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In the Face of Hyperinflation, Some People in Argentina Don’t Save Currency, They Save … Bricks

Argentina’s Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa coming from a meeting in Washington, DC with the International Monetary Fund to discuss the country’s hyperinflation. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Argentina has been through several periods of hyperinflation during with the price level has increased more than 50 percent per month. The following figure shows the inflation rate as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index from the previous month for since the beginning of 2018. The inflation rate during these years has been volatile, being greater than 50 percent per month during several periods, including staring in the spring of 2022. High rates of inflation have become so routine in Argentina that an article in the Wall Street Journal quoted on store owner as saying, “Here 40% [inflation] is normal. And when we get past 50%, it doesn’t scare us, it simply bothers us.”

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.5 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.5 ), when an economy experiences hyperinflation, consumers and businesses hold the country’s currency for as brief a time as possible because the purchasing power of the currency is declining rapidly. As we noted in the chapter, in some countries experiencing high rates of inflation, consumers and businesses buy and sell goods using U.S. dollars rather than the domestic currency because the purchasing power of the dollar is more stable. This demand for dollars in countries experiencing high inflation rates is one reason why an estimated 80 percent of all $100 bills circulate outside of the United States. 

The increased demand for U.S. dollars by people in Argentina is reflected in the exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the U.S. dollar. The following figure shows that at the beginning of 2018, one dollar exchanged for about 18 pesos. By November 2022, one dollar exchanged for about 159 pesos. The exchange rate shown in the figure is the official exchange rate at which people in Argentina can legally exchange pesos for dollars. In practice, it is difficult for many individuals and small firms to buy dollars at the official exchange rate. Instead, they have to use private currency traders who will make the exchange at an unofficial—or “blue”—exchange rate that varies with the demand and supply of pesos for dollars. A reporter for the Economist described his experience during a recent trip to Argentina: “Walk down Calle Lavalle or Calle Florida in the centre of Buenos Aires and every 20 metres someone will call out ‘cambio’ (exchange), offering to buy dollars at a rate that is roughly double the official one.” 

People in Argentina are reluctant to deposit their money in banks, partly because the interest rates banks pay typically are lower than the inflation rate, causing the purchasing power of money deposited in banks to decline over time.  People are also afraid that the government might keep them from withdrawing their money, which has happened in the past. As an alternative to depositing their money in banks, many people in Argentina buy more goods than they can immediately use and store them, thereby avoiding future price increases on these goods. The Wall Street Journalquoted a university student as saying: “I came to this market and bought as much toilet paper as I could for the month, more than 20 packs. I try to buy all [the goods] I can because I know that next month it will cost more to buy.”

Devon Zuegel, a U.S. software engineer and economics blogger who travels frequently to Argentina, has observed one unusual way that some people in Argentina save while experiencing hyperinflation:

“Bricks—actual bricks, not stacks of cash—are another common savings mechanism, especially for working-class Argentinians. The value of bricks is fairly stable, and they’re useful to a family building out their house. Argentina doesn’t have a mortgage industry, and thus buying a pallet of bricks each time you get a paycheck is an effective way to pay for your home in installments. (Bricks aren’t fully monetized, in that I don’t think people buy bricks and then sell them later, so people only use this method of saving when they actually have something they want to use the bricks for.)”

Sources: “Sergio Massa Is the Only Thing Standing Between Argentina and Chaos,” economist. com, October 13, 2022;  Devon Zuegel, “Inside Argentina’s Currency Exchange Black Markets,” devonzuegel.com, September 10, 2022; Silvina Frydlewsky and Juan Forero, “Inflation Got You Down? At Least You Don’t Live in Argentina,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, FRED data set.

Ben Bernanke, Douglas Diamond, and Philip Dybvig Win the Nobel Prize in Economics

Ben Bernanke (Photo from the Brookings Institution.)

Douglas Diamond (Photo from Reuters.)

Philip Dybvig (Photo from Washington University.)

