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.

Economies of Scale in Ocean Shipping and U.S. Retailers’ Response to Pandemic Supply Chain Problems

Beginning in the 1950s, several companies pioneered in developing modern shipping containers that once arrived at docks can be lifted by cranes and directly attached to trucks or loaded on to trains for overland shipping. As economist Marc Levinson was the first to discuss in detail in his 2004 book, The Box, container shipping, by greatly reducing transportation costs, helped to make the modern global economy possible. (We discuss globalization in Economics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 and Chapter 21, Section 21.4, and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 7, Section 7.1 and Chapter 11, Section 11.4.) 

Lower transportation costs meant that small manufacturing firms and other small businesses that depended on selling in local markets faced much greater competition, including from firms located thousands of miles away. The number of dockworkers declined dramatically as the loading and unloading of cargo ships became automated. Ports such as New York City, San Francisco, and Liverpool that were not well suited for handling containers because they lacked sufficient space for the automated equipment and the warehouses, lost most of their shipping business to other ports, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and London. Consumers in all countries benefited because lower transportation costs meant they were able to buy cheaper imported goods and had a much greater variety of goods to choose from.

In the decades since the 1950s, shipping firms have continued to exploit economies of scale in container ships. (We discuss the concept of economies of scale in Econimics and Microeconomics, Chapter 11, Section 11.6.) Today, shipping containers have been standardized at either 20 feet or 40 feet long and the largest ships can haul thousands of containers. Levinson explains why economies of scale are important in this industry:

“A vessel to carry 3,000 containers did not require twice as much steel or twice as large an engine as a vessel to carry 1,500. [Because of automation, a] larger ship did not require a larger crew, so crew wages per container were much lower. Fuel consumption did not increase proportionally with the vessel’s size.”

To take advantage of these economies of scale, the ships needed to sail fully loaded. The largest ships can sail fully loaded only on routes where shipping volumes are highest, such as between Asia and the United States or between the United States and Europe. As a result, as Levinson notes, the largest ships are “uneconomic to run on most of the world’s shipping lanes” because on most routes the costs per container are higher for the largest ships for smaller ships. (Note that even these “smaller ships” are still very large in absolute size, being able to haul 1,000 containers.) 

Large U.S. retail firms, such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Target rely on imported goods from Asian countries, including China, Japan, and Vietnam. Ordinarily, they are importing goods in sufficient quantities that the goods are shipped on the largest vessels, which today have the capacity to haul 20,000 containers. But during the pandemic, a surge in demand for imported goods combined with disruptions caused by Covid outbreaks in some Asian ports and a shortage of truck drivers and some other workers in the United States, resulted in a backlog of ships waiting to disembark their cargoes at U.S. ports. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in southern California were particularly affected. By October 2021, it was taking an average of 80 days for goods to be shipped across the Pacific, compared with an average of 40 days before the pandemic.

Some large U.S. firms responded to the shipping problems by chartering smaller ships that ordinarily would only make shorter voyages. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “the charters provide the big retailers with a way to work around bottlenecks at ports such as Los Angeles, by rerouting cargo to less congested docks such as Portland, Ore., Oakland, Calif., or the East Coast.”  Unfortunately, because the smaller ships lacked the economies of scale of the larger ships, the cost the U.S. firms were paying per container were nearly twice as high. (Note that this result is similar to the cost difference between a large and a small automobile factory, which we illustrated in Economics and Microeconomics, Figure 11.6.)

Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the higher costs U.S. retailers paid for transporting goods across the Pacific Ocean resulted in higher prices on store shelves. Shopping for presents during the 2021 holiday season turned out to be more expensive than in previous years. 

Sources: Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Second edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016; Sarah Nassauer and Costas Paris, “Biggest U.S. Retailers Charter Private Cargo Ships to Sail Around Port Delays,” wsj.com, October 10, 2021; and Melissa Repko, “How Bad Are Global Shipping Snafus? Home Depot Contracted Its Own Container Ship as a Safeguard,” cnbc.com, June 13, 2021. 

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

The Pandemic and Hidden Inflation

If the price of your meal is the same, but the service is slow and the menu is limited you have experienced hidden inflation.

Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (We discuss the construction of the CPI in Chapter 9, Section 9.4 of Macroeconomics and Chapter 19, Section 19.4 of Economics.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will use instead the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.

A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone.  The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify that part of price increases that are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. So, for instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.

During 2021, a number of observers pointed to a hidden type of inflation occurring, particularly in some service industries. For example, because many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table.  Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price but receiving less. 

Alan Cole, who was formerly a senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, noted on his blog that “goods and services are getting worse faster than the official statistics acknowledge, suggesting that our inflation problem has actually been bigger than the official statistics suggest.” As examples, he noted that “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays,” “shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.”  And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”

A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.

The BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for these types of deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin notes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?”

As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate.  This bias may have been more than offset since the beginning of the pandemic by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.

Sources: Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” wsj.com, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” nytimes.com, October 14, 2021.

