would be relatively small.  

Sources: Andrew Duehren and Richard Rubin, “Some Lawmakers Want to Halt Gas Tax Amid High Inflation. Others See a Gimmick,” Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2022; Tony Romm and Jeff Stein, “White House, Congressional Democrats Eye Pause of Federal Gas Tax as Prices Remain High, Election Looms,” Washington Post, February 15, 2022; Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Krislert Samphantharak, “$2.00 Gas! Studying the Effects of a Gas Tax Moratorium,” Journal of Public Economics, Vol. 92, No.s 3-4, April 2008, pp. 869-884; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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Are Economic Profits a Sign of Market Power?

Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Photo from the Washington Post.

An article in the Washington Post discussed a debate among President Biden’s economic advisers. The debate was over “over whether the White House should blame corporate consolidation and monopoly power for price hikes.” Some members of the National Economic Council supported the view that the increase in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 was the result of a decline in competition in the U.S. economy.

Some Democratic members of Congress have also supported this view. For instance, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren argued on Twitter that: “One clear explanation for higher inflation? Giant corporations are exploiting their market power to further raise prices. And corporate executives are bragging about their higher profits.” Or, as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders put it: “The problem is not inflation. The problem is corporate greed, collusion & profiteering.”

But according to the article, Cecilia Rouse, chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and other members of the CEA are skeptical that a lack of competition are the main reason for the increase in inflation, arguing that very expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, along with disruptions to supply chains, have been more important.

In an earlier blog post (found here), we noted that a large majority of more than 40 well-known academic economists surveyed by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago disagreed with the statement: “A significant factor behind today’s higher US inflation is dominant corporations in uncompetitive markets taking advantage of their market power to raise prices in order to increase their profit margins.”

One difficulty with the argument that the sharp increase in inflation since mid-2021 was due to corporate greed is that there is no particular reason to believe that corporations suddenly became more greedy than they had been when inflation was much lower. If inflation were mainly due to corporate greed, then greed must fluctuate over time, just as inflation does. Economic writer and blogger Noah Smith poked fun at this idea in the following graph

It’s worth noting that “greed” is one way of characterizing the self-interested behavior that underlies the assumption that firms maximize profits and individual maximize utility. (We discuss profit maximization in Microeconomics, Chapter 12, Section 12.2, and utility maximization in Chapter 10, Section 10.1.) When economists discuss self-interested behavior, they are not making a normative statement that it’s good for people to be self-interested. Instead, they are making a positive statement that economic models that assume that businesses maximize profit and consumers maximize utility have been successful in analyzing and predicting the behavior of businesses and households. 

Corporate profits increased from $1.95 trillion in the first quarter of 2021 to $2.40 trillion in third quarter of 2021 (the most recent quarter for which data are available). Using another measure of profit, during the same period, corporate profits increased from about 16 percent of value added by nonfinancial corporate businesses to about 18 percent. (Value added measures the market value a firm adds to a product. We discuss calculating value added in Macroeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.1.)

There have been mergers in some industries that may have contributed to an increase in profits—the Biden Administration has singled out mergers in the meatpacking industry as having led to higher beef and chicken prices. At this point, though, it’s not possible to gauge the extent to which mergers have been responsible for higher prices, even in the meatpacking industry.   

An increase in profit is not by itself an indication that firms have increased their market power. We would expect that even in a perfectly competitive industry, an increase in demand will lead in the short run to an increase in the economic profit earned by firms in the industry. But in the long run we expect economic profit to be competed away either by existing firms expanding their production or by new firms entering the industry.

In Chapter 12, we use Figure 12.8 to illustrate the effects of entry in the market for cage-free eggs. Panel (a) shows the market for cage-free eggs, made up of all the egg sellers and egg buyers. Panel (b) shows the situation facing one farmer producing cage-free eggs. (Note the very different scales of the horizontal axes in the two panels.) At $3 per dozen eggs, the typical egg farmer is earning an economic profit, shown by the green rectangle in panel (b). That economic profit attracts new entrants to the market—perhaps, in this case, egg farmers who convert to using cage-free methods. The result of entry is a movement down the demand curve to a new equilibrium price of $2 per dozen. At that price, the typical egg farmer is no longer earning an economic profit.

A few last observations:

  1. The recent increase in profits may also be short-lived if it reflects a temporary increase in demand for some durable goods, such as furniture and appliances, raising their prices and increasing the profits of firms that produce them. The increase in spending on goods, and reduced spending on services, appears to have resulted from:  (1) Households having additional funds to spend as a result of the payments they received from fiscal policy actions in 2020 and early 2021, and (2) a reluctance of households to spend on some services, such as restaurant meals and movie theater tickets, due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  2. The increase in profits in some industries may also be due to a reduction in supply in those industries having forced up prices. For instance, a shortage of semiconductors has reduced the supply of automobiles, raising car prices and the profits of automobile manufacturers. Over time, supply in these industries should increase, bringing down both prices and profits.
  3. If some changes in consumer demand persist over time, we would expect that the  economic profits firms are earning in the affected industries will attract the entry of new firms—a process we illustrated above. In early 2022, this process is far from complete because it takes time for new firms to enter an industry.

Source:  Jeff Stein, “White House economists push back against pressure to blame corporations for inflation,” Washington Post, February 17, 2022; Mike Dorning, “Biden Launches Plan to Fight Meatpacker Giants on Inflation,” bloomberg.com, January 3, 2022; and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.ec

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Does Inflation Affect Lower-Income People More than Higher-Income People?

There’s a consensus among economists that increases in unemployment during a recession typically are larger for lower-income people than for higher-income people. Lower-income people are more likely to hold jobs requiring fewer skills and firms typically expect that when they lay off less-skilled workers during a recession they will be able to higher them—or other workers with similar skills—back after the recession ends. Because higher income have skills that may be difficult to replace, firms are more reluctant to lay them off. 

For instance, in an earlier blog post (found here) we noted that during the period in 2020 when many restaurants were closed, the Cheesecake Factory continued to pay its 3,000 managers while it laid off most of its servers. That strategy made it easier for the restaurant chain to more easily expand its operations when the worst of government-ordered closures were over. More generally, Serdar Birinci and YiLi Chien of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that workers in the lowest 20 percent (or quintile) of earnings experienced an increased unemployment rate from 4.4 percent in January 2020 to 23.4 percent in April 2020, whereas workers in the highest quintile of earnings experienced an increase only from 1.1 percent in January to 4.8 percent in April.

If lower-income people are hit harder by unemployment, are they also hit harder by inflation? Answering that question is difficult because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t routinely release data on inflation in the prices of goods and services purchased by households at different income levels.  The main measure of consumer price inflation compiled by the BLS represents changes in the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI is an index of the prices in a market basket of goods and services purchased by households living in urban areas. The information on consumer purchases comes from interviews the BLS conducts every three months with a sample of consumers and from weekly diaries in which a sample of consumers report their purchases. (We discuss the CPI in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9,  Section 9.4 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4.)

The BLS releases three measures of the CPI, the two most widely used of which are the CPI-U for all urban consumers and CPI-W for urban wage earners. CPI-W covers the subset of households that receive at least half their household income from clerical or wage occupations and who have at least one wage earner who worked for 37 weeks or more during the previous year. CPI-U represents about 93 percent of the U.S. population and CPI-W represents about 29 percent of the U.S. population. Finally, in 1988 Congress instructed the BLS to compile a consumer price index reflecting the purchases of people aged 62 and older. This version of the CPI is labeled R-CPI-E; the R indicates that it is a research series and the E indicates that it is intended to measure the prices of goods and services purchased by elderly people. Because the sample used to calculate the R-CPI-E is relatively small and because of some other difficulties that may reduce the accuracy of the index, the BLS considers it a series best suited for research and does not include the data in its monthly “Consumer Price Index” publication. In any event, as the following figure shows, inflation, measured as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year, has been very similar for all three measures of the CPI.

Because the market baskets of goods and services consumed by a mix of high and low-income households is included in all three versions of the CPI, none of the versions provides a way to measure the possibly different effects of inflation on low-income and on high-income households. A study by Josh Klick and Anya Stockburger of the BLS attempts to fill this gap by constructing measures of the CPI for low-income and for high-income households. They define low-income households as those in the bottom 25 percent (quartile) of the income distribution and high-income households as those in the top quartile of the income distribution. During the time period of their analysis—December 2003 to December 2018—the bottom quartile had average annual incomes of $12,705 and the top quartile had average annual incomes of $155,045.

The BLS researchers constructed market baskets for the two groups. The expenditure weights—representing the mix of products purchased—don’t differ too strikingly between lower-income and higher-income households, as the figure below shows. The largest differences are housing, with low-income households having a market basket weight of 45.2 percent and high-income households having a market basket weight of 39.5 percent, and transportation, with low-income households having a market basket weight of 13.0 percent and high-income households having a market basket weight of 17.2 percent.

The following table shows the inflation rate as measured by changes in different versions of the CPI over the period from December 2003 to December 2018. During this period, the CPI-U (the version of the CPI that is most frequently quoted in news stories) increased at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, which was the same rate as the CPI-W. The R-CPI-E increased at a slightly faster rate of 2.2 percent. Lower-income households experienced the highest inflation rate at 2.3 percent and higher-income households experienced the lowest inflation rate of 2.0 percent.  

CPI-UCPI-WR-CPI-ECPI for lowest income quartileCPI for highest income quartile
2.1%2.2%2.1%2.3%2.0%

The differences in inflation rates across groups were fairly small. Can we conclude that the same was true during the recent period of much higher inflation rates? We won’t know with certainty until the BLS extends its analysis to cover at least the years 2021 and 2022. But we can make a couple of relevant observations. First, for many people the most important aspect of inflation is whether prices are increasing faster of slower than their wages. In other words, people are interested in what is happening to their real wage. (We discuss calculating real wage rates in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.5 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.5.)

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta compiles data on wage growth, including wage growth by workers in different income quartiles. The following figure shows that workers in the top quartile have experienced more rapid wage growth in the months since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic than have workers in the other quartiles. This gap continues a trend that began in 2015. The bottom quartile has experienced the slowest rate of income growth. (Note that the researchers at the Atlanta Fed compute wage growth as a 12-month moving average rather than as the percentage from the same month in the previous year, as we have been doing when calculating inflation using the CPI.) For example, in January 2022, calculated this way, average wage growth in the top quartile was 5.8 percent as opposed to 2.9 percent in the bottom quartile.

As with any average, there is some variation in the experiences of different individuals. Although, as a group, lower-income workers have seen wage growth that lags behind other workers, in some industries that employ many lower-income people, wage growth has been strong. For instance, as measured by average hourly earnings, wages for all workers in the private sector increased by 5.7 percent between January 2021 and 2022. But average hourly earnings in the leisure and hospitality industry—which employs many lower-income workers—increased by 13.0 percent.

Overall, it seems likely that the real wages of higher-income workers have been increasing while the real wages of lower-income workers have been decreasing, although the experience of individual workers in both groups may be very different than the average experience. 

Sources: Josh Klick and Anya Stockburger, “Experimental CPI for Lower and Higher Income Households Serdar,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Working Paper 537, March 8, 2021; Birinci and YiLi Chien, “An Uneven Crisis for Lower-Income Households,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Annual Report 2020, April 7, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, “Wage Growth Tracker,” https://www.atlantafed.org/chcs/wage-growth-tracker.

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Should the Federal Reserve Issue a Digital Currency?

The Problem with Bitcoin as Money

Bitcoin has failed in their original purpose of providing a digital currency that could be used in everyday transactions like buying lunch and paying a cellphone bill. As the following figure shows, swings in the value of bitcoin have been too large to make useful as a medium of exchange like dollar bills. During the period shown in the figure—from July 2021 to February 2022—the price of bitcoin has increased by more than $30,000 per bitcoin and then fallen by about the same amount. Bitcoin has become a speculative asset like gold. (We discuss bitcoin in the Apply the Concept, “Are Bitcoins Money?” which appears in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14,  Section 14.2 and in Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.2. In an earlier blog post found here we discussed how bitcoin has become similar to gold.)

The vertical axis measures the price of bitcoin in dollars per bitcoin.