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke (now a Distinguished Fellow in Residence at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC), Douglas Diamond of the University of Chicago, and Philip Dybvig of Washington University in St. Louis shared the 2022 Nobel Prize in Economics (formally called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). Card received half of the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (about 8.85 million U.S. dollars) for “significantly [improving] our understanding of the role of banks in the economy, particularly during financial crises.” (The press release from the Nobel committee can be read here.)

In paper published in the American Economic Review in 1983, Bernanke provided an influential interpretation of the role the bank panics of the early 1930s played in worsening the severity of the Great Depression. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.3 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.3), by taking deposits and making loans banks play an important in the money supply process. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, Chapter 7, argued that the bank panics of the early 1930s caused a decline in real GDP and employment largely through the mechanism of reducing the money supply.

Bernanke demonstrated that the bank failures affected output and employment in another important way. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and Chapter 14, Section 14.4 (Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2 and Chapter 24, Section 24.4) banks are financial intermediaries who engage in indirect finance. Banks accept deposits and use the funds to make loans to households and firms. Households and most firms can’t raise funds through direct finance by selling bonds or stocks to individual investors because investors don’t have enough information about households or all but the largest firms to know whether these borrowers will repay the funds. Banks get around this information problemby specializing in gathering information on households and firms that allow them to gauge how likely a borrower is to default, or stop paying, on a loan.

Because of the special role banks have in providing credit to households and firms that have difficulty borrowing elsewhere, Bernanke argued that the bank panics of the early 1930s, during which more than 5,000 banks in the United States went out of business, not only caused a reduction in the money supply but restricted the ability of households and firms to borrow. As a result, households and firms decreased their spending, which increased the severity of the Great Depression.

In a 1983 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy, Diamond and Dybvig presented what came to be known as the Diamond and Dybvig model of the economic role of banks. This model, along with later research by Diamond, provided economists with a better understanding of the potential instability of banking. Diamond and Dybvig note that banking involves transforming long-run, illiquid assets—loans—into short-run, liquid assets—deposits. Recall that liquidity is the ease with which an asset can be sold. Households and firms want the loans they receive from a bank to be illiquid in the sense that they don’t want the bank to be able to demand that the funds borrowed be repaid, except on a set schedule. Someone receiving a mortgage loan to buy a house wouldn’t want the bank to be able to insist on being paid back any time the bank chose. But households and firms also want the assets they hold to be liquid so that they can quickly convert the assets into money if they need the funds. By taking in deposits and using the funds to make loans, banks provide a service to households and firms by providing both a source of long-run credit and a source of short-term assets. 

But Diamond and Dybvig note that because banks hold long-terms assets that can’t easily be sold, if a large number of people attempt simultaneously to withdraw their deposits, the banks lack the funds to meet these withdrawals. The result is a run on a bank as depositors become aware that unless they quickly withdraw their deposits, they may not receive their funds for a considerable time. If the bank is insolvent—the value of its loans and other assets is less than the value of its deposits and other liabilities—the bank may fail and some households and firms will never receive the full value of their deposits. In the Diamond and Dybvig model, if depositors expect that other depositors will not withdraw their funds, the system can be stable because banks won’t experience runs. But because banks know more about the value of their assets and liabilities than depositors do, depositors may have trouble distinguishing solvent banks from insolvent banks. As a result of this information problem, households and firms may decide to withdraw their deposits even from solvent banks. Households and firms may withdraw their deposits from a bank even if they know with certainty that the bank is solvent if they expect that other households and firms—who may lack this knowledge—will withdraw their deposits. The result will be a bank panic, in which many banks simultaneously experience a bank run. 

With many banks closing or refusing to make new loans in order to conserve funds, households and firms that depend on bank loans will be forced to reduce their spending. As a result, production and employment will decline. Falling production and employment may cause more borrowers to stop paying on their loans, which may cause more banks to be insolvent, leading to further runs, and so on. We illustrate this process in Figure 14.3. 

Diamond and Dybvig note that a system of deposit insurance—adopted in the United States when Congress established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1934—or a central bank acting as a lender of last resort to banks experiencing runs are necessary to stabilize the banking system. When Congress established the Federal Reserve System in 1914, it gave the Fed the ability to act as a lender of last resort by making discount loans to banks that were solvent but experiencing temporary liquidity problems as a result of deposit withdrawals.