Coming Attractions: Hubbard and O’Brien Principles of Economics Updated

It’s customary for textbook authors to note that “much has happened in the economy” since the last edition of their book appeared. To say that much has happened since we prepared our last edition in 2019 would be a major understatement. Never in the lifetimes of today’s students and instructors have events like those of 2020 and 2021 occurred. The U.S. and world economies had experienced nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. economy suffered an unprecedented decline in the supply of goods and services as a majority of businesses in the country shut down to reduce spread of the virus. Many businesses remained closed or operated at greatly reduced capacity well into 2021. Most schools, including most colleges, switched to remote learning, which disrupted the lives of many students and their parents.

During the worst of the pandemic, total spending in the economy declined as the unemployment rate soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reduced spending and closed businesses resulted in by far the largest decline in total production in such a short period in the history of the U.S. economy. Congress, the Trump and Biden administrations, and the Federal Reserve responded with fiscal and monetary policies that were also unprecedented.

Our updated Eighth Edition covers all of these developments as well as the policy debates they initiated. As with previous editions, we rely on extensive digital resources, including: author-created application videos and audio recordings of the chapter openers and Apply the Concept features; figure animation videos; interactive real-time data graphs animations; and Solved Problem whiteboard videos.

Glenn and Tony discuss the updated edition in this video:

Sample chapters will be available by October 15.

The full Macroeconomics text will available in early to mid December.

The full Microeconomics text will be available in mid to late December.

If you would like to view the sample chapters or are considering adopting the updated Eighth Edition for the spring semester, please contact your local Pearson representative. You can use this LINK to find and contact your representative.

New 09/03/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report, Fed comments, and financial stability!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report falling short of expectations. They also discuss the comments of Fed Chairman Powell’s comments at the Federal Reserve’s recent Jackson Hole conference. They also get to some of the recommendations of a Brookings Task Force, co-chaired by Glenn Hubbard, on ways to address financial stability. Use the links below to see more information about these timely topics:
Powell’s Jackson Hole speech: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/files/powell20210827a.pdf 

The report of Glenn’s task force: 

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/financial-stability_report.pdf 

The most recent economic forecasts of the FOMC: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/files/fomcprojtabl20210616.pdf

WELCOME BACK! New 08/20/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien return to discuss delta variant & inflation!

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!

Solved Problem: Why Is Starbucks Closing Stores in New York City?

Supports:  Econ Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run”; and Essentials: Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and Section 9.5.

Photo from the Associated Press.

Solved Problem: Why Is Starbucks Closing Stores in New York City?

   In May 2021, many businesses in the United States began fully reopening as local governments eased restrictions on capacity imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19. An article on crainsnewyork.com discussed the decisions Starbucks was making with respect to its stores in New York City. Starbucks intended to keep some stores open, some stores would be permanently closed, and “about 20 others that are currently in business will shutter when their leases end in the next year.” Analyze the relationship between cost and revenue for each of these three categories of Starbucks stores: 1) the stores that will remain permanently open; 2) the stores that will not reopen; and 3) the stores that will remain open only until their leases expire. In particularly, be sure to explain why Starbucks didn’t close the stores in category 3) immediately rather than waiting until the their leases expire.

Source: Cara Eisenpress, “Starbucks Closing Some City Locations as It Moves to a Smaller, Pickup Model,” crainsnewyork.com, May 19, 2021.

Solving the Problem

Step 1:   Review the chapter material. This problem is about the break-even price for a firm in the short run and in the long run, so you may want to review Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or to Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run.”

Step 2:   Explain why stores in category 1) will remain permanently open. We know that firms will continue to operate a store if the revenue from the store is greater than or equal to all of the store’s costs—both its fixed costs and its variable costs.  So, Starbucks must expect this relationship between revenue and cost to hold for the stores that it will keep permanently open.

Step 3: Explain why Starbucks will not reopen stores in category 2). Firms will close a store in the short run if the loss from operating the store is greater than the store’s fixed costs. Put another way, the firm won’t be willing to lose more than the store’s fixed costs. We can conclude that Starbucks believes that if it reopens stores in category 2) its loss from operating those stores will be greater than the stores’ fixed costs.

Step 4: Explain why Starbucks will operate some stores only until their leases expire and then will shut them down. If a firm’s revenue from operating a store is greater than the store’s variable costs, the firm will operate the store even though it is incurring an economic loss. If it closed the store, it would still have to pay the fixed costs of the store, the most important of which in this case is the rent it has to pay the owner of the building the store is in. By operating the store, Starbucks will incur a smaller loss than by immediately closing the store. But recall that there are no fixed costs in the long run. The stores’ leases will eventually expire, eliminating that fixed cost. So, in the long run, a firm will close a store that is incurring a loss. Because Starbucks doesn’t believe that in the long run it can cover all the costs of operating stores in category 3, it intends to operate them until their leases expire and then shut them down.