The Slow U.S. Payments Increases the Appeal of a Digital Currency

Some economists and policymakers argue that there is a need for a digital currency that would do what bitcoin was originally intended to do—serve as a medium of exchange. Digital currencies hold the promise of providing a real-time payments system, which allow payments, such as bank checks, to be made available instantly. The banking systems of other countries, including Japan, China, Mexico, and many European countries, have real-time payment systems in which checks and other payments are cleared and funds made available in a few minutes or less. In contrast, in the United States, it can two days or longer after you deposit a check for the funds to be made available in your account. 

The failure of the United States to adopt a real-time payments system has been costly to many lower-income people who are likely to need paychecks and other payments to be quickly available. In practice, many lower-income people: 1) incur bank overdraft fees, when they write checks in excess of the funds available in their accounts, 2) borrow money at high interest rates from payday lenders, or 3) pay a fee to a check cashing store when they need money more quickly than a bank will clear a check. Aaron Klein of the Brookings Institution estimates that lower-income people in the United States spend $34 billion annually as a result of relying on these sources of funds. (We discuss the U.S. payments system in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, 4th edition, Chapter 2, Section 2.3.)

The Problem with Stablecoins as Money 

Some entrepreneurs have tried to return to the original idea of using cryptocurrencies as a medium of exchange by introducing stablecoins that can be bought and sold for a constant number of dollars—typically one dollar for one stablecoin. The issuers of stablecoins hold in reserve dollars, or very liquid assets like U.S. Treasury bills, to make credible the claim that holders of stablecoins will be able to exchange them one-for-one for dollars. Tether and Circle Internet Financial are the leading issuers of stablecoins. 

So far, stablecoins have been used primarily to buy bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies rather than for day-to-day buying and selling of goods and services in stores or online. Financial regulators, including the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve, are concerned that stablecoins could be a risk to the financial system. These regulators worry that issuers of stablecoins may not, in fact, keep sufficient assets in reserve to redeem them. As a result, stablecoins might be susceptible to runs similar to those that plagued the commercial banking system prior to the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the 1930s or that were experienced by some financial firms during the 2008 financial crisis.  In a run, issuers of stablecoins might have to sell financial assets, such as Treasury bills, to be able to redeem the stablecoins they have issued. The result could be a sharp decline in the prices of these assets, which would reduce the financial strength of other firms holding the assets.

In 2019, Facebook (whose corporate name is now Meta Platforms) along with several other firms, including PayPal and credit card firm Visa, began preparations to launch a stablecoin named Libra—the name was later changed to Diem. In May 2021, the firms backing Diem announced that Silvergate Bank, a commercial bank in California, would issue the Diem stablecoin. But according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve had “concerns about [the stablecoin’s] effect on financial stability and data privacy and worried [it] could be misused by money launderers and terrorist financiers.” In early 2022, Diem sold its intellectual property to Silvergate, which hoped to still issue the stablecoin at some point.

A Federal Reserve Digital Currency?

If private firms or individual commercial banks have not yet been able to issue a digital currency that can be used in regular buying and selling in stores and online, should central banks do so? In January 2022, the Federal Reserve issued a report discussing the issues involved with a central bank digital currency (CBCD). As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.2, most of the money supply of the United States consists of bank deposits. As the Fed’s report points out, because bank deposits are computer entries on banks’ balance sheets, most of the money in the United States today is already digital. As we discuss in Section 14.3, bank deposits are liabilities of commercial banks. In contrast, a CBCD would be a liability of the Fed or other central bank.

The Fed report lists the benefits of a CBCD:

“[I]t could provide households and businesses [with] a convenient, electronic form of central bank money, with the safety and liquidity that would entail; give entrepreneurs a platform on which to create new financial products and services; support faster and cheaper payments (including cross-border payments); and expand consumer access to the financial system.” 

Importantly, the Fed indicates that it won’t begin issuing a CBCD without the backing of the president and Congress:  “The Federal Reserve does not intend to proceed with issuance of a CBDC without clear support from the executive branch and from Congress, ideally in the form of a specific authorizing law.”

The Fed report acknowledges that “a significant number of Americans currently lack access to digital banking and payment services. Additionally, some payments—especially cross-border payments—remain slow and costly.” By issuing a CBDC, the Fed could help to reduce these problems by making digital banking services available to nearly everyone, including lower-income people who currently lack bank checking accounts, and by allowing consumers to have payments instantly available rather than having to wait for a check to clear. 

The report notes that: “A CBDC would be the safest digital asset available to the general public, with no associated credit or liquidity risk.” Credit risk is the risk that the value of the currency might decline. Because the Fed would be willing to redeem a dollar of CBDC currency for a dollar or paper money, a CBDC has no credit risk. Liquidity risk is the risk that, particularly during a financial crisis, someone holding CBDC might not be able to use it to buy goods and services or financial assets. Fed backing of the CBDC makes it unlikely that someone holding CBDC would have difficulty using it to buy goods and services or financial assets.

But the report also notes several risks that may result from the Fed issuing a CBDC:

  • Banks rely on deposits for the funds they use to make loans to households and firms. If large numbers of households and firms switch from using checking accounts to using CBDC, banks will lose deposits and may have difficulty funding loans. 
  • If the Fed pays interest on the CBDC it issues, households, firms, and investors may switch funds from Treasury bills, money market mutual funds, and other short-term assets to the CBDC, which might potentially disrupt the financial system. Money market mutual funds buy significant amounts of corporate commercial paper. Some corporations rely heavily on the funds they raise from selling commercial paper to fund their short-term credit needs, including paying suppliers and financial inventories. 
  • In a financial panic, many people may withdraw funds from commercial bank deposits and convert the funds into CBDC. These actions might destabilize the banking system. 
  • A related point: A CBDC might result in large swings in bank reserves, particularly during and after a financial panic. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.4 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.4), increasing and decreasing bank reserves is one way in which the Fed carries out monetary policy. So fluctuations in bank reserves may make it more difficult for the Fed to conduct monetary policy, particularly during a financial panic. (This consideration is less important during times like the present when banks hold very large reserves.)
  • Because the Fed has no experience in operating a retail banking operation, it would be likely that if it began issuing a CBDC, it would do so through commercial banks or other financial firms rather than doing so directly. These financial firms would then hold customers CBDC accounts and carry out the actual flow of payments in CBDC among households and firms.

The report notes that the Fed is only beginning to consider the many issues that would be involved in issuing a CBDC and still needs to gather feedback from the general public, financial firms, nonfinancial firms, and investors, as well as from policymakers in Washington. 

Sources:  Peter Rudegeair and Liz Hoffman, “Facebook’s Cryptocurrency Venture to Wind Down, Sell Assets,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2022; Liana Baker, Jesse Hamilton, and Olga Kharif, “Mark Zuckerberg’s Stablecoin Ambitions Unravel with Diem Sale Talks,” bloomberg.com, January 25, 2022; Amara Omeokwe, “U.S. Regulators Raise Concern With Stablecoin Digital Currency,” Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2022; Jeanna Smialek, “Fed Opens Debate over a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency with Long-Awaited Report,”, January 20, 2022;  Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation, January 2022; and Aaron Klein, “The Fastest Way to Address Income Inequality? Implement a Real Time Payments System,” brookings.edu, January 2, 2019.

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Inflation, Interest Rates, and Stock Prices

Caution: Long post!

An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted an economist at a financial services firm as noting that strong growth in wages could lead to sustained inflation. The article stated that as a result “the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note [rose to] within reach of 2%” and that: “Rising [bond] yields this year have rattled markets and hurt tech stocks in particular ….”

What are the links between wage inflation and price inflation, inflation and bond yields, and bond yields and stock prices—particularly the prices of tech stocks?

The link between wage inflation and price inflation. The monthly “Employment Situation” reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in addition to providing data on payroll employment and the unemployment rate, also provide data on average hourly earnings (AHE). AHE are the wages and salaries per hour worked that private, nonfarm business pay workers. AHE don’t include the value of benefits that firms provide workers, such as contributions to 401(k) retirement accounts or health insurance. The following figure shows changes in AHE from the same month in the previous year. The figure shows that since the Covid-19 pandemic first began to affect the U.S. economy in March 2020, AHE have moved erratically. But since the fall of 2021, growth in AHE has been consistently above the 2 percent to 4 percent range that prevailed in the years after the end of the Great Recession of 2007–2009.

Employee compensation is the largest cost for most firms.  For the economy as whole, employee compensation is about 80 percent of total costs. When firms pay higher wages per hour, their costs per unit of output don’t rise unless the wage increases are greater than the rate of growth of labor productivity, or output per hour worked. Increases in wages in the range of 5 percent to 6 percent are well above the rate of growth of labor productivity and, so, firms are likely to pass through the wage increases by raising prices. Note that the higher prices may prompt workers to push for higher wage increases to offset the decline in the real purchasing power of their wages, potentially setting off a wage-price spiral. (We discussed the possibility of a wage-price spiral in a recent post here.)

The link between inflation and bond yields.  When investors lend money by, for instance, buying a bond, they are concerned with the interest rate they will receive after correcting for the effects of inflation. In other words, they focus on the real interest rate, which is equal to the nominal interest rate, or the stated interest rate on the loan or bond, minus the expected inflation rate:

            Real interest rate = Nominal interest rate – Expected inflation rate.

We can rewrite this relationship as:

            Nominal interest rate = Real interest rate + Expected inflation rate.

The second equation indicates that if investors expect the inflation rate to increase, then, unless the real interest rate changes, the nominal interest rate will increase.  The Fisher effect is the idea associated with Yale economist Irving Fisher that the nominal interest rate rises or falls by the same number of percentage points as the expected inflation rate. So, for instance, if investors expect that the inflation rate will increase from 3 percent to 5 percent, then the nominal interest rate will also increase by two percentage points.

Because of real-world frictions, such as the broker fees that investors pay when buying and selling bonds and the taxes investors pay when they sell a bond that has increased in price, the Fisher effect doesn’t hold exactly. Still, most economists agree that an increase in the expected inflation rate will cause an increase in nominal interest rates. The following figure shows movements in the interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes (blue line) and in inflation (red line). Note that, roughly speaking, the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note is higher when inflation is higher and lower when inflation is lower.  (We discuss real and nominal interest rates in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.6 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.6. We discuss the Fisher effect in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.)

The link between bond yields and stock prices. As wage inflation leads to price inflation and price inflation leads to higher interest rates on bonds—particularly U.S. Treasury bonds—why might stock prices be affected? First, investors consider U.S. Treasury bonds to be default risk free, which means that investors are certain that the Treasury will make the interest and principal payments on the bonds. Stock investments are much riskier because they depend on the future profits of the firms issuing the stocks and those profits may fluctuate in ways that are difficult for investors to anticipate. So as interest rates on Treasury bonds increase, some investors will decide to sell stocks and buy bonds, which will cause a decline in stock prices. 

Second, most people value funds they will receive now or soon more highly than funds they will receive in the more distant future. For instance, if someone offered to pay you $1,000 today or $1,000 one year from now, you will prefer to receive the money today.  In other words, the present value, or value today, of a payment you won’t receive until the future is worth less than the face value of the payment. For instance, the present value of $1,000 you won’t receive for a year is worth less than $1,000 in present value. The higher the interest rate is, the lower the present value of payments, such as dividends, that you will receive in the future. 

Economists believe that price of a financial investment, like a bond or a stock, is equal to the present value of the payments you will receive from owning the asset. If you own a bond, you will receive interest payments and payment of the bond’s principal when the bond matures. If you own a stock, you will receive dividends, which are the payments that firms make to shareholders from the firms’ profits. Therefore stock prices should reflect the present value of the dividends that investors expect to receive from owning the stock. (We discuss present value and the relationship between interest rates and stock and bond prices in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Appendix, in Economics, Chapter 8, Appendix, and, more completely, in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 3, Section 3.2 and Chapter 6, Section 6.2.)

The Wall Street Journal article we quoted above notes that the rising interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note was causing price declines in tech stocks in particular. The explanation is that tech firms often go through an initial period in which they may make very low profits or even suffer losses. Investors may still be willing to buy stock in tech firms because they expect the firms eventually to increase their profits and the dividends they pay. But because those profits will be earned in the future—often after a period of losses that may stretch for years—the present value of the profits and, therefore, the price of the stock depends more on the interest rate than would be true of a firm making breakfast cereal or frozen pizza that will be steadily earning profits through the years. Therefore, we would expect, as the article indicates, that the prices of tech firms are more likely to decline—or to decline more—when interest rates rise than is true of other firms. 

