Elkhart County, Indiana Rides the Surge in Spending on Consumer Durables

More than 80 percent of the recreational vehicles (RV) sold in the United States are manufactured in Elkhart County, Indiana. As we discuss in the opener to Chapter 22 in Economics (Chapter 12 in Macroeconomics), being dependent on sales of expensive durable goods like RVs means that the county is particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, with local firms experiencing rising sales during economic expansions and sharply falling sales during economic recessions. Accordingly, the unemployment rate in the county fluctuates much more during the business cycle than is typical—as shown in the above graph.

For example, during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the unemployment rate in the country rose from a low of 3.9 percent in May 2007 to a high of 20 percent in March 2009, before declining during the following economic recovery.  Just before the start of the Covid-19 recession of 2020, the unemployment rate in Elkhart was 2.8 percent. It then soared to 30.8 percent in April. 

But, as we discuss in the chapter, the recovery from the 2020 recession was unusually rapid, although uneven. Many services industries, such as restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters continued to struggle well into 2021 as firms had difficulty attracting workers and as some consumers remained reluctant to spend time inside in close contact with other people. In contrast, consumer spending on durable goods was far above its pre-pandemic level, as well as being above the rate at which it had been growing during the years before the pandemic. The two graphs below show real consumer spending on durables and on services up through August 2021.

During 2021, sales of RVs through August were 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2020 and were on a pace to reach record annual sales. The success of the RV industry has led to rising incomes in Elkhart County, which, in turn, has allowed the area to attract other industries, including a logistics center that when completed will be the largest industrial building in Indiana and an Amazon warehouse that when completed will provide 1,000 new jobs. Rising incomes have also supported other businesses, such as community theaters, art galleries, and a recently reopened 1920s-era hotel.

In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal ranked Elkhart County first in its rating of metropolitan areas as measured by the index it compiles with realtor.com. The index “identifies the top metro areas for home buyers seeking an appreciating housing market and appealing lifestyle amenities.” If consumers continue to buy more goods and fewer services, it could be bad news for restaurants and other service industries, but good news for places like Elkhart that depend on goods-producing industries. 

Sources: Nicole Friedman, “RV Capital of America Tops WSJ/Realtor.com Housing Index in Third Quarter,” wsj.com, October 19, 2021; Business Wire, “Amazon Announces New Robotics Fulfillment Center and Delivery Station in Elkhart County, Creating More Than 1,000 New, Full-Time Jobs,” businesswire.com, October 7, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Hotel Elkhart Grand Opening Celebrated in Elkhart, Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, October 4, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Elkhart County Logistics Facility to Bring about 1,000 jobs in Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, August 16, 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and RV Industry Association.

New 10/17/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss economic impact of infrastructure spending & the supply-chain challenges.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impact of the recent infrastructure bill and what role fiscal policy plays in determining shovel-ready projects. Also, they explore the vast impact of the economy-wide supply-chain issues and the challenges companies face. Until the pandemic, we had a very efficient supply chain but now we’re seeing companies employ the “just-in-case” inventory method vs. “just-in-time”!

Some links referenced in the podcast:

Here’s Alan Cole’s blog: https://fullstackeconomics.com/how-i-reluctantly-became-an-inflation-crank/

Neil Irwin wrote a column referencing Cole here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/upshot/shadow-inflation-analysis.html

Here’s a Times article on the inefficiency of subway construction in NYC:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html

A recent article on the state of CA’s bullet train:  https://www.kcra.com/article/california-bullet-trains-latest-woe-high-speed/37954851

A WSJ column on goods v. services: https://www.wsj.com/articles/at-times-like-these-inflation-isnt-all-bad-11634290202

NEW! – 04/16/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss monetary policy and the tools available to the Federal Reserve.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien follow up on last week’s fiscal policy podcast by discussing monetary policy in today’s world. The Fed’s role has changed significantly since it was first introduced. They keep an eye on inflation and employment but aren’t clear on which is their priority. The tools and models used by economists even a decade ago seem outdated in a world where these concepts of a previous generation may be outdated. But, are they? LIsten to Glenn & Tony discuss these issues in some depth as we navigate our way through a difficult financial time.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe! Today’s episode is appropriate for Principles of Economics and/or Money & Banking!