During the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2007 and accelerated following the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, it became clear that the financial firms in the shadow banking system could also be subject to runs because, like commercial banks, shadow banks borrow short term to financial long term investments. Included in the shadow banking system are money market mutual funds, investment banks, and insurance companies. By 2008 the size of the shadow banking system had grown substantially relative to the commercial banking system.  The shadow banking system turned out to be more fragile than the commercial banking system because those lending to shadow banks by, for instance, buying money market mutual fund shares, do not receive government insurance like bank depositors receive from the FDIC and because prior to 2008 the Fed did not act as a lender of last resort to shadow banks.

Bernanke believes that his study of financial problems the U.S. experienced during the Great Depression helped him as Fed chair to deal with the Global Financial Crisis.  In particular, Bernanke concluded from his research that in the early 1930s the Fed had committed a major error in failing to act more vigorously as a lender of last resort to commercial banks. The result was severe problems in the U.S. financial system that substantially worsened the length and severity of the Great Depression.  During the financial crisis, under Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed established several lending facilities that allowed the Fed to extend its role as a lender of last resort to parts of the shadow banking system. (In 2020, the Fed under the leadership of Chair Jerome Powell revived and extended these lending facilities.) Bernanke is rare among economists awarded the Nobel Prize in having had the opportunity to implement lessons from his academic research in economic policymaking at the highest level. (Bernanke discusses the relationship between his research and his policymaking in his memoir. A more complete discussion of the financial crises of the 1930s, 2007-2009, and 2020 appears in Chapter 14 of our textbook Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Fourth Edition.)

We should note that Bernanke’s actions at the Fed have been subject to criticism by some economists and policymakers. As a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors beginning in 2002 and then as Fed chair beginning in 2006, Bernanke, like other members of the Fed and most economists, was slow to recognize the problems in the shadow banking system and, particularly, the problems caused by the rapid increase in housing prices and increasing number of mortgages being granted to borrowers who had either poor credit histories or who made small down payments. Some economists and policymakers also argue that Bernanke’s actions during the financial crisis took the Fed beyond the narrow role of stabilizing the commercial banking system spelled out by Congress in the Federal Reserve Act and may have undermined Fed independence. They also argue that by broadening the Fed’s role as a lender of last resort to include shadow banks, Bernanke may have increased the extent of moral hazard in the financial system.

Finally, Laurence Ball of Johns Hopkins University argues that the worst of the financial crisis could have been averted if Bernanke had acted to save the Lehman Brothers investment bank from failing by making loans to Lehman. Bernanke has argued that the Fed couldn’t legally make loans to Lehman because the firm was insolvent but Ball argues that, in fact, the firm was solvent. Decades later, economists continue to debate whether the Fed’s actions in allowing the Bank of United States to fail in 1930 were appropriate and the debate over the Fed’s actions with respect to Lehman may well last as long. (A working paper version of Ball’s argument can be found here. He later extended his argument in a book. Bernanke’s account of his actions during the failure of Lehman Brothers can be found in his memoir cited earlier.)

Sources: Paul Hannon, “Nobel Prize in Economics Winners Include Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022; David Keyton, Frank Jordans, and Paul Wiseman, “Former Fed Chair Bernanke Shares Nobel for Research on Banks,” apnews.com, October 10, 2022; and Greg Ip, “Most Nobel Laureates Develop Theories; Ben Bernanke Put His Into Practice,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022. 

A Handy Way to Track Recession Indicators

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is housed in the U.S. Department of Labor. (Photo from don.gov site.)

In a blog post at the end of August, we noted that real GDP declined during the first two quarters of 2022. On September 29, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) slightly revised the real GDP data, but after the revisions the BEA’s estimates still showed real GDP declining during those quarters.