The following figure shows the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note (blue line with scale given on the left) and the values of the Nasdaq composite stock index (red line with the value for January 1, 2010 set equal to 100 and the scale given on the right). The Nasdaq includes the stocks of more tech firms than is true of the other widely followed stock market indexes—the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The figure shows that the declining interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes that began in late 2018 and continued through mid-2020 coincided with increases in the prices of the stocks in the Nasdaq index—apart from the spring of 2020 during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The most recent period shows that increases in the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note have corresponded with a decline in the Nasdaq, as noted in the article.

Source: Sam Goldfarb, “Elevated Bond Yields Approach Key Milestone,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2022; U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Prices, Costs, and Profit per Unit of Real Gross Value Added of Nonfinancial Domestic Corporate Business,” January 27, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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The Controversy over Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

On Sunday, February 6, the New York Times ran an article on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) on the front page of its business section with the title, “Time for a Victory Lap.” Link here, subscription may be required. (Note: The title of the article was later changed on the nytimes.com site to “Is This What Winning Looks Like?” perhaps because of the controversy linked to below.)

The article led to a controversy on Twitter (but, then, what topic doesn’t lead to a controversy on Twitter?). Social media is, obviously, not always the best place to discuss economic theory and policy, but instructors and students interested in the debate may find the following links useful both because of the substantive issues raised and as an example of how debates over economic policy can sometimes become heated.

Harvard economist Lawrence Summers reacts negatively to the content of the New York Times article (and to MMT) here.

Economics blogger Noah Smith also reacts negatively to the article here. Smith’s blog post discussing the article at length is here, subscription may be required.

Former Fed economist Claudia Sahm defends the article (and MMT) here.

Jeanna Smialek, the author of the New York Times article, reacts to critics of the article here and to Noah Smith’s blog post here. Smith responds to her response here.

Jason Furman of Harvard’s Kennedy School provides a brief discussion of whether MMT has had much influence on monetary policy here

We discuss MMT in the Apply the Concept, “Modern Monetary Theory: Should We Stop Worrying and Love the Debt?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6 and in Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6.

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The National Debt Just Hit $30 Trillion. Who Owns It?

On February 1, 2022, a headline in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for the First Time.” The national debt—or, more formally, the federal government debt—is the value of all U.S. Treasury securities outstanding. Treasury securities include Treasury bills, which mature in one year or less; Treasury notes, which mature between 2 years and 10 years; Treasury bonds, which mature in 30 years; U.S. savings bonds purchased by individual investors; and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which, unlike other Treasury securities, have their principal amounts adjusted every six months to reflect changes in the consumer price index (CPI).  

With a value of $30 trillion, the federal government debt in early February is about 120 percent of GDP, a record that exceeds the ratio of government debt to GDP during World War II. In 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the ratio of government debt to GDP was only 35 percent. (We discuss the federal government debt in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6 and in Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6.)

There are many important economic issues involved with the federal government debt, but in this blog post we’ll focus just on the question of who owns the debt.

The pie chart below shows the shares of the debt held by different groups. The largest slice shown is for “intragovernmental holdings,” which represent ownership of Treasury securities by government trust funds, notably the Social Security trust funds. The Social Security system makes payments to retired or disabled workers. The system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, which means that the payroll taxes collected from today’s workers are used to make payments to retired workers. Because of slowing population growth, Congress authorized an increase in payroll taxes above the level necessary to make current payments. The Social Security system has invested the surplus in special Treasury securities that the Treasury redeems when the funds are necessary to make payments to retired workers. (In the Apply the Concept “Is Spending on Social Security and Medicare a Fiscal Time Bomb?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, we discuss the long-term funding problems of the Social Security and Medicare systems.)

Some economists argue that the value of these Treasury securities should not be counted as part of the federal government debt because the securities are not marketable in the way that Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are and because the securities represent a flow of funds from one federal agency to another federal agency. If we exclude the value of these securities, the national debt on February 1, 2022 was $23.5 trillion rather than $30.0 trillion. 

The Federal Reserve System holds about 19 percent of federal government debt. The Fed buys and sells Treasury securities as part of its normal conduct of monetary policy. In addition, the Fed accumulated large holdings of Treasury securities as part of its quantitative easing operations during and following the 2007–2009 financial crisis and from 2020 to 2022 during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss quantitative easing in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3.)

About 27 percent of the debt is held by foreign central banks, foreign commercial banks, and foreign investors. The largest amount of Treasury debt is held by Japan, followed by China and the United Kingdom. All other countries combined hold about 16 percent of the debt.

U.S. commercial banks hold more than 15 percent of the debt. Banks hold Treasury securities partly because since the 2007–2009 financial crisis most interest rates, including those on loans and on corporate and municipal bonds, have been very low compared with historic averages. The interest rates on these assets are in some cases too low to compensate banks for the risk of owning the assets rather than default-risk free Treasury securities. In addition, large banks are required to meet a liquidity coverage ratio, which means that they have to hold sufficient liquid assets—those that can be easily converted into cash—to meet their need for funds in a financial crisis. Many banks meet their liquidity requirements, in part, by owning Treasury securities. 

The remaining Treasury securities—about 16.5 percent of the total federal government debt—are held by the U.S. nonbank public. The nonbank public includes financial firms—such as investment banks, insurance companies, and mutual funds—as well as individual investors.

Sources: Amara Omeokwe, “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for First Time,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2022; “Debt to the Penny,” fiscaldata.treasury.gov; “Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities,” ticdata.treasury.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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The Surprisingly Strong Employment Report for January 2022

Leisure and hospitality was one of the industries showing surprisingly strong job growth during January 2022. Photo from the New York Times.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly report on the “Employment Situation” is generally considered the best source of information on the current state of the labor market. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 (and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1), economists, policymakers, and investors generally focus more on the establishment survey data on total payroll employment than on the household survey data on the unemployment rate. The initial data on employment from the establishment survey are subject to substantial revisions over time (we discuss this point further below). But the establishment survey has the advantage of being determined by data taken from actual payrolls rather than by unverified answers to survey questions, as is the case with the household survey data. 

The establishment survey data for January 2022 (released on February 4, 2022) showed a surprisingly large increase in employment of 467,000. The consensus forecast had been for a significantly smaller increase of 150,000, with many economists expecting that the data would show a decrease in employment. The establishment survey is collected for pay periods that include the 12th of the month. In January 2022, in many places in the United States that pay period coincided with the height of the wave of infections from the Omicron variant of Covid-19. And, in fact, according to the household survey, the number of people out of work because of illness was 3.6 million in January—the most during the Covid-19 pandemic. So it seemed likely that payroll employment would have declined in January. But despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, payroll employment increased substantially, likely reflecting firms’ continuing high demand for workers—a demand reflected in the very high level of job openings.

The employment report includes the BLS’s annual data revisions, which are based on a comprehensive payroll count for a particular month in the previous year—in this case, March 2021. The revisions also incorporate changes to the BLS’s seasonal adjustment factors. Each month, the BLS adjusts the raw payroll employment data to reflect seasonal fluctuations such as occur during and after the end-of-year holiday period. For instance, the change from December 2020 to January 2021 in the raw employment data was −2,824,000, whereas the adjusted change was 467,000 (as noted earlier). Obviously this difference is very large and is attributable to the BLS’s seasonal adjustments removing the employment surge in December attributable to seasonal hiring by retail stores, delivery firms, and other businesses strongly affected by the holidays.

The changes to the seasonal adjustment factors made the revisions to the 2021 payroll employment numbers unusually large. For instance, the BLS initially reported that employment increased from June 2021 to July 2021 by 1,091,000, whereas the revision reduced the increase to 689,000. Table A below is reproduced from the BLS report; the figure below the table shows the changes in employment from the previous month as originally published and as revised in the January report. Overall, the BLS revisions now show that employment increased by 217,000 more from 2020 to 2021 than initially estimated. The BLS expressed the opinion that: “Going forward, the updated models should produce more reliable estimates of seasonal movements. [Because there are now] more monthly observations related to the historically large job losses and gains seen in the pandemic-driven recession and recovery, the models can better distinguish normal seasonal movements from underlying trends.”

Source: The BLS “Employment Situation” report can be found here.

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Price Leadership in the Beer Market

InBev’s St. Louis production line for Stell Artois beer. Photo from the Wall Street Journal

Firms in an oligopoly can increase their profits by agreeing with other firms in the industry on what prices to charge. Explicit price fixing violates the antitrust laws and can subject the firms involved to fines of up to $100 million and executives at the firms to fines of up to $1 million and prison terms of up to 10 years. Despite these penalties, the rewards to avoiding price competition are often so great that firms look for ways to implicitly collude—that is, to arrange ways to coordinate their prices without violating the law by explicitly agreeing on the prices to charge. (We discuss the antitrust laws in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.6.) 

One way for firms to implicitly collude is through price leadership. With price leadership, one firm in the industry takes the lead in announcing a price change that other firms in the industry then match. (We briefly discuss price leadership in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 14, Section 14.2.)

In their classic industrial organization textbook, F.M. Scherer of Harvard’s Kennedy School and David Ross of Bryn Mawr College summarize the legal status of price leadership, given court opinions from antitrust cases: “[P]rice leadership is not apt to be found contrary to the antitrust laws unless the leader attempts to coerce other producers into following its lead, or unless there is evidence of an agreement among members of the industry to use the leadership device as the basis of a price-fixing scheme.” As the Federal Trade Commission notes on its website: “A uniform, simultaneous price change could be the result of price fixing, but it could also be the result of independent business responses to the same market conditions.”

Scherer and Ross describe price leadership in a number of oligopolistic industries during the twentieth century, including cigarettes, steel, automobiles, breakfast cereals, turbogenerators, and gasoline.

Recently, Nathan Miller of Georgetown University, Gloria Sheu of the Federal Reserve, and Matthew Weinberg of Ohio State University published an article in the American Economic Review analyzing price leadership in the beer industry. They focus on the period from 2001 to 2011, although they believe that conditions in the beer industry are similar today. From 2001 to 2007, three large U.S.-based firms—Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller, and Molson Coors—accounted for about two-thirds of beer sales in the United States. Two importers—Heineken and Grupo Modelo—accounted for about 14 percent of sales.  In 2008, SABMiller and Molson Coors combined to form MillerCoors and InBev—which had a small market share—bought Anheuser Busch. In 2011, MillerCoors and InBev together accounted for 63 percent of beer sales.

ABI has acted as the price leader, announcing prices in the late summer that MillerCoors typically matches. ABI’s Bud Light had the largest market share among beers in the United States in 2011, well ahead of Coors Light, which had the second largest share. They find that industry profits were 17 percent above the competitive level in 2007—just before the Miller-Coors merger—and 22 percent above the competitive level in 2010—after the merger. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had decided not to contest the Miller-Coors merger because “cost savings in distribution likely would offset any loss of competition.” As it turned out, the cost savings occurred but their value was smaller than the losses in consumer surplus resulting from reduced competition.

The authors estimate that, compared with the competitive outcome, the reduction in consumer surplus in the beer market due to price leadership equaled 154 of the increase in producer surplus before the Miller-Coors merger and 170 percent after it. Figure 15.5 from Chapter 15 of Microeconomics (reproduced below) illustrates why the loss of consumer surplus is larger than the increase in producer surplus: The increase in price and decline in quantity compared with the competitive level results in a deadweight loss that reduces the total economic surplus in the market. (Note that the figure is comparing the situation when a market is monopoly with the situation when the market is perfectly competitive. For simplicity, we are assuming that price leadership in an oligopolistic industry, such as beer, results in the monopoly outcome. But note that whenever collusive behavior, like price leadership, occurs in an industry, we would expect an increase in deadweight loss that will make the gains to firms larger than the losses to consumers.)

Sources: Federal Trade Commission, “Price Fixing,” ftc.gov; U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, “Price Fixing, Bid Rigging, and Market Allocation Schemes: What They Are and What to Look for,” justice.gov; Nathan H. Miller, Gloria Sheu, and Matthew C. Weinberg, “Oligopolistic Price Leadership and Mergers: The United States Beer Industry,” American Economic Review, Vol. 111, No. 10, pp. 3123-3159; and F.M Scherer and David Ross, Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance, Third edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

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AIT or FAIT: How Will the Fed’s New Monetary Policy Strategy Deal with High Inflation Rates?