Please listen & share!

NEW! – 04/09/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the longer-term impact of several post-pandemic fiscal policy efforts and the new Biden administration infrastructure investment proposal.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the long-term impacts of recent fiscal policy decisions as well as the proposed infrastructure investment by the Biden administration. The most recent round of fiscal stimulus means that we’re spending almost 4.5 Trillion which is a high percentage of what we recently spent in an entire fiscal year. They deal with the question of if the infrastructure spending will increase future productivity or will just be spent on the social programs. Also, Glenn deals with the proposed corporate tax increase to 28% which has been designated to fund these programs but does have an impact on stock market values held by millions through 401K’s and IRA’s.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe!

Please listen & share!

NEW! – 02/19/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss early thoughts on the Biden Administration’s economic plan.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss early thoughts on the Biden Administration’s economic plan. They consider criticisms of the most recent stimulus packages price tag of $1.9B that it may spur inflation in future quarters. They offer thoughts on how this may become the primary legislative initiative of Biden’s first term as it crowds out other potential policy initiatives. Questions are asked about what bounce we may see for the economy and comparisons are made to the Post World War II era. Please listen and share with students!

The following editorials are mentioned in the podcast:

Glenn Hubbard’s Washington Post Editorial with Alan Blinder

Olivier Blanchard’s comments on the Stimulus in a Peterson Institute for International Economics post

Larry Summer’s WaPo editorial about the risks of the stimulus:

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe!

Please listen & share!

How the Effects of the Covid-19 Recession Differed Across Business Sectors and Income Groups

The recession that resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic affected most sectors of the U.S. economy, but some sectors of the economy fared better than others. As a broad generalization, we can say that online retailers, such as Amazon; delivery firms, such as FedEx and DoorDash; many manufacturers, including GM, Tesla, and other automobile firms; and firms, such as Zoom, that facilitate online meetings and lessons, have done well. Again, generalizing broadly, firms that supply a service, particularly if doing so requires in-person contact, have done poorly. Examples are restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, hair salons, and gyms.

The following figure uses data from the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) website (fred.stlouisfed.org) on employment in several business sectors—note that the sectors shown in the figure do not account for all employment in the U.S. economy. For ease of comparison, total employment in each sector in February 2020 has been set equal to 100.

Employment in each sector dropped sharply between February and April as the pandemic began to spread throughout the United States, leading governors and mayors to order many businesses and schools closed. Even in areas where most businesses remained open, many people became reluctant to shop in stores, eat in restaurants, or exercise in gyms. From April to November, there were substantial employment gains in each sector, with employment in all goods-producing industries and employment in manufacturing (a subcategory of goods-producing industries) in November being just 5 percent less than in February. Employment in professional and business services (firms in this sector include legal, accounting, engineering, legal, consulting, and business software firms), rose to about the same level, but employment in all service industries was still 7 percent below its February level and employment in restaurants and bars was 17 percent below its February level.

Raj Chetty of Harvard University and colleagues have created the Opportunity Insights website that brings together data on a number of economic indicators that reflect employment, income, spending, and production in geographic areas down to the county or, for some cities, the ZIP code level. The Opportunity Insights website can be found HERE.

In a paper using these data, Chetty and colleagues find that during the pandemic “spending fell primarily because high-income households started spending much less.… Spending reductions were concentrated in services that require in-person physical interaction, such as hotels and restaurants …. These findings suggest that high-income households reduced spending primarily because of health concerns rather than a reduction in income or wealth, perhaps because they were able to self-isolate more easily than lower-income individuals (e.g., by substituting to remote work).”