A popular definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP. But, as we noted in the earlier blog post, most economists do not follow this definition. Instead, for most purposes, economists rely on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s business cycle dating, which is based on a number of macroeconomic data series. The NBER defines a recession as “a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.” The NBER discusses its approach to business cycle dating here.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s invaluable FRED economic data site has collected the data series that the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee relies on when deciding when a recession began. The FRED page collecting these data can be found here

Note that although the Business Cycle Dating Committee analyzes a variety of data series, “In recent decades, the two measures we have put the most weight on are real personal income less transfers and nonfarm payroll employment.” The following figures show movements in those two data series. These data series don’t give a strong indication that the economy was in recession during the first half of 2022. Real personal income minus transfer payments did decline by 0.4 percent between January and June 2022 (before increasing during July and August), but nonfarm payroll employment increased by 1.4 percent during the same period (and increased further in July and August).

As we noted in our earlier blog post, the message from most data series other than real GDP seems to be that the U.S. economy was not in a recession during the first half of 2022.

The Federal Open Market Committee’s September 2022 Meeting and the Question of Whether the Fed Should Focus Only on Price Stability

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

In the Federal Reserve Act, Congress charged the Federal Reserve with conducting monetary policy so as to achieve both “maximum employment” and “stable prices.”  These two goals are referred to as the Fed’s dual mandate.  (We discuss the dual mandate in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.1, Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.1, and Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 15, Section 15.1.) Accordingly, when Fed chairs give their semiannual Monetary Policy Reports to Congress, they reaffirm that they are acting consistently with the dual mandate. For example, when testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in June 2022, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that: “The Fed’s monetary policy actions are guided by our mandate to promote maximum employment and stable prices for the American people.”

Despite statements of that kind, some economists argue that in practice during some periods the Fed’s policymaking Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) acts as if it were more concerned with one of the two mandates. In particular, in the decades following the Great Inflation of the 1970s, FOMC members appear to have put more emphasis on price stability than on maximum employment. These economists argue that during these years, FOMC members were typically reluctant to pursue a monetary policy sufficiently expansionary to lead to maximum employment if the result would be to cause the inflation rate to rise above the Fed’s target of an annual target of 2 percent. (Although the Fed didn’t announce a formal inflation target of 2 percent until 2012, the FOMC agreed to set a 2 percent inflation target in 1996, although they didn’t publicly announce at the time. Implicitly, the FOMC had been acting as if it had a 2 percent target since at least the mid–1980s.)

In July 2019, the FOMC responded to a slowdown in economic growth in late 2018 and early 2019 but cutting its target for the federal funds rate. It made further cuts to the target rate in September and October 2019. These cuts helped push the unemployment rate to low levels even as the inflation rate remained below the Fed’s 2 percent target. The failure of inflation to increase despite the unemployment rate falling to low levels, provides background to the new monetary policy strategy the Fed announced in August 2020. The new monetary policy, in effect, abandoned the Fed’s previous policy of attempting to preempt a rise in the inflation rate by raising the target for the federal funds rate whenever data on unemployment and real GDP growth indicated that inflation was likely to rise. (We discussed aspects of the Fed’s new monetary policy in previous blog posts, including here, here, and here.)

In particular, the FOMC would no longer see the natural rate of unemployment as the maximum level of employment—which Congress has mandated the Fed to achieve—and, therefore, wouldn’t necessarily begin increasing its target for the federal funds rate when the unemployment rate dropped by below the natural rate. As Fed Chair Powell explained at the time, “the maximum level of employment is not directly measurable and [it] changes over time for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. The significant shifts in estimates of the natural rate of unemployment over the past decade reinforce this point.”

Many economists interpreted the Fed’s new monetary strategy and the remarks that FOMC members made concerning the strategy as an indication that the Fed had turned from focusing on the inflation rate to focusing on unemployment. Of course, given that Congress has mandated the Fed to achieve both stable prices and maximum employment, neither the Fed chair nor other members of the FOMC can state directly that they are focusing on one mandate more than the other. 