Congress has given the Fed a mandate to achieve the goal of price stability. Until 2012, the Fed had never stated explicitly how they would measure whether they had achieved this goal. One interpretation of price stability is that the price level remains constant. But a constant price level would be very difficult to achieve in practice and the Fed has not attempted to do so. In 2012, the Fed, under then Chair Ben Bernanke, announced that it was targeting an inflation rate of 2 percent, which it believed was low enough to be consistent with price stability: “When households and businesses can reasonably expect inflation to remain low and stable, they are able to make sound decisions regarding saving, borrowing, and investment, which contributes to a well-functioning economy.” (We discuss inflation targeting in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 and Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.)

In August 2020, the Fed announced a new monetary policy strategy that modified how it interpreted its inflation target: “[T]he Committee seeks to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, and therefore judges that, following periods when inflation has been running persistently below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.” The Fed’s new approach is sometimes referred to as average inflation targeting (AIT) because the Fed attempts to achieve its 2 percent target on average over a period of time, although the Fed has not explicitly stated how long the period of time may be. In other words, the Fed hasn’t indicated the time horizon during which it intends inflation to average 2 percent. 

The Fed uses changes in the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index to measure inflation, rather than using changes in the consumer price index (CPI). The Fed prefers the PCE to the CPI because the PCE is a broader measure of the price level in that it includes the prices of more consumer goods and services than does the CPI. The following figure shows inflation for the period since 2006 measured by percentage changes in the PCE from the corresponding month in the previous year. (Members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee generally consider changes in the core PCE—which excludes the prices of food and energy—to be the best measure of the underlying rate of inflation. But because the Fed’s inflation target is stated in terms of the PCE rather than the core PCE, we are looking here only at the PCE.) The figure shows that for most of the period from 2012 to early 2021, inflation was less than the Fed’s target of 2 percent.

The figure also shows that since March 2021, inflation has been running above 2 percent and has steadily increased, reaching a rate of 5.8 percent in December 2021. Note that a strict interpretation of AIT would mean that the Fed would have to balance these inflation rates far above 2 percent with future inflation rates well below 2 percent. As Ricardo Reis, an economist at the London School of Economics, noted recently: “If the [Fed’s time] horizon is 3 years, the Fed … will [have to] pursue monetary policy to achieve annual inflation of… −0.5% over the next year and a half. If the horizon is 5 years, the Fed … will [have to] pursue policy to achieve annual inflation of 0.9% over the next 3.5 years.” It seems unlikely that the Fed would want to bring about inflation rates that low because doing so would require raising its target for the federal funds rate to levels likely to cause a recession.

Another interpretation of the Fed’s monetary policy strategy is that involves a flexible average inflation target (FAIT) approach rather than a strictly AIT approach. Former Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida discussed this interpretation of the Fed’s strategy in a speech in November 2020. He noted that the framework was asymmetric, meaning that inflation rates higher than 2 percent need not be offset with inflation rates lower than 2 percent: “The new framework is asymmetric. …[T]he  goal of monetary policy … is to return inflation to its 2 percent longer-run goal, but not to push inflation below 2 percent.” And: “Our framework aims … for inflation to average 2 percent over time, but it does not make a … commitment to achieve … inflation outcomes that average 2 percent under any and all circumstances ….” 

Under this interpretation, particularly if Fed policymakers believe that the high inflation rates of 2021 were the result of temporary supply chain problems and other factors caused by the pandemic, it would not need to offset them by forcing inflation to very low levels in order to make the average inflation rate over time equal 2 percent. Critics of the FAIT approach to monetary policy note that the approach doesn’t provide investors, household, and firms with much guidance on what inflation rates the Fed may find acceptable over the short-term of a year or so. In that sense, the Fed is moving away from a rules-based policy, such as the Taylor rule that we discuss in Chapter 15. Or, as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote with respect to FAIT: “Of course, the word ‘flexible’ is there because the Fed doesn’t want to be tied down, so it can do anything.”

The Fed’s actions during 2022 will likely provide a better understanding of how it intends to implement its new monetary policy strategy during conditions of high inflation. 

Sources: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, “Why does the Federal Reserve aim for inflation of 2 percent over the longer run?” federalreserve.gov, August 27, 2020; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, “2020 Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy,” federalreserve.gov, January 14, 2021; Ricardo Reis’s comments are from this Twitter thread: https://mobile.twitter.com/R2Rsquared/status/1488552608981827590, Richard H. Clarida, “The Federal Reserve’s New Framework: Context and Consequences,” federalreserve.gov, November 16, 2020; and James Mackintosh, “On Inflation Surge, the Fed Is Running Out of Excuses,” Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2021.

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The Employment Cost Index, Inflation, and the Possibility of a Wage-Price Spiral

In respect to its mandate to achieve price stability, the Federal Open Market Committee focuses on data for the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index and the core PCE price index. (The core PCE price index omits food and energy prices, as does the core consumer price index.) After the March, June, September, and December FOMC meetings, each committee member projects future values of these price indexes. The projections, which are made public, provide a means for investors, businesses, and households to understand what the Fed expects to happen with future inflation.

In his press conference following the December 2021 FOMC meeting, Chair Jerome Powell surprised some economists by discussing the importance of the employment cost index (ECI) in the committee’s evaluation of the current state of inflation. Powell was asked this question by a journalist: “I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what prompted your recent pivot toward greater wariness around inflation.” He responded, in part:

“We got the ECI reading on the eve of the November meeting—it was the Friday before the November meeting—and it was very high, 5.7 percent reading for the employment compensation index for the third quarter … That’s really what happened [that resulted in FOMC deciding to focus more on inflation]. It was essentially higher inflation and faster—turns out much faster progress in the labor market.”

The ECI is compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is published quarterly. It measures the cost to employers per employee hour worked. The BLS publishes data that includes only wages and salaries and data that includes, in addition to wages and salaries, non-wage benefits—such as contributions to retirement accounts or health insurance—that firms pay workers. The figure below shows the ECI including just wages and salaries (red line) and including all compensation (blue line). The difference between the two lines shows that wages and salaries have been increasing more rapidly than has total compensation. 

A focus on the labor market when analyzing inflation is unsurprising. In Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.1 (Economics, Chapter 27, Section 27.1) we discuss how the Phillips curve links the state of the labor market—as measured by the unemployment rate—to the inflation rate. The link between the unemployment rate and the inflation rate operates through the labor market: When the unemployment rate is low, firms raise wages as they attempt to attract the relatively small number of available workers and to keep their own workers from leaving. (As first drawn by economist A.W. Phillips, the Phillips curve showed the relationship between the unemployment rate and the rate of wage inflation, rather than the relationship between the unemployment rate and the rate of price inflation.) As firms’ wage costs rise, they increase prices. So, as Powell noted, we would expect that if wages are rising rapidly, the rate of price inflation will also increase. 

Powell noted that the FOMC is concerned that rising wages might eventually lead to a wage-price spiral in which higher wages lead to higher prices, which, in turn, cause workers to press for higher nominal wages to keep their real wages from falling, which then leads firms to increases their prices even more, and so on. Some economists interpret the inflation rates during the Great Inflation for 1968–1982 as resulting from a wage-price spiral. One condition for a wage-price spiral to begin is that workers and firms cease to believe that the Fed will be able to return to its target inflation rate—which is currently 2 percent.

In terms of the Phillips curve analysis of Chapter 17, a wage-price spiral can be interpreted as a shifting up of the short-run Phillips curve. The Phillips curve shifts up when households, firms, and investors increase their expectations of future inflation. We discuss this process in Chapter 17, Section 17.2. As the short-run Phillips curve shifts up the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment becomes worse. That is, the inflation rate is higher at every unemployment rate.  For the Fed to reduce the inflation rate—bring it back down to the Fed’s target—becomes more difficult without causing a recession. The Great Inflation was only ended after the Fed raised its target for the federal funds rate to levels that helped cause the severe recession of 1981–1982.

The FOMC has been closely monitoring movements in the ECI to make sure that it heads off a wage-price spiral before it begins.  

Sources:  The transcript of Chair Powell’s press conference can be found here; the most recent economic projections of FOMC members can be found here; and a news article discussing Powell’s fears of a wage-price spiral can be found here (subscription may be required).

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The Remarkable Movement in Inventory Investment in the New GDP Numbers

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “advance estimate” of real GDP for the fourth quarter of 2021 on January 27, 2022. (The BEA’s advance estimate is its first, or preliminary, estimate of real GDP for the period.) At an annual rate, real GDP grew by 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, which was a rate well above what most economists had forecast.  It’s always worth bearing in mind that the advance estimate will be revised several times in future BEA reports, but at this point the growth rate is the highest since the second quarter of 2000. 

The following table shows the interesting fact that final sales of goods and services (line 2) grew only about 2 percent, higher than in the third quarter of 2021, but well below the growth in sales during the previous four quarters. In fact, more than 70 percent of the growth in real GDP during the quarter took the form of increases in inventories (line 3).

Is the fact that economic growth during the quarter mainly took the form of businesses accumulating inventories bad news for the economy? Most likely not. It is true that we often sees firms accumulate inventories at the beginning of a recession. This outcome occurs when firms are too optimistic about sales and end up adding goods to inventory that they had expected to be able to sell. In other words, actual investment expenditures turn out to be greater than plannedinvestment expenditures; the difference between planned and actual investment being equal to the value of unintended inventory accumulation. (We discuss the relationship among planned investment, actual investment, and unintended inventory accumulation in Economics, Chapter 22, Section 22.1 and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 12, Section 12.1.)

It’s possible that some of the inventories firms accumulated during the fourth quarter of 2021 were the result of sales being below the level that the firms had forecast. During the quarter, the Omicron variant of the Covid virus was spreading in several parts of the United States and some consumers cut back their purchases, partly because they were more reluctant to enter stores. It seems likely, though, that the majority of the inventory accumulation was voluntary—and therefore part of planned investment—as firms attempted to rebuild inventories they had drawn down earlier in the year. Some firms also may have decided to hold more inventories than they typically had prior to the pandemic because they wanted to avoid missing sales in case Omicron resulted in further disruptions to their supply chains. 

Source:  The BEA’s website can be found at this link.

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Takeaways from the January 25-26 Federal Open Market Committee Meeting

Fed Chair Jerome Powell (Photo from the Associated Press)

The results of the meeting were largely as expected: The FOMC statement indicated that the Fed remained concerned about “elevated levels of inflation” and that “the Committee expects it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate.” 

In a press conference following the meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell suggested that the FOMC would begin raising its target for the federal funds at its March meeting. He also noted that it was possible that the committee would have to raise its target more quickly than previously expected: “We will remain attentive to risks, including the risk that high inflation is more persistent than expected, and are prepared to respond as appropriate.”

Some other points:

  •  The Federal Reserve Act gives the Federal reserve the dual mandate of “maximum employment” and “price stability.” Neither policy goal is defined in the act. In its new monetary policy strategy announced in August 2020, the Fed stated that it would consider the goal of price stability to have been achieved if annual inflation measured by the change in the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index averaged 2 percent over time. The Fed was less clear about defining the meaning of maximum employment, as we discussed in this blog post.

As we noted in the post, as of December, some labor market indicators—notably, the unemployment rate and the job vacancy rate—appeared to show that the labor market’s recovery from the effects of the pandemic was largely complete. But both total employment and employment of prime age workers remained significantly below the levels of early 2020, just before the effects of the pandemic began to be felt on the labor market.

In his press conference, Powell indicated that despite these conflicting labor market indicators: “Most FOMC participants agree that labor market conditions are consistent with maximum employment in the sense of the highest level of employment that is consistent with price stability. And that is my personal view.” 

  • In March 2020, as the target for the federal funds rate reached the zero lower bound, the Fed turned to quantitative easing (QE), just as it had in November 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis. To carry out its policy of QE, the Fed purchased large quantities of long-term Treasury securities with maturities of 4 to 30 years and mortgage backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae—so-called agency MBS. As a result of these purchases, the Fed’s asset holdings (often referred to as its balance sheet) soared to nearly $9 trillion. 

In addition to raising its target for the federal funds rate, the Fed intends to gradually shrink the size of this asset holdings. Some economists refer to this process as quantitative tightening (QT). Following its January meeting, the FOMC issued a statement on “Principles for Reducing the Size of the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet.” The statement indicated that increases in the federal funds rate, not QT, would be the focus of its shift to a less expansionary monetary policy: “The Committee views changes in the target range for the federal funds rate as its primary means of adjusting the stance of monetary policy.” The statement also indicated that as the process of QT continued the Fed would eventually hold primarily Treasury securities, which means that the Fed would eventually stop holding agency MBS. Some economists have speculated that the Fed’s exiting the market for agency MBS might have a significant effect on that market, potentially causing mortgage interest rates to increase.