As a result, “Small business revenues in the highest-income and highest-rent ZIP codes (e.g., the Upper East Side of Manhattan) fell by more than 65% between March and mid-April, compared with 30% in the least affluent ZIP codes. These reductions in revenue resulted in a much higher rate of small business closure in affluent areas within a given county than in less affluent areas.” As the revenues of small businesses declined, the businesses laid off workers and sometimes reduced the wages of workers they continued to employ. The employees of these small businesses, were typically lower- wage workers. The authors conclude from the data that: “Employment for high- wage workers also rebounded much more quickly: employment levels for workers in the top wage quartile [the top 20 percent of wages] were almost back to pre-COVID levels by the end of May, but remained 20% below baseline for low-wage workers even as of October 2020.”

The paper, which goes into much greater detail than the brief summary just given, can be found HERE.

4/24/20 Podcast – Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the role of uncertainty in the comeback of the economy post-COVID.

On April 24th, Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien continued their podcast series by spending about 18 minutes discussing the role of uncertainty in how quickly the economy can rebound once things open back up. A very good discussion about business cycles occurs. Instructors – Please consider sharing these podcasts with your students. A lot of URL dropping in today’s conversation so we’re providing some show notes from today’s episodes if you’d like to explore them further:

1. Weekly Economic Index: New York Fed link

FRED—St. Louis Fed link 

2. Uncertainty index NBER working paper 

3. Pre-World War II NBER books (full texts available):

4. Christina Romer article on the 1929 stock market crash and uncertainty: NBER working paper version

Published version

5. Ben Bernanke’s writings on the Great Depression

COVID-19 Update – Impact on Supply Chains: Will Apple Start Making iPhones in the United States?

Supports:  Chapter 2, Trade-offs, Comparative Advantage, and the Market System [Econ, Micro, Macro, and Essentials]; Chapter 9, Comparative Advantage and the Gains from International Trade     [Econ and Micro; Macro Chapter 7; and Essentials Chapter 19]; Chapter 22, Aggregate Expenditure and Output in the Short Run   [Macro Chapter 12].

WILL APPLE START MAKING IPHONES IN THE UNITED STATES?

Apple, like many U.S. firms, relies on a global supply chain (sometimes also called a global value chain) comprised of firms in dozens of countries to make the components used in Apple’s products. (See Hubbard/O’Brien Chapter 2, Section 2.3 of Hubbard and O’Brien Economics and Microeconomics).  This strategy has allowed Apple to take advantage of both lower production costs and the engineering and manufacturing skills of firms in other countries to produce iPhones, iPads, iWatches, and MacBooks. But during the coronavirus pandemic, Apple found its supply chain disrupted because many of its suppliers located in China were forced to close for several months.

            Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the trade war between the United States  and China, many U.S. firms, including Apple, were considering moving some of their operations out of China. (The trade war is discussed in Chapter 9, section 9.5 of Hubbard and O’Brien Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 7, Section 7.5 of Macroeconomics.)  As an article on bloomberg.com put it, these firms were “actively seeking ways to diversify their supply chains and reduce their dependence on any single country, no matter how attractive.” For example, two Taiwanese firms, Wistron and Pegatron, which had used factories in China to assemble iPhones were moving some factories to India, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

            It seemed unlikely, though, that production of iPhones would move back to the United States. Why not?  First, manufacturing employment has been in decline in the United States since long before U.S. firms began using suppliers based in China. In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, 33 percent of U.S. workers were employed in manufacturing. By 2001, when China became a member of the World Trade Organization, that percentage had already declined to 12 percent. In 2019, it was 9 percent.

Manufacturing production in the United States has held up better than manufacturing employment. The Federal Reserve’s index of manufacturing production increased more than 250 percent between the beginning of 1972 and the beginning of 2020. U.S. manufacturing has been able to increase output while employment has declined because of increases in productivity. The increases in productivity have relied, in part, on increased use of robotics, particularly in assembly line work, such as the production of automobiles.  The United States has a comparative advantage in producing goods and services that require skilled labor and involve artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the use of other sophisticated computer programing. Manufacturing that relies on lower-skilled labor, such as textile and shoe production, has been mostly moved overseas. 