The sharp acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall of 2022 (shown in the following figure) has caused members of the FOMC to speak more forcefully about the need for monetary policy to bring inflation back to the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent. For example, in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual monetary policy conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Fed Chair Powell spoke very directly: “The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) overarching focus right now is to bring inflation back down to our 2 percent goal.” According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Powell had originally planned a longer speech discussing broader issues concerning monetary policy and the state of the economy—typical of the speeches that Fed chairs give at this conference—before deciding to deliver a short speech focused directly on inflation.

Members of the FOMC were concerned that a prolonged period of high inflation rates might lead workers, firms, and investors to no longer expect that the inflation rate would return to 2 percent in the near future. If the expected inflation rate were to increase, the U.S. economy might enter a wage–price spiral in which high inflation rates would lead workers to push for higher wages, which, in turn, would increase firms’ labor costs, leading them to raise prices further, in response to which workers would push for even higher wages, and so on. (We discuss the concept of a wage–price spiral in earlier blog posts here and here.)

With Powell noting in his Jackson Hole speech that the Fed would be willing to run the risk of pushing the economy into a recession if that was required to bring down the inflation rate, it seemed clear that the Fed was giving priority to its mandate for price stability over its mandate for maximum employment. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Richard Clarida, who served on the Fed’s Board of Governors from September 2018 until January 2022, as arguing that: “Until inflation comes down a lot, the Fed is really a single mandate central bank.”

This view was reinforced by the FOMC’s meeting on September 21, 2022 at which it raised its target for the federal funds rate by 0.75 percentage points to a range of 3 to 3.25 percent. The median projection of FOMC members was that the target rate would increase to 4.4 percent by the end of 2022, up a full percentage point from the median projection at the FOMC’s June 2022 meeting. The negative reaction of the stock market to the announcement of the FOMC’s decision is an indication that the Fed is pursuing a more contractionary monetary policy than many observers had expected. (We discuss the relationship between stock prices and economic news in this blog post.)

Some economists and policymakers have raised a broader issue concerning the Fed’s mandate: Should Congress amend the Federal Reserve Act to give the Fed the single mandate of achieving price stability? As we’ve already noted, one interpretation of the FOMC’s actions from the mid–1980s until 2019 is that it was already implicitly acting as if price stability were a more important goal than maximum employment. Or as Stanford economist John Cochrane has put it, the Fed was following “its main mandate, which is to ensure price stability.”

The main argument for the Fed having price stability as its only mandate is that most economists believe that in the long run, the Fed can affect the inflation rate but not the level of potential real GDP or the level of employment. In the long run, real GDP is equal to potential GDP, which is determined by the quantity of workers, the capital stock—including factories, office buildings, machinery and equipment, and software—and the available technology. (We discuss this point in Macroeconomics, Chapter 13, Section 13.2 and in Economics, Chapter 23, Section 23.2.) Congress and the president can use fiscal policy to affect potential GDP by, for example, changing the tax code to increase the profitability of investment, thereby increasing the capital stock, or by subsidizing apprentice programs or taking other steps to increase the labor supply. But most economists believe that the Fed lacks the tools to achieve those results. 

Economists who support the idea of a single mandate argue that the Fed would be better off focusing on an economic variable they can control in the long run—the inflation rate—rather than on economic variables they can’t control—potential GDP and employment. In addition, these economists point out that some foreign central banks have a single mandate to achieve price stability. These central banks include the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

Economists and policymakers who oppose having Congress revise the Federal Reserve Act to give the Fed the single mandate to achieve price stability raise several points. First, they note that monetary policy can affect the level of real GDP and employment in the short run. Particularly when the U.S. economy is in a severe recession, the Fed can speed the return to full employment by undertaking an expansionary policy. If maximum employment were no longer part of the Fed’s mandate, the FOMC might be less likely to use policy to increase the pace of economic recovery, thereby avoiding some unemployment.

Second, those opposed to the Fed having single mandate argue that the Fed was overly focused on inflation during some of the period between the mid–1980s and 2019. They argue that the result was unnecessarily low levels of employment during those years. Giving the Fed a single mandate for price stability might make periods of low employment more likely.