  • Finally, Powell indicated that the FOMC would likely raise its target for the federal funds more rapidly than it had during the 2015 to 2018 period. Financial market are expecting three or four 0.25 percent increases during 2022, but Powell would not rule out the possibility that the target could be raised during each remaining meeting of the year—which would result in seven increases. The FOMC’s long-run target for the federal funds rate—sometime referred to as the neutral rate—is 2.5 percent. With the target for the federal funds rate currently near zero, four rate increases during 2022 would still leave the target well short of the neutral rate.

Sources: The statements issued by the FOMC at the close of the meeting can be found here; Christopher Rugaber, “Fed Plans to Raise Rates Starting in March to Cool Inflation,” apnews.com, January 26, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Fed Interest-Rate Decision Tees Up March Increase,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2022; Olivia Rockeman and Craig Torres, “Powell Back March Liftoff, Won’t Rule Out Hike Every Meeting,” bloomberg.com, January 26, 2022; and Olivia Rockeman and Reade Pickett, “Powell Says U.S. Labor Market Consistent with Maximum Employment,” bloomberg.com, January 26, 2022. 

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New 1/25/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss inflation, inflation, inflation.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they talk about the leading economic issue of early 2022 – inflation! They discuss the resurgence of inflation to levels not seen in 40 years due to a combination of miscalculations in monetary and fiscal policy. The role of Quantitative Easing (QE) – and its future – is discussed in depth. Listen today to gain insights into the economic landscape.

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Glenn’s New Book Was Published Today

Link to Yale University Press’s website.

Link to Amazon page.

Link to availability at local independent bookstores in your area.

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Microsoft Buys Activision

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

When a firm decides to expand, it has two main choices: 1) Grow internally, or 2) grow by purchasing (or merging with) another. When Microsoft decided to increase its ability to produce and distribute video games, it chose to grow by acquiring Activision Blizzard, maker of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft among other games. Microsoft’s main objective in buying Activision was to increase the number of games it would have available on its Game Pass cloud-based game streaming service.

Traditionally, people have played video games like Call of Duty on video game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation. This arrangement is similar to how at one time many people watched movies on DVD or Blu-ray players. Today, more people stream movies by subscribing to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Disney+. With these cloud-based movie streaming services, people watch movies on their computers, tablets, or smartphones without having to download them.

With Game Pass, Microsoft is trying to bring the streaming model to video games. If successful, gameplayers would no longer need a video game console, being able to instead play the game on any internet-connected device, including a smartphone.  So far, cloud-based gaming has been growing fairly slowly because games contain much more data than do movies, which makes it more difficult to adapt them to streaming. Microsoft hopes that after successfully converting Activision’s popular games to streaming, it will give a boost to its Game Pass service. 

Microsoft also indicated that it acquired Activision to help it expand its ability to offer products in the “metaverse,” which is a so far not fully developed version of the internet in which people can interact using augmented reality or virtual reality. Most industry observers believe that given that at this point few metaverse services and products are available, the contribution of Activision to the expansion of Game Pass was likely Microsoft’s main motivation in acquiring the company.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision would appear to benefit consumers because it would allow them to stream Activision’s games. Prior to being acquired, Activision apparently had no plans to launch its own game streaming service. In that sense, the acquisition brought together a firm with a popular product (video games) and a firm that had a better way of distributing the product (Game Pass). Still, some industry observers wondered whether the acquisition might lead to an antitrust investigation by either the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission. (We discuss antitrust policy in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.6.)

Antitrust investigations are most common when two firms in the same industry merge because that type of horizontal merger raises the possibility that the new, larger firm may have greater market power, which would increase its ability to raise prices.  Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision is an example of a vertical merger, or a merger between firms at different stages of the production of a good or service. Activision’s game content would be combined with Microsoft’s Game Pass system of distributing games.

The federal government doesn’t typically challenge vertical mergers because they rarely impose a burden on consumers, as horizontal mergers may. But officials in the Biden Administration have promised stricter scrutiny of mergers involving large tech firms, like Microsoft. In response to the possibility of antitrust action against its acquisition of Activision, Microsoft argued that it wouldn’t “be withdrawing games from existing platforms, and our strategy is player-centric—gamers should be able to play the games they want where they want. We believe this acquisition will only increase competition, but it is ultimately up to regulators to decide.” 

Sources:  Kellen Browning, “It’s Not Complicated. Microsoft Wants Activision for Its Games,” New York Times, January 19, 2022; Cara Lombardo, Kirsten Grind, and Aaron Tilley, “Microsoft to Buy Activision Blizzard in All-Cash Deal Valued at $75 Billion,” Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2022; Sarah E. Needleman, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2022; and Stefania Palma, James Fontanella-Khan, Javier Espinoza, and Richard Waters, “’Too Big to Be Ignored’: Microsoft-Activision Deal Tests Regulators,” ft.com, January 22, 2022.

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President Biden Makes Three Nominations to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors

Sarah Bloom Raskin. (Photo from the Wall Street Journal)
Lisa Cook (Photo from Michigan State via the Wall Street Journal)
Philip Jefferson (Photo from Davidson College via the Wall Street Journal)

The terms of the seven members of the Fed’s Board of Governors are staggered with a new 14-year term beginning each February 1 of even-numbered years. That system of appointments was intended to limit turnover on the board with the aim of avoiding sudden swings in monetary policy. But because in practice board members often resign before their terms have expired and because presidents sometimes delay making appointments to empty positions, presidents sometimes face the need to make multiple appointments at the same time. In January 2022, President Joe Biden nominated the following three people—one lawyer and two economists—to positions on the board:

  • Sarah Bloom Raskin is the Colin W. Brown Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law at Duke University. She served on the Board of Governors from 2010 to 2014 before resigning to become deputy secretary of the Treasury, a position she held until 2017. If confirmed by the Senate, she would serve as the board’s vice chair for supervision, becoming the second person to hold that position, which was established by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The vice chair for supervision has important responsibility in leading the Fed’s regulation and supervision of banks.
  • Philip Jefferson is the Paul B. Freeland Professor of Economics, vice president for academic affairs, and dean of the faculty at Davidson College. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia in 1990. He previously taught at Swarthmore College and served a year as an economist at the Board of Governors.
  • Lisa Cook is a professor of economics at Michigan State University. She received her PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997. She served on the Council of Economic Advisers from 2011 to 2012 during the Obama Administration. 

Before taking their positions, the three nominees must first be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. At this point, it’s unclear whether any of the three nominees will encounter significant opposition to their confirmation. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has raised some concerns about Raskin’s nomination, arguing that she:

“has specifically called for the Fed to pressure banks to choke off credit to traditional energy companies and to exclude those employers from any Fed emergency lending facilities. I have serious concerns that she would abuse the Fed’s narrow statutory mandates on monetary policy and banking supervision to have the central bank actively engaged in capital allocation.”

If confirmed, the nominees will join these other four board members:

  • Jerome Powell has been nominated by President Biden to a second term as Fed Chair that, if the Senate votes favorably on the nomination, would begin in February 2022. Powell was first nominated to the board by President Obama in 2011 and nominated by President Trump to his first term as chair, which began in February 2018. 
  • Lael Brainard was first nominated to the board by President Obama in 2014. President Biden has nominated Brainard to serve as vice-chair of the board. If confirmed, she would succeed in that position Richard Clarida who resigned in January 2022.
  • Christopher Waller was nominated by President Trump to a term on the board in 2020. He had previously served as director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. He received his PhD in economics from Washington State University and served as a professor of economics at Notre Dame University and the University of Kentucky. His term expires in 2030.
  • Michelle Bowman was nominated by President Trump to a term on the board in 2018. Bowman had served as the state bank commissioner of Kansas and as an executive at a local bank in Kansas. She has a law degree from Washburn University. She was reappointed to a full 14-year term in 2020. 

Sources: Senator Toomey’s statement on Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination can be found here.  An overview of the membership of the Board of Governors can be found here on the Federal Reserve’s website. An Associated Press article covering President Biden’s nominations can be found here.  

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Macroeconomics or Microeconomics? Is a Lack of Competition in Some Industries Behind the Increase in Inflation?

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

In January 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that inflation, measured as the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from December 2020 to December 2021, was 7 percent. That was the highest rate since June 1982, which was near the end of the Great Inflation that lasted from 1968 to 1982. The following figure shows the inflation rate since the beginning of 1948. 

What explains the surge in inflation? Most economists believe that it is the result of the interaction of increases in aggregate demand resulting from very expansionary monetary and fiscal policy and disruptions to supply in some industries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply during the pandemic in the updated editions of Economics, Chapter 23, Section 23.3 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 13, Section, 13.3.)

But President Joe Biden has suggested that mergers and acquisitions in some industries—he singled out meatpacking—have reduced competition and contributed to recent price increases. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has made a broader claim about reduced competition being responsible for the surge in inflation: “Market concentration has allowed giant corporations to hide behind claims of increased costs to fatten their profit margins. [Corporations] are raising prices because they can.” And “Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline.”

Do many economists agree that reduced competition explains inflation? The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago periodically surveys a panel of more than 40 well-known academic economists for their opinions on significant policy issues. Recently, the panel was asked whether they agreed with these statements:

  1. A significant factor behind today’s higher US inflation is dominant corporations in uncompetitive markets taking advantage of their market power to raise prices in order to increase their profit margins.
  2. Antitrust interventions could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.
  3. Price controls as deployed in the 1970s could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.

Large majorities of the panel disagreed with statements 1. and 2.—that is, they don’t believe that a lack of competition explains the surge in inflation or that antitrust actions by the federal government would be likely to reduce inflation in the coming year. A smaller majority disagreed with statement 3., although even some of those who agreed that price controls would reduce inflation stated that they believed price controls were an undesirable policy. For instance, while he agreed with statement 3., Oliver Hart of Harvard noted that: “They could reduce inflation but the consequence would be shortages and rationing.”

One way to characterize the panel’s responses is that they agreed that the recent inflation was primarily a macroeconomic issue—involving movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply—rather than a microeconomic issue—involving the extent of concentration in individual industries. 

The panels responses can be found here

Sources for Biden and Warren quotes: Greg Ip, “Is Inflation a Microeconomic Problem? That’s What Biden’s Competition Push Is Betting,” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2022; and Patrick Thomas and Catherine Lucey, “Biden Promotes Plan Aimed at Tackling Meat Prices,” Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2022; and https://twitter.com/SenWarren/status/1464353269610954759?s=20

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Lawrence Summers Remains Pessimistic about Inflation

By LHSummers – I had this photo taken of me for personal puposes. Previously published: My website, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23123636

Lawrence Summers, professor of economics at Harvard University and secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, has been outspoken in arguing that monetary and fiscal have been too expansionary. In February 2021, just before Congress passed the American Rescure Plan, which increased federal government spending by $1.9 trillion, Summers cautioned that “there is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability.”

In a brief CNN interview found at this LINK, Summers indicates that he remains concerned that inflation may persist at high levels for a longer period than many other economists, including policymakers at the Federal Reserve, believe.

Source for quote: Lawrence H. Summers, “The Biden Stimulus Is Admirably Ambitious. But It Brings Some Big Risks, Too,” Washington Post, February 4, 2021.

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Glenn’s Article from the Atlantic: “Even My Business-School Students Have Doubts About Capitalism”

Glenn’s new book that this article is adapted from

Link to the article on the Atlantic’s site.

During a lecture in my Modern Political Economy class this fall, I explained—as I have to many students over the course of four decades in academia—that capitalism’s adaptation to globalization and technological change had produced gains for all of society. I went on to say that capitalism has been an engine of wealth creation and that corporations seeking to maximize their long-term shareholder value had made the whole economy more efficient. But several students in the crowded classroom pushed back. “Capitalism leaves many people and communities behind,” one student said. “Adam Smith’s invisible hand seems invisible because it’s not there,” declared another.

I know what you’re thinking: For undergraduates to express such ideas is hardly news. But these were M.B.A. students in a class that I teach at Columbia Business School. For me, those reactions took some getting used to. Over the years, most of my students have eagerly embraced the creative destruction that capitalism inevitably brings. Innovation and openness to new technologies and global markets have brought new goods and services, new firms, new wealth—and a lot of prosperity on average. Many master’s students come to Columbia after working in tech, finance, and other exemplars of American capitalism. If past statistics are any guide, most of our M.B.A. students will end up back in the business world in leadership roles.