Deciphering the April Employment Report

On Friday May 7, 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its monthly “Employment Situation Report.”  The BLS estimated that nonfarm payroll employment had increased by 266,000 from March to April. The average forecast of the Wall Street Journal’s panel of economists was for a much higher increase in employment of  1 million. The unemployment rate increased from 6.0% to 6.1%, rather than falling to 5.8% as economists had forecast.  

Keep in mind that employment data is subject to revisions. What does this employment report tell us about the state of the economy and the state of the labor market?  First, it’s always worth remembering that the BLS revises its employment estimates at least three times in subsequent months as more complete data become available. (The unemployment rate estimates are calculated in a separate survey of households and are not revised other than as seasonal adjustment factors change.)

Employment data gathered during and immediately after a recession are particularly subject to large revisions. In the principles textbook, Chapter 19, Section 19.1 includes a discussion of the substantial revisions the BLS made to its initial employment estimates during the 2007–2009 recession.  Today’s report noted that the increase in employment from February to March, which had originally been reported as 916,000 had been revised downward to 770,000.

Explaining the slow increase in employment. So, the estimated employment increase the BLS reported today may well end up being revised upward. But the revisions will almost certainly leave the increase far short of the forecast increase of 1 million.  We can discuss two types of explanations for this relatively disappointing employment increase: 1) factors affecting the demand for labor, and 2) factors affecting the supply of labor.

The demand for labor.  During the recovery from a typical recession, increases in labor demand may lag behind increases in production, limiting employment increases and causing temporary increases in the unemployment rate.  Employers may be reluctant to hire more workers if the employers are uncertain that the increase in demand for their products will be maintained. During a recession, firms also typically reduce employment by less than they reduce output because searching for workers during a recovery is costly and because they may fear that if they lay off their most productive workers, these workers may accept jobs at competing firms. As a result, during the early months of a recovery, firms are in position to increase output by more than they increase employment. That this outcome occurred during the first months of 2021 is indicated by the fact that productivity increased 5.4% during the first quarter of 2021, as firms increased output by 8.4% but hours worked by only 2.9%.

The recession caused by the pandemic was unusual in that many businesses decreased their supply of goods and services not because of a decline in consumer demand but because of government social distancing requirements. During March 2021, as more people became vaccinated against Covid-19, state and local governments in many areas of the country were relaxing or eliminating these requirements. But upsurges in infection in some areas slowed this process and may also have made consumers reluctant to shop at stores or attend movie theaters even where such activities were not restricted. Finally, partly due to the pandemic, some U.S. manufacturers were having trouble receiving deliveries of intermediate goods. In particular, automobile companies had to reduce production or close some factories because of the difficulty of obtaining computer chips. As a result, during April 2021, employment declined in the motor vehicle and parts industry despite strong consumer demand for cars and light trucks.

The supply of labor. In the weeks leading up to the release of employment report, the media published many articles focusing on firms that were having difficulty hiring workers. BLS data for February 2021 (the most recent month with available data) showed that the estimated number of job opening nationwide was actually 5% higher than in February 2020, the last month before the pandemic.

That employment grew slowly despite a large number of available jobs may be an indication that labor supply had declined relative to the situation before the pandemic. That is, fewer people were willing to work at any given wage than a year earlier. There are several related reasons that the labor supply curve may have shifted: 1) Many K-12 schools were still conducting instruction either wholly or partially online making it more difficult for parents of school-age children to accept work outside the home; 2) although vaccinations had become widely available, some people were still hesitant to be in close proximity to other people as is required in many jobs; and 3) under the American Rescue Plan Act proposed by President Biden and passed by Congress in March 2021, many unemployed workers were eligible for an additional $300-per-week federal payment on top of their normal state unemployment insurance payment. These expanded unemployment benefits were scheduled to end September 2021. In the case of some low-wage workers, their total unemployment payment during April was greater than the wage they would have earned if employed.

These three factors affecting labor supply were potentially interrelated in that the expanded unemployment insurance benefits provided the financial means that allowed some workers to remain unemployed so that they could be home with their children or so that they could avoid a work situation that they believed exposed them to the risk of contracting Covid-19.

That at least some firms were having difficulty hiring workers seemed confirmed by the fact that average weekly hours worked steadily increased from February through April, indicating that employers were asking their existing employees to work longer hours. 

Summary. It’s never a good idea to draw firm conclusions about the state of the economy from one month’s employment report. That observation is particularly true in this case because April 2021 was a period of continuing transition in the U.S. economy as vaccination rates increased, infection rates declined, and government restrictions on business operations were relaxed. All of these factors made it likely that during the following months more businesses would be able to resume normal operations, increasing the demand for labor.

In addition, by the fall, the factors affecting labor supply may have largely been resolved as most children return to full-time on-site schooling, increased vaccination rates reduce fears of infection, and the supplementary unemployment benefits end.

The three figures below show: 1) total nonfarm private employment; 2) the employment-population ratio for workers aged 25 to 54; and 3) the unemployment rate. Together the figures indicate that in April 2021 the recovery from the worst effects of the pandemic on the labor market was well underway, but there was still a long way to go.

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!