Finally, because over the years many members of Congress have stated that the Fed should focus more on maximum employment than price stability, in practical terms it’s unlikely that the Federal Reserve Act will be amended to give the Fed the single mandate of price stability.

In the end, the willingness of Congress to amend the Federal Reserve Act, as it has done many times since initial passage in 1914, depends on the performance of the U.S. economy and the U.S. financial system. It’s possible that if the high inflation rates of 2021–2022 were to persist into 2023 or beyond, Congress might revise the Federal Reserve Act to change the Fed’s approach to fighting inflation either by giving the Fed a single mandate for price stability or in some other way. 

Sources: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Federal Reserve Issues FOMC Statement,” federalreserve.gov, September 21, 2022; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Summary of Economic Projections,” federalreserve.gov, September 21, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Jerome Powell’s Inflation Whisperer: Paul Volcker,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2022; Matthew Boesler and Craig Torres, “Powell Talks Tough, Warning Rates Are Going to Stay High for Some Time,” bloomberg.com, August 26, 2022; Jerome H. Powell, “Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress,” June 22, 2022, federalreserve.gov; Jerome H. Powell, “Monetary Policy and Price Stability,” speech delivered at “Reassessing Constraints on the Economy and Policy,” an economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, federalreserve.gov, August 26, 2022; John H. Cochrane, “Why Isn’t the Fed Doing its Job?” project-syndicate.org, January 19, 2022; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee Meeting on July 2–3, 1996,” federalreserve.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The Return of the FedEx Indicator?

Image from the Wall Street Journal.

On September 16, 2022 an article in the Wall Street Journal had the headline: “Economic Worries, Weak FedEx Results Push Stocks Lower.” Another article in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “The company’s downbeat forecasts, announced Thursday, intensified investors’ macroeconomic worries.”

Why would the news that FedEx had lower revenues than expected during the preceding weeks cause a decline in stock market indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500? As the article explained: “Delivery companies [such as FedEx and its rival UPS) are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the economy.” In other words, investors were using FedEx’s decline in revenue as a leading indicator of the business cycle.  A leading indicator is an economic data series—in this case FedEx’s revenue—that starts to decline before real GDP and employment in the months before a recession and starts to increase before real GDP and employment in the months before a recession reaches a trough and turns into an expansion. 

So, investors were afraid that FedEx’s falling revenue was a signal that the U.S. economy would soon enter a recession. And, in fact, FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam was quoted as believing that the global economy would fall into a recession. As firms’ profits decline during a recession so, typically, do the prices of the firms’ stock. (As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and in Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2, stock prices reflect investors’ expectations of the future profitability of the firms issuing the stock.)

Monitoring fluctuations in FedEx’s revenue for indications of the future course of the economy is nothing new. When Alan Greenspan was chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, he spoke regularly with Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx and at the time CEO of the firm. Greenspan believed that changes in the number of packages FedEx shipped gave a good indication of the overall state of the economy. FedEx plays such a large role in moving packages around the country that most economists agree that there is a close relationship between fluctuations in FedEx’s business and fluctuations in GDP. Some Wall Street analysts refer to this relationship as the “FedEx Indicator” of how the economy is doing.

In September 2022, the FedEx indicator was blinking red. But the U.S. economy is complex and fluctuations in any indicator can sometimes provide an inaccurate forecast of when a recession will begin or end. And, in fact, some investment analysts believed that problems at FedEx may have been due as much to mistakes the firms’ managers had made as to general problems in the economy. As one analyst put it: “We believe a meaningful portion of FedEx’s missteps here are company-specific.” 

At this point, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the Federal Open Market Committee are still hoping that they can bring the economy in for a soft landing—bringing inflation down closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target, without bringing on a recession—despite some signals, like those being given by the FedEx indicator, that the probability of the United States entering a recession was increasing. 

Sources: Will Feuer, “FedEx Stock Tumbles More Than 20% After Warning on Economic Trends,” Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2022; Alex Frangos and Hannah Miao, “ FedExt Stock Hit by Profit Warning; Rivals Also Drop Amid Recession Fears,” Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2022; Richard Clough, “FedEx has Biggest Drop in Over 40 Years After Pulling Forecast,” bloomberg.com, September 16, 2022; and David Gaffen, “The FedEx Indicator,” Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2007.