The more I thought about it, the more I could see where my students were coming from. Their formative years were shaped by the turbulence after 9/11, the global financial crisis, the Great Recession, and years of debate about the unevenness of capitalism’s benefits across individuals. They are now witnessing a pandemic that caused mass unemployment and a breakdown in global supply chains. Corporate recruiters are trying to win over hesitant students by talking up their company’s “mission” or “purpose”—such as bringing people together or meeting one of society’s big needs. But these gauzy assertions that companies care about more than their own bottom line are not easing students’ discontent.

Over the past four decades, many economists—certainly including me—have championed capitalism’s openness to change, stressed the importance of economic efficiency, and urged the government to regulate the private sector with a light touch. This economic vision has yielded gains in corporate efficiency and profitability and lifted average American incomes as well. That’s why American presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have mostly embraced it.

Yet even they have made exceptions. Early in George W. Bush’s presidency, when I chaired his Council of Economic Advisers, he summoned me and other advisers to discuss whether the federal government should place tariffs on steel imports. My recommendation against tariffs was a no-brainer for an economist. I reminded the president of the value of openness and trade; the tariffs would hurt the economy as a whole. But I lost the argument. My wife had previously joked that individuals fall into two groups—economists and real people. Real people are in charge. Bush proudly defined himself as a real person. This was the political point that he understood: Disruptive forces of technological change and globalization have left many individuals and some entire geographical areas adrift.

In the years since, the political consequences of that disruption have become all the more striking—in the form of disaffection, populism, and calls to protect individuals and industries from change. Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have moved away from what had been mainstream economists’ preferred approach to trade, budget deficits, and other issues.

Economic ideas do not arise in a vacuum; they are influenced by the times in which they are conceived. The “let it rip” model, in which the private sector has the leeway to advance disruptive change, whatever the consequences, drew strong support from such economists as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, whose influential writings showed a deep antipathy to big government, which had grown enormously during World War II and the ensuing decades. Hayek and Friedman were deep thinkers and Nobel laureates who believed that a government large enough for top-down economic direction can and inevitably will limit individual liberty. Instead, they and their intellectual allies argued, government should step back and accommodate the dynamism of global markets and advancing technologies.

But that does not require society to ignore the trouble that befalls individuals as the economy changes around them. In 1776, Adam Smith, the prophet of classical liberalism, famously praised open competition in his book The Wealth of Nations. But there was more to Smith’s economic and moral thinking. An earlier treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, called for “mutual sympathy”—what we today would describe as empathy. A modern version of Smith’s ideas would suggest that government should play a specific role in a capitalist society—a role centered on boosting America’s productive potential(by building and maintaining broad infrastructure to support an open economy) and on advancing opportunity (by pushing not just competition but also the ability of individual citizens and communities to compete as change occurs).

The U.S. government’s failure to play such a role is one thing some M.B.A. students cite when I press them on their misgivings about capitalism. Promoting higher average incomes alone isn’t enough. A lack of “mutual sympathy” for people whose career and community have been disrupted undermines social support for economic openness, innovation, and even the capitalist economic system itself.

The United States need not look back as far as Smith for models of what to do. Visionary leaders have taken action at major economic turning points; Abraham Lincoln’s land-grant colleges and Franklin Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill, for example, both had salutary economic and political effects. The global financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic alike deepen the need for the U.S. government to play a more constructive role in the modern economy. In my experience, business leaders do not necessarily oppose government efforts to give individual Americans more skills and opportunities. But business groups generally are wary of expanding government too far—and of the higher tax levels that doing so would likely produce.

My students’ concern is that business leaders, like many economists, are too removed from the lives of people and communities affected by forces of change and companies’ actions. That executives would focus on general business and economic concerns is neither surprising nor bad. But some business leaders come across as proverbial “anywheres”—geographically mobile economic actors untethered to actual people and places—rather than “somewheres,” who are rooted in real communities.

This charge is not completely fair. But it raises concerns that broad social support for business may not be as firm as it once was. That is a problem if you believe, as I do, in the centrality of businesses in delivering innovation and prosperity in a capitalist system. Business leaders wanting to secure society’s continuing support for enterprise don’t need to walk away from Hayek’s and Friedman’s recounting of the benefits of openness, competition, and markets. But they do need to remember more of what Adam Smith said.

As my Columbia economics colleague Edmund Phelps, another Nobel laureate, has emphasized, the goal of the economic system Smith described is not just higher incomes on average, but mass flourishing. Raising the economy’s potential should be a much higher priority for business leaders and the organizations that represent them. The Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce should strongly support federally funded basic research that shifts the scientific and technological frontier and applied-research centers that spread the benefits of those advances throughout the economy. Land-grant colleges do just that, as do agricultural-extension services and defense-research applications. Promoting more such initiatives is good for business—and will generate public support for business. After World War II, American business groups understood that the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe would benefit the United States diplomatically and commercially. They should similarly champion high-impact investment at home now.

To address individual opportunity, companies could work with local educational institutions and commit their own funds for job-training initiatives. But the U.S. as a whole should do more to help people compete in the changing economy—by offering block grants to community colleges, creating individualized reemployment accounts to support reentry into work, and enhancing support for lower-wage, entry-level work more generally through an expanded version of the earned-income tax credit. These proposals are not cheap, but they are much less costly and more tightly focused on helping individuals adapt than the social-spending increases being championed in Biden’s Build Back Better legislation are. The steps I’m describing could be financed by a modestly higher corporate tax rate if necessary.

My M.B.A. students who doubt the benefits of capitalism see the various ways in which government policy has ensured the system’s survival. For instance, limits on monopoly power have preserved competition, they argue, and government spending during economic crises has forestalled greater catastrophe.

They also see that something is missing. These young people, who have grown up amid considerable pessimism, are looking for evidence that the system can do more than generate prosperity in the aggregate. They need proof that it can work without leaving people and communities to their fate. Businesses will—I hope—keep pushing for greater globalization and promoting openness to technological change. But if they want even M.B.A. students to go along, they’ll also need to embrace a much bolder agenda that maximizes opportunities for everyone in the economy.

Link to the Amazon listing of Glenn’s new book.

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How Do We Know When the Economy Is at Maximum Employment?

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

According to the Federal Reserve Act, the Fed must conduct monetary policy “so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” Neither “maximum employment” nor “stable prices” are defined in the act.

The Fed has interpreted “stable prices” to mean a low rate of inflation. Since 2012, the Fed has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent. When the Fed announced its new monetary policy strategy in August 2020, it modified its inflation target by stating that it would attempt to achieve an average inflation rate of 2 percent over time. As Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated: “Our approach can be described as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.” (Note that although the consumer price index (CPI) is the focus of many media stories on inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is changes in the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE is a broader measure of the price level than is the CPI because it includes the prices of all the goods and services included in consumption category of GDP. “Core” means that the index excludes food and energy prices. For a further discussion see, Economics, Chapter 25, Section 15.5 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.) 

There is more ambiguity about how to determine whether the economy is at maximum employment. For many years, a majority of members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) focused on the natural rate of unemployment (also called the non-accelerating rate of unemployment (NAIRU)) as the best gauge of when the U.S. economy had attained maximum employment. The lesson many economists and policymakers had taken from the experience of the Great Inflation that lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was if the unemployment rate was persistently below the natural rate of unemployment, inflation would begin to accelerate. Because monetary policy affects the economy with a lag, many policymakers believed it was important for the Fed to react before inflation begins to significantly increase and a higher inflation rate becomes embedded in the economy.

At least until the end of 2018, speeches and other statements by some members of the FOMC indicated that they continued to believe that the Fed should pay close attention to the relationship between the natural rate of unemployment and the actual rate of unemployment. But by that time some members of the FOMC had concluded that their decision to begin raising the target for the federal funds rate in December 2015 and continuing raising it through December 2018 may have been a mistake because their forecasts of the natural rate of unemployment may have been too high. For instance, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic noted in a speech that: “If estimates of the NAIRU are actually too conservative, as many would argue they have been … unemployment could have averaged one to two percentage points lower” than it actually did.

Accordingly, when the Fed announced its new monetary policy strategy in August 2020, it indicated that it would consider a wider range of data—such as the employment-population ratio—when determining whether the labor market had reached maximum employment. At the time, Fed Chair Powell noted that: “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.”

As the economy recovered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Fed faced particular difficulty in assessing the state of the labor market. Some labor market indicators appeared to show that the economy was close to maximum employment while other indicators showed that the labor market recovery was not complete. For instance, in December 2021, the unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, slightly below the average of the FOMC members estimates of the natural rate of unemployment, which was 4.0 percent. Similarly, as the first figure below shows, job vacancy rates were very high at the end of 2021. (The BLS calculates job vacancy rates, also called job opening rates, by dividing the number of unfilled job openings by the sum of total employment plus job openings.) As the second figure below shows, job quit rates were also unusually high, indicating that workers saw the job market as being tight enough that if they quit their current job they could find easily another job. (The BLS calculates job quit rates by dividing the number of people quitting jobs by total employment.) By those measures, the labor market seemed close to maximum employment.

But as the first figure below shows, total employment in December 2021 was still 3.5 million below its level of early 2020, just before the U.S. economy began to experience the effects of the pandemic. Some of the decline in employment can be accounted for by older workers retiring, but as the second figure below indicates, employment of prime-age workers (those between the ages of 25 and 54), had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. 

How to reconcile these conflicting labor market indicators? In January 2022, Fed Chair Powell testified before the Senate Banking Committee as the Senate considered his nomination for a second four-year term as chair. In discussing the state of the economy he offered the opinion that: “We’re very rapidly approaching or at maximum employment.” He noted that inflation as measured by changes in the CPI had been running above 5 percent since June 2021: “If these high levels of inflation get entrenched in our economy, and in people’s thinking, then inevitably that will lead to much tighter monetary policy from us, and it could lead to a recession.” In that sense, “high inflation is a severe threat to the achievement of maximum employment.”

At the time of Powell’s testimony, the FOMC had already announced that it was moving to a less expansionary monetary policy by reducing its purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities and by increasing its target for the federal funds rate in the near future. He argued that these actions would help the Fed achieve its dual mandate by reducing the inflation rate, thereby heading off the need for larger increases in the federal funds rate that might trigger a recession. Avoiding a recession would help achieve the goal of maximum employment.

Powell’s remarks did not make explicit which labor market indicators the Fed would focus on in determining whether the goal of maximum employment had been obtained. It did make clear that the Fed’s new policy of average inflation targeting did not mean that the Fed would accept inflation rates as high as those of the second half of 2021 without raising its target for the federal funds rate. In that sense, the Fed’s monetary policy of 2022 seemed consistent with its decades-long commitment to heading off increases in inflation before they lead to a significant increase in the inflation rate expected by households, businesses, and investors. 

Note: For a discussion of the background to Fed policy, see Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5 and Chapter 27, Section 17.4, and Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 and Chapter 17, Section 17.4.

Sources: Jeanna Smialek, “Jerome Powell Says the Fed is Prepared to Raise Rates to Tame Inflation,” New York Times, January 11, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Fed’s Powell Says Economy No Longer Needs Aggressive Stimulus,” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2022; and Federal Open Market Committee, “Meeting Calendars, Statements, and Minutes,” federalreserve.gov, January 5, 2022.

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New Information on Fed Policy Affects Stock and Bond Prices

Jerome Powell (photo from the Wall Street Journal)

Most economists believe that monetary policy actions, such as changes in the Fed’s pace of buying bonds or in its target for the federal funds rate, affect real GDP and employment only with a lag of several months or longer. But monetary policy actions can have a more immediate effect on the prices of financial assets like stocks and bonds. 

Investors in financial markets are forward looking because the prices of financial assets are determined by investors’ expectations of the future. (We discuss this point in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2, Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2, and Money, Banking and the Financial System, Chapter 6.) For instance, stock prices depend on the future profitability of firms, so if investors come to believe that future economic growth is likely to be slower, thereby reducing firms’ profits, the investors will sell stocks causing stock prices to decline.