            The Taiwanese firms Foxconn, Wistron, and Pegatron assemble iPhones, primarily in factories in China and elsewhere in Asia where large quantities of unskilled labor are available.  Some components of the iPhone that require skilled labor and sophisticated engineering, including the screens, the touchscreen controller, and the Wi-Fi chip, are produced by U.S. firms and shipped to China for final assembly. In fact, surprisingly, the value of the U.S.-made components exceeds the value of assembling the iPhone in Chinese factories. (See Hubbard and O’Brien Economics, Chapter 22, Section 22.3 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 12, Section 12.3).

            Factory assembly lines, like those in China making iPhones, need to be flexible to respond quickly to Apple introducing new models. So, in addition, to hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers in its assembly plants, Foxconn and other firms operating in China hire thousands of engineers. Typically, these engineers do not have college degrees, but they have sufficient training to rapidly redesign and reconfigure assembly lines to produce new models. In 2010, when President Barack Obama pressed Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, to produce iPhones in the United States, Jobs pointed to lack of sufficient workers with engineering skills to make such production possible. Jobs stated that he would need 30,000 such engineers if Apple were to make iPhones in the United States, but “You can’t find that many in America to hire.”

            The situation hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years. As an article in the Wall Street Journal observed in March 2020, in addition to a large number of unskilled workers, Foxconn employs in China, “Tens of thousands of experienced manufacturing engineers [to] oversee the [production] process. Finding a comparable amount of unskilled and skilled labor [elsewhere] is impossible.”

            Although some firms were attempting to reduce their reliance on Chinese factories in response to the coronavirus pandemic, because the United States lacks a comparative advantage in the assembly of consumer electronics, it seemed unlikely that those factories would be relocated here.  But the coronavirus pandemic may lead some U.S. firms to change their supply chains in other ways.  For instance, firms may now put greater value on redundancy. Apple might underwrite the cost to its suppliers of building facilities in several Asian countries to assemble iPhones. In the event of problems occurring in one country, this redundant capacity would allow production to switch from factories in one country to factories in other countries.

            Similarly, some firms may rethink their inventory management. Before the 1970s, most manufacturing firms kept substantial inventories of parts and components. Retail firms often kept substantial inventories of goods in warehouses. This approach began to change during the 1970s, as Toyota pioneered just-in-time inventory systems in which firms accept shipments from suppliers as close as possible to the time they will be needed. Most manufacturers in the United States and elsewhere adopted these systems, as did many retailers.

            For example, at Walmart, as goods are sold in the stores, this point-of-sale information is sent electronically to the firm’s distribution centers to help managers determine what products to ship to each store. This distribution system allows Walmart to minimize its inventory holdings.  Because Walmart sells 15 to 25 percent of all the toothpaste, disposable diapers, dog food, and other products sold in the United States, it has involved many manufacturers in its supply chain. For example, a company such as Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of toothpaste, laundry detergent, and toilet paper, receives Wal-Mart’s point-of-sale and inventory information electronically. Procter & Gamble uses that information to determine its production schedules and the quantities and timing of its shipments to Walmart’s distribution centers.

            But as the pandemic disrupted supply chains, many manufacturers had to suspend production because they did not receive timely shipments of parts. Similarly, Walmart and other retailers experienced stockouts—sales lost because the goods consumer want to buy aren’t on the shelves.

            In 2020, firms were reconsidering their supply chains as they evaluated whether to underwrite the building of redundant capacity among their suppliers and whether to reduce the extent to which they relied on just-in-time inventory systems.

Sources: Debby Wu, “Not Made in China Is Global Tech’s Next Big Trend,” bloomberg.com, March 31, 2020; Yossi Sheffi, “Commentary: Supply-Chain Risks From the Coronavirus Demand Immediate Action,” Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2020; Tripp Mickle and Yoko Kubota, “Tim Cook and Apple Bet Everything on China. Then Coronavirus Hit,” Wall Street, March 3, 2020; and Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011, pp. 544-547.

Question:  Suppose that you’re a manager at Apple. Given the coronavirus pandemic, Apple is considering whether to underwrite the cost to its suppliers, such as Foxconn, of building redundant factories in countries outside of China.. The goal is to reduce the production problems that occur when factories are concentrated in a single country during a pandemic or other disaster. Your manager asks you to prepare a brief evaluation of this idea.  What factors should you take into account in your evaluation?