Should the Fed Be Looking at the Median CPI?

For years, all the products for sale in Dollar Tree stores had a price of $1.00 or less. But as inflation increased, the company had to raise its maxium prices to $1.25. (Thanks to Lena Buonanno for sending us the photo.)

There are multiple ways to measure inflation. Economists and policymakers use different measures of inflation depending on the use they intend to put the measure of inflation to. For example, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) constructs the consumer price index (CPI) as measure of the cost of living of a typical urban household. So the BLS intends the percentage change in the CPI to measure inflation in the cost of living as experienced by the roughly 93 percent of the population that lives in an urban household. (We are referring here to what the BLS labels CPI–U. As we discuss in this blog post, the BLS also compiles a CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W).)

As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 15, Section 15.5, because the Fed is charged by Congress with ensuring stability in the general price level, the Fed is interested in a broader measure of inflation than the CPI. So its preferred measure of inflation is the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) issues monthly. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Because the PCE price index includes more goods and services than the CPI, it is suits the Fed’s need for a broader measure of inflation. The Fed uses changes in the PCE to evaluate whether it’s meeting its target of a 2 percent annual inflation rate.

In using either the percentage change in the CPI or the percentage change in the PCE, we are looking at what inflation has been over the previous year. But economists and policymakers are also looking for indications of what inflation may be in the future. Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the BLS issues data on the CPI excluding food and energy prices and the BEA does the same with respect to the PCE. These two measures help avoid the problem that, for example, a period of high gasoline prices might lead the inflation rate to temporarily increase. Note that inflation caclulated by excluding the prices of food and energy is called core inflation.

During the surge in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall of 2022, some economists noted that supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic on labor and product markets caused the prices of some goods and services to spike. For example, a shortage of computer chips led to a reduction in the supply of new cars and sharp increases in car prices. As with temporary spikes in prices of energy and food, spikes resulting from supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic might lead the CPI and PCE—even excluding food and energy prices—to give a misleading measure of the underlying rate of inflation in the economy. 

To correct for this problem, some economists have been more attention to the measure of inflation calculated using the median CPI, which is compiled monthly by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The median CPI is calculated by ranking the price changes of every good or service in the index from the largest price change to the smallest price change, and then choosing the price change in the middle. The idea is to eliminate the effect on measured inflation of any short-lived events that cause the prices of some goods and services to be particularly high or particularly low. Economists at the Cleveland Fed have conducted research that shows that, in their words, “the median CPI provides a better signal of the underlying inflation trend than either the all-items CPI or the CPI excluding food and energy. The median CPI is even better at forecasting PCE inflation in the near and longer term than the core PCE price index.”

The following figure shows the three measures of inflation using the CPI for each month since January 2019. The red line shows the unadjusted CPI, the green line shows the CPI excluding food and energy prices, and the blue line shows median CPI. To focus on the inflation rate in a particular month, in this figure we calculate inflation as the percentage change in the index at an annual rate. That is, we calculate the annual inflation rate assuming that the inflation rate in that month continued for a year.

Note that for most of the period since early 2021, during which the inflation rate accelerated, median inflation was well below inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI. That difference reflects some of the distortions in measuring inflation arising from the effects of the pandemic.

But the last two values—for July and August 2022—tell a different story. In those months, inflation measured by changes in the CPI excluding food and energy prices or by changes in median CPI were well above inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI.  In August 2022, the unadjusted CPI shows a low rate of inflation—1.4 percent—whereas the CPI excluding food and energy prices shows an inflation rate of 7.0 percent and the median CPI shows an inflation rate of 9.2 percent. 

We should always be cautious when interpreting any economic data for a period as short as two months. But data for inflation measured by the change in median CPI may be sending a signal that the slowdown in inflation that many economists and policymakers had been predicting would occur in the summer of 2022 isn’t actually occurring. We’ll have to await the release of future data to draw a firmer conclusion.