Similarly, holders of existing bonds will suffer losses if the interest rates on newly issued bonds are higher than the interest rates on existing bonds. Therefore, if investors come to believe that future interest rates are likely to be higher than they had previously expected them to be, they will sell bonds, thereby causing their prices to decline and the interest rates on them to rise. (Recall that the prices of bonds and the interest rates (or yields) on them move in opposite directions: If the price of a bond falls, the interest rate on the bond will increase; if the price of a bond rises, the interest rate on the bond will decrease. To review this concept, see the Appendix to Economics and Microeconomics Chapter 8, the Appendix to Macroeconomics Chapter 6, and MoneyBankingand the Financial System, Chapter 3.)

Because monetary policy actions can affect future interest rates and future levels of real GDP, investors are alert for any new information that would throw light on the Fed’s intentions. When new information appears, the result can be a rapid change in the prices of financial assets. We saw this outcome on January 5, 2022, when the Fed released the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting held on December 14 and 15, 2021. At the conclusion of the meeting, the FOMC announced that it would be reducing its purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.  These purchases are intended to aid the expansion of real GDP and employment by keeping long-term interest rates from rising. The FOMC also announced that it intended to increase its target for the federal funds rate when “labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment.”

When the minutes of this FOMC meeting were released at 2 pm on January 5, 2022, many investors realized that the Fed might increase its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022—earlier than most had expected. In this sense, the release of the FOMC minutes represented new information about future Fed policy and the markets quickly reacted. Selling of stocks caused the S&P 500 to decline by nearly 100 points (or about 2 percent) and the Nasdaq to decline by more than 500 points (or more than 3 percent). Similarly, the price of Treasury securities fell and, therefore, their interest rates rose. 

Investors had concluded from the FOMC minutes that economic growth was likely to be slower during 2022 and interest rates were likely to be higher than they had previously expected. This change in investors’ expectations was quickly reflected in falling prices of stocks and bonds.

Sources: An Associated Press article on the reaction to the release of the FOMC minutes can be found HERE; the FOMC’s statement following its December 2021 meeting can be found HERE; and the minutes of the FOMC meeting can be found HERE.

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President Biden Decides to Reappoint Jerome Powell as Fed Chair

Jerome Powell (photo from the New York Times)

When Congress established the Federal Reserve System in 1913, it intended to make the Fed independent of the rest of the federal government. (We discuss this point in the opener to Macroeconomics, Chapter 15 and to Economics, Chapter 25. We discuss the structure of the Federal Reserve System in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.4 and in Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.4.) The ultimate responsibility for operating the Fed lies with the Board of Governors in Washington, DC. Members of the Board of Governors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to 14-year nonrenewable terms. Congress intentionally made the terms of Board members longer than the eight years that a president serves (if the president is reelected to a second term).

The president is still able to influence the Board of Governors in two ways:

  1. The terms of members of the Board of Governors are staggered so that one term expires on January 31 of each even-number year. Although this approach means that it’s unlikely that a president will be able to appoint all seven members during the president’s time in office, in practice, many members do not serve their full 14-year terms. So, a president who serves two terms will typically have an opportunity to appoint more than four members of the Board.
  2. The president nominates one member of the Board to serve a renewable four-year term as chair, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

The terms of Fed chairs end in the year after the year a president begins either the president’s first or second term. As a result, presidents are often faced with what is at times a difficult decision as to whether to reappoint a Fed chair who was first appointed by a president of the other party.

For example, after taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, faced the decision of whether to nominate Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to a second term to begin in 2010. Bernanke had originally been appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican. Partly because the economy was still suffering the aftereffects of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, President Obama decided that it would potentially be disruptive to financial markets to replace Bernanke, so he nominated him for a second term.

After taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump, a Republican, had to decide whether to nominate Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who had been appointed by Obama, to another term that would begin in 2018. He decided not to reappoint Yellen and instead nominated Jerome Powell, who was already serving on the Board of Governors. Although a Republican, Powell had been appointed to the Board in 2014 by Obama.

President Biden’s reasons for nominating Powell to a second term to begin in 2022 were similar to Obama’s reasons for nominating Bernanke to a second term: The U.S. economy was still recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the strains the pandemic had inflicted on the financial system. He believed that replacing Powell with another nominee would have been potentially disruptive to the financial system.

There had been speculation that Biden would choose Lael Brainard, who has served on the Board of Governors since 2014 following her appointment by Obama, to succeed Powell as Fed chair. Instead, Biden appointed Brainard as vice chair of the Board. In announcing the appointments, Biden stated: “America needs steady, independent, and effective leadership at the Federal Reserve. That’s why I will nominate Jerome Powell for a second term as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and Dr. Lael Brainard to serve as Vice Chair of the Board of Governors.”

Sources: Nick Timiraos and Andrew Restuccia, “Biden Will Tap Jerome Powell for New Term as Fed Chairman,” wsj.com, November 22, 2021; and Jeff Cox and Thomas Franck, “Biden Picks Jerome Powell to Lead the Fed for a Second Term as the U.S. Battles Covid and Inflation,” cnbc.com, November 22, 2021.

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The U.S. Dollar in the World Economy

The U.S. dollar is the most important currency in the world economy. The funds that governments and central banks hold to carry out international transactions are called their official foreign exchange reserves. (See Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Section 18.1 and Economics, Chapter 28, Section 28.1.) There are 180 national currencies in the world and foreign exchange reserves can be held in any of them. In practice, international transactions are conducted in only a few currencies. Because the U.S. dollar is used most frequently in international transactions, the majority of foreign exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars. The following figure shows the composition of official foreign exchange reserves by currency as of mid-2021.

Over time, the percentage of foreign exchange reserves in U.S. dollars has been gradually declining, although the dollar seems likely to remain the dominant foreign reserve currency for a considerable period. Does the United States gain an advantage from being the most important foreign reserve currency? Economists and policymakers are divided in their views. At the most basic level, dollars are claims on U.S. goods and services and U.S. financial assets. When foreign governments, banks, corporations, and investors hold U.S. dollars rather than spending them, they are, in effect, providing the United States with interest-free loans. U.S. households and firms also benefit from often being able to use U.S. currency around the world when buying and selling goods and services and when borrowing, rather than first having to exchange dollars for other currencies.

But there are also disadvantages to the dollar being the dominant reserve currency. Because the dollar plays this role, the demand for the dollar is higher than it would otherwise be, which increases the exchange rate between the dollar and other currencies. If the dollar lost its status as the key foreign reserve currency, the exchange rate might decline by as much as 30 percent. A decline in the value of the dollar by that much would substantially increase exports of U.S. goods. Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, has noted that the result might be “a shift in the composition of what America exports from Treasury [bonds and other financial securities] … toward John Deere earthmoving equipment, Boeing Dreamliners, and—who knows—maybe even motor vehicles and parts.”

As shown in the following figure, the importance of the U.S. dollar in the world economy is also indicated by the sharp increase in the demand for dollars and, therefore, in the exchange rate during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 and during the spread of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020. (The exchange rate in the figure is a weighted average of the exchange rates between the dollar and the currencies of the major trading partners of the United States.) As an article in the Economist put it: “Last March, when suddenly the priority was to have cash, the cash that people wanted was dollars.”

Sources: International Monetary Fund, “Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves,” data.imf.org; Alina Iancu, Neil Meads, Martin Mühleisen, and Yiqun Wu, “Glaciers of Global Finance: The Currency Composition of Central Banks’ Reserve Holdings,” blogs.imf.org, December 16, 2020; Barry Eichengreen, Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 173; “How America’s Blockbuster Stimulus Affects the Dollar,” economist.com, March 13, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

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The Case of the Missing Highways

In November 2021, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIF). The bill included funds for:

  • Highways and bridges
  • Buses, subways, and other mass transit systems
  • Amtrak, the federally sponsored corporation that provides most intercity railroad service in the United States, to modernize and expand its service
  • A network of charging stations for electric cars
  • Maintenance and modernization of ports and airports
  • Securing infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change
  • Increasing access to clean drinking water
  • Expansion of broadband internet, particularly in rural areas
  • Treating soil and groundwater pollution

As with other infrastructure bills, although the federal government provides funding, much of the actual work—and some of the funding—is the responsibility of state and local governments. For instance, nearly all highway construction in the United States is carried out by state highway or transportation departments. These state government agencies design new highways and bridges and contract primarily with private construction firms to do the work.

Because state and local governments carry out most highway and bridge construction, Congress doesn’t always achieve the results they intended when providing the funding.  Bill Dupor, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has discovered a striking example of this outcome. In 2009, in response to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). (We discuss the ARRA in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.5 and Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.5.) Included in the act was $27.5 billion in new spending on highways. This amount represented a 76 percent increase on previous levels of  federal spending on highways. As Dupor puts it, Congress and the president had “great hopes for the potential of these new grants to create and save construction jobs as well as improve highways.”

Surprisingly, though, Dupor’s analysis of data on the condition of bridges, on miles of highways constructed, and on the number of workers employed in highway construction shows that the billions of dollars Congress directed to infrastructure spending under ARRA had little effect on the nation’s highways and bridges and did not increase employment on highway construction.

What happened to the $27.5 billion Congress had appropriated? Dupor concludes that after receiving the federal funds most state governments:”cut their own contributions to highway capital spending which, in turn, … [freed] up those funds for other uses. Since states were facing budget stress from declining tax revenues resulting from the recession, it stands to reason that states had the incentive to do so.”

He finds that following passage of ARRA many states cut their spending on highway infrastructure while at the same time increasing their spending on other things. For instance, Maryland cut its spending on highways by $73 per person while increasing its spending on education by $129 per person. 

Can we conclude that that Congressional infrastructure spending under ARRA was a failure and the funds were wasted? To answer this question, first keep in mind that when it authorizes an increase in infrastructure spending, Congress often has two goals in mind:

  1. To maintain and expand the country’s infrastructure
  2. To engage in countercyclical fiscal policy

The first goal is obvious but the second can be important as well. Typically, Congress is most likely to authorize a large increase in infrastructure spending during a recession. When the ARRA was passed in the spring of 2009, Congress and President Obama were clear that they hoped that the increased spending authorized in the bill would reduce unemployment from the very high levels at that time.  (Economists and policymakers debated whether additional countercyclical fiscal policy was needed at the time Congress passed the BIF in late 2021. Although the Biden administration argued that the spending was needed to increase employment, some economists argued that the BIF did little to deal with the supply problems then plaguing the economy.)

We discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.2 (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.2), how expansionary fiscal policy can increase real GDP and employment during a recession. If Dupor’s analysis is correct, Congress failed to achieve its first goal of improving the country’s infrastructure. But Dupor’s findings that states, in effect, used the federal infrastructure funds for other types of spending, such as on education, means that Congress did meet its second goal. That conclusion holds if in the absence of receiving the $27.5 billion in funds from ARRA, state governments would have had to cut their spending elsewhere, which would have reduced overall government expenditures and reduced aggregate demand. 

As this discussion indicates, the details of how fiscal policy affects the economy can be complex. 

Sources: Gabriel T. Rubin and Eliza Collins, “What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill? From Amtrak to Roads to Water Systems,” wsj.com, November 6, 2021; Bill Dupor, “So Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, Second Quarter 2017, pp. 169-182; Greg Ip, “President Biden’s Economic Agenda Wasn’t Designed for Shortages and Inflation,” wsj.com, November 10, 2021; and Executive Office of the President, “Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” whitehouse.gov, August 2, 2021. 

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What’s Next for China?

Xi Jinping

When Deng Xiaoping assumed control of China following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, he was in charge of one of the poorest countries in the world. The average person in China survived on the equivalent of $3 per day and the bulk of the population worked on government-run collective farms. Deng’s response to this dismal situation was a series of economic reforms that led China away from Mao’s socialist regime toward a free market economy. The results have been spectacular.

Since 1978, when Deng’s reforms began, real GDP per capita in China has increased from $381 (in 2010 prices) to $10,431 in 2020. Today, China is a solidly middle-income country on a par with Mexico or Indonesia. According to World Bank data, in 1981 more than 875 million people in China lived in extreme poverty. By 2019, fewer than 1 million did. The world has never seen such a high economic growth rate sustained over such a long period or as dramatic a reduction in poverty in such a short period. Deng brought about an increase in the material well-being of his people unrivaled in history.

