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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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