But, as we discuss in the Apply the Concept in Section 11.5 of Chapter 11 in Macroeconomics (Section 21.5 in Chapter 21 of Economics), despite Deng’s success he failed to resolve a conflict at the heart of the Chinese system:  Deng and the other party leaders saw their economic reforms as strengthening socialism and not as replacing socialism with capitalism. They had no intention of undermining the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society or of introducing democracy. The result is the peculiar situation China now finds itself in under current leader Xi Jinping: A country that extensively relies on free markets ruled by an autocratic regime that justifies its dictatorship as necessary for the preservation of socialism.

In 2022, at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi seems likely to be elected to a third term as leader of the Communist Party, breaking with the tradition since Deng of leaders serving only two terms. Like Mao, Xi’s apparent intention is to retain his office indefinitely. Xi’s speeches indicate that he believes that China is following a path like the one that Karl Marx, writing in the 1800s, believed countries would follow, which would culminate in a socialist economy. He sees Mao as having reasserted China’s independence from Europe and the United States, although at his death China remained largely rural and agricultural with very little scope for market activity. Deng continued the evolution of the economy by establishing a market system that raised incomes and allowed for industrial development. Xi sees himself as finishing the process by leading China to become a “modern socialist nation” by 2035.

As we discuss in the Apply the Concept, there are a number of obstacles to China’s continued economic growth, obstacles that appear to have increased during 2021 as Xi’s plans have become clearer.

  1. As part of his plan to transition China to being a socialist nation, Xi has increased government regulation of China’s economy. He has imposed large fines on technology firms such as Alibaba and Tencent and on the ride-hailing firm Didi. A government proclamation effectively ended the for-profit school tutoring industry, which seven of ten Chinese students had been using. This government action raised concern among the owners of some small and medium-sized businesses that their investments in their firms could be wiped out arbitrarily without notice. Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs were also being pressured to devote more funds to charity. Whether increased government regulation will result in entrepreneurs pulling back from the investment needed to sustain economic growth remains to be seen. 
  2. Over the decades since market reforms began, the Chinese economy had been cutting reliance on production by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in favor of production by private firms. Recently, some observers have concluded that Xi plans to increase the share of the economy controlled by SOEs, although his public statements have emphasized the need for SOEs to become more efficient and for the government to reduce its subsidies to these firms. Many of China’s trading partners, including the United States, have objected to these subsidies. If the importance of SOEs in the Chinese economy should increase, it would likely further slow economic growth and increase the frictions between China and its trading partners. 
  3. Economic growth has been slowing down. Between 1978 and 2011, per capita real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 8.9 percent. Between 2012 and 2020 that growth rate slowed to 6.0 percent. Although compared with most other countries, a 6 percent growth rate is quite high, some economists believe that the Chinese government has been overstating the true growth rate. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it, “real growth has long been one of the ways officials are evaluated in China, and so there is a strong incentive to inflate it—and substantial evidence that has happened.”
  4. China’s population is rapidly aging. Its birthrate of 1.3 children born per woman during her lifetime is well below the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain the population. The working age population has been declining since 2011, as the fraction of the population over 65 has been increasing. Although the populations of Europe, the United States, and other high-income countries have also been aging, those countries have more resources than does China to provide support to retired people, as with the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States. Because China’s average retirement age is only 54, while its average life expectancy is 77 years, an increasing number of retirees is being supported by a decreasing number of workers. The Chinese government has announced plans to raise the official retirement age but the government has abandoned past attempts to do so in the face of public protests.
  5. The economy’s excessive reliance on investment in real estate. Particularly during the past five years, real estate investment has been an important contributor to the growth of the Chinese economy, accounting for as much as 25 percent of GDP (as opposed to only about 7 percent in the United States). But the difficulties that the Evergrande real estate development firm encountered during 2021 seemed to be an indication that what has been the largest real estate boom in history may be ending. In some cities as many as 40 percent of apartments are empty, making it difficult for Evergrande and other developers to make the interest payments on their loans and bonds. The Chinese government has issued regulations that limit borrowing by real estate developers in an attempt to reduce what the government sees as speculative building of apartments. Whether the government can reduce the importance of real investment in the economy without causing a significant reduction in the economy’s growth rate is uncertain. 
  6. Increasing political problems with other countries. The Chinese government has drawn sharp international criticism for a number of actions: Its repression of the more than one million members of a Muslim minority in western China; its ending the political independence of Hong Kong; the expansion of its military and its threatening actions towards Taiwan (which the Chinese government believes is part of China); and its failure to be forthcoming with information about the origins of the Covid-19 virus. An additional source of disagreements with other governments has been disputes over international trade. Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as governments in Europe, have been critical of the Chinese government forcing foreign firms that operate in China to transfer intellectual property to Chinese firms, an action that is in violation of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules. The growth of Chinese exports has been greatly helped by China’s membership in the WTO, which may be threatened by what other governments see as China’s violations of WTO rules.

The actions that Xi Jinping takes in the coming years are likely to have a large effect on not just the Chinese economy, but on the world economy. 

Sources: Stella Yifan Xie, “China’s Economy Faces Risk of Yearslong Real-Estate Hangover,” wsj.com, November 8, 2021; “Xi Jinping Is Rewriting History to Justify His Rule for Years to Come,” economist.com, November 6, 2021; Sofia Horta e Costa, “Chinese Developer Controlled by Government Is Latest to Plunge,” bloomberg.com, November 8, 2021; Kevin Rudd, “What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?” wsj.com, September 19, 2021; “At 54, China’s Average Retirement Age Is Too Low,” economist.com, June 26, 2021; Nathaniel Taplin, “China’s Economic Data: A Guide for the Dazed and Confused,” wsj.com, January 4, 2021; Stella Yifan Xie and Mike Bird, “The $52 Trillion Bubble: China Grapples With Epic Property Boom,” wsj.com, July 16, 2020; the World Bank; and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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The Congressional Budget Office’s Changing Forecasts of U.S. Economic Growth

There are many macroeconomic forecasts. Some forecasts are made by private economists, including those who work for Wall Street Investment firms. Other forecasts are made by economists who work for the government. Perhaps the most widely used macroeconomic forecasts are those published by economists who work for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO is a nonpartisan agency within the federal government that provides estimates of the economic effects of government policies as part of the process by which Congress prepares the federal budget. One important aspect of the CBO’s work is to estimate future federal government budget deficits.

To forecast the size of future deficits, the CBO needs to forecast growth in key macroeconomic variables, including GDP. Faster growth in the U.S. economy should result in faster growth in federal tax revenues and slower growth in federal government transfer payments, including payments the federal government makes under the unemployment insurance system, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. When revenues grow faster than expenditures, the federal budget deficit shrinks.

The CBO’s forecasts of potential GDP provide perhaps the most best known projections of the future economic growth of the U.S. economy. The CBO calculates its forecasts of potential GDP by forecasting the variables that potential GDP depends on. As we’ve seen in Macroeconomics, Chapters 10 (Economics, Chapters 20), the two key variables in determining the growth in real GDP are the growth in labor productivity—the ratio of real GDP to the quantity of labor—and the growth of the labor force.

How well has the CBO forecast future U.S. economic growth? Or, equivalently, how well has the CBO forecast potential GDP. Each year the CBO publishes forecasts of potential GDP for the following 10 years and for longer periods—typically 40 or 50 years. Claudia Sahm, an economic consultant and opinion writer and formerly an economist at the Federal Reserve and the White House, has noted that the CBO’s 10-year forecasts of potential GDP have not been good forecasts of the actual growth of real GDP. Over the past 15 years, the CBO has also carried out surprisingly large downward revisions of its forecasts of potential GDP.

The figure below is similar to one prepared by Sahm and shows the forecasts of potential GDP the CBO published in 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020 for the following 10 years. (For Sahm’s Twitter thread discussing her figure, click HERE.) That is, in 2005, the CBO issued a forecast of potential GDP for the years 2005–2015. In 2010, the CBO issued a forecast of potential GDP for the years 2010–2020, and so on. Note that for ease of comparison, all GDP values in the figure are set equal to a value of 100 in 2005.

Each straight line on the chart represents the CBO’s forecast of potential GDP over the 10 years following the year in which the forecast was published. For example, the top blue line represents the forecasts the CBO made in 2005 of the values of potential GDP for the years 2005 to 2015. The bottom blue line shows the actual values of real GDP for the years from 2005 to 2020. Note how at each five year interval, the CBO’s forecasts of potential GDP shifted down.

We can look at a few examples of how far off the CBO’s projections were. For instance, if the economy had grown as rapidly between 2005 and 2015 as the CBO forecast it would in 2005, real GDP would have been about 15 percent higher than it actually was. In other words, the U.S. economy would have produced about $2.5 trillion more in goods and services than it actually did. Similarly, if the economy had grown as rapidly between 2010 and 2019 as the CBO forecast it would in 2010, real GDP in 2019 would have been about 7.5 percent (or about $1.5 trillion) higher than it actually was. 

Why has the CBO persistently overestimated the future growth rate of the U.S. economy? The main source of error has been the CBO’s overestimation of the growth in labor force productivity. They have also slightly overestimated the growth of the labor force. Claudia Sahm has a more basic criticism of the CBO’s approach to estimating potential GDP. She argues that if real GDP grows slowly during a period, perhaps because monetary and fiscal policies are insufficiently expansionary, the CBO will incorporate the lower actual real GDP values when it updates its forecasts of potential GDP. This approach can raise questions as to whether the CBO is actually measuring potential GDP as most economist’s define it (and as we define it in the textbook): The level real GDP attains when all firms are producing at capacity. Other economists share these concerns. For instance, Daan Struyven, Jan Hatzius, and Sid Bhushan of the Goldman Sachs investment bank, argue that the CBO’s estimate of potential GDP understates the true capacity of the U.S. economy by 3 to 4 percent.

The CBO’s substantial adjustments to its forecasts of potential GDP are another indication of how volatile the U.S. economy has been since the beginning of the 2007–2009 recession.

Sources:  Tyler Powell, Louise Sheiner, and David Wessel, “What Is Potential GDP, and Why Is It So Controversial Right Now,” brookings.edu, February 22, 2021; and Congressional Budget Office, “Budget and Economic Data,” various years. 

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We Will Never See Anything Like It Again: Movements in Real GDP during the Covid-19 Recession

There are a number of ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic was unlike anything the United States has experienced since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Most striking from an economic perspective were the extraordinary swings in real GDP. The following figure shows quarterly changes in real GDP seasonally adjusted and calculated at an annual rate. There were three recessions during this period (shown by the shaded areas).

The first of these recessions occurred during 2001 and was similar to most recessions in the United States since 1950 in being short and relatively mild. Real GDP declined by 1.5 percent during the third quarter of 2001. The recession of 2007–2009 was the most severe to that point since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The worst periods of the 2007–2009 were the fourth quarter of 2008, when real GDP declined by 8.5 percent—the largest decline to that point during any quarter since 1960—and the first quarter of 2009, when real GDP declined by 4.6 percent. 

Turning to the 2020 recession, during the first quarter of 2020, only at the end of which did Covid-19 begin to seriously affect the U.S. economy, real GDP declined by 5.1 percent. Then in the second quarter a collapse in production occurred unlike anything previously experienced in the United States over such a short period: Real GDP declined by 31.2 percent. But that collapse was followed in the next quarter by an extraordinary recovery in production when real GDP increased by 33.8 percent—by far the largest increase in a single quarter in U.S. history.

The following figure shows the changes in the components of real GDP during the second and third quarters of 2020. In the second quarter of 2020, consumption spending declined by about the same percentage as GDP, but investment spending declined by more, as many residential and commercial construction projects were closed. Exports declined by nearly 60 percent and imports declined by nearly as much as many ports were temporarily closed. In the third quarter of 2020, many state and local governments relaxed their restrictions on business operations and the components of spending bounced back, although they remained below their levels of late 2019 until mid-2021. 

Even when compared with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the movements in real GDP during the Covid-19 pandemic stand out for the size of the fluctuations. The official U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data on real GDP are available only annually for the 1930s. The following figure shows the changes in these annual data for the years 1929 to 1939. As severe as the Great Depression was, in 1932, the worst year of the downturn, real GDP declined by less than 13 percent—or only about a third as much as real GDP declined during the worst of the 2020 recession.

We have to hope that we will never again experience a pandemic as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic or fluctuations in the economy as severe as those of 2020.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Note: Because the BEA doesn’t provide an estimate of real GDP in 1928, our value for the change in real GDP during 1929 is the percentage change in real GDP per capita from 1928 to 1929 using the data on real GDP per capita compiled by Robert J. Barro and José F. Ursúa. LINK