Sources: Michael S. Derby, “Inflation Data Scrambles Fed Rate Outlook Again,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2022; Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “Median CPI,” clevelandfed.org; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Podcasts Back for Fall 2022! – 9/9/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss inflation, the Fed’s Response, cryptocurrency, and also briefly touch on labor markets.

How Should We Measure Inflation?

Image from the Wall Street Journal.

In the textbook, we discuss several measures of inflation. In Macroeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.4 (Economics, Chapter 18, Section 18.4) we discuss the GDP deflator as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the GDP deflator as a measure of inflation. In Chapter 9, Section 9.4, we discuss the consumer price index (CPI) as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the CPI as the most widely used measure of inflation. 

            In Chapter 15, Section 15.5 we examine the reasons that the Federal Reserve often looks at the core inflation rate—the inflation rate excluding the prices of food and energy—as a better measure of the underlying rate of inflation. Finally, in that section we note that the Fed uses the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCEprice index to assess  of whether it’s achieving its goal of a 2 percent inflation rate.

            In this blog post, we’ll discuss two other aspects of measuring inflation that we don’t cover in the textbook. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes two versions of the CPI:  (1) The familiar CPI for all urban consumers (or CPI–U), which includes prices of goods and services purchased by households in urban areas, and (2) the less familiar CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W), which includes the same prices included in the CPI–U. The two versions of the CPI give slightly different measures of the inflation rate—despite including the same prices—because each version applies different weights to the prices when constructing the index.

            As we explain in Chapter 9, Section 9.4, the weights in the CPI–U (the only version of the CPI we discuss in the chapter) are determined by a survey of 36,000 households nationwide on their spending habits. The more the households surveyed spend on a good or service, the larger the weight the price of the good or service receives in the CPI–U. To calculate the weights in the CPI–W the BLS uses only expenditures by households in which at least half of the household’s income comes from a clerical or wage occupation and in which at least one member of the household has worked 37 or more weeks during the previous year.  The BLS estimates that the sample of households used in calculating the CPI–U includes about 93 percent of the population of the United States, while the households included in the CPI–W include only about 29 percent of the population. 

            Because the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–U is so much larger than the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–W, it’s not surprising that most media coverage of inflation focuses on the CPI–U. As the following figure shows, the measures of inflation from the two versions of the CPI aren’t greatly different, although inflation as measured by the CPI–W—the red line—tends to be higher during economic expansions and lower during economic recessions than inflation measured by the CPI–U—the blue line. 

One important use of the CPI–W is in calculating cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) applied to Social Security payments retired and disabled people receive. Each year, the federal government’s Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates the average for the CPI–W during June, July, and August in the current year and in the previous year and then measures the inflation rate as the percentage increase between the two averages. The SSA then increases Social Security payments by that inflation rate. Because the increase in CPI–W is often—although not always—larger than the increase in CPI–U, using CPI–W to calculate Social Security COLAs increases the payments recipients of Social Security receive. 

            A second aspect of measuring inflation that we don’t mention in the textbook was the subject of discussion following the release of the July 2022 CPI data. In June 2022, the value for the CPI–U was 295.3. In July 2022, the value for the CPI–U was also 295.3. So, was there no inflation during July—an inflation rate of 0 percent? You can certainly make that argument, but typically, as we note in the textbook (for instance, see our display of the inflation rate in Chapter 10, Figure 10.7) we measure the inflation rate in a particular month as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year. Using that approach to measuring inflation, the inflation rate in July 2022 was the percentage change in the CPI from its value in July 2021, or 8.5 percent.  Note that you could calculate an annual inflation rate using the increase in the CPI from one month to the next by compounding that rate over 12 months. In this case, because the CPI was unchanged from June to July 2022, the inflation rate calculated as a compound annual rate would be 0 percent.  

            During periods of moderate inflation rates—which includes most of the decades prior to 2021—the difference between inflation calculated in these two ways was typically much smaller. Focusing on just the change in the CPI for one month has the advantage that you are using only the most recent data. But if the CPI in that month turns out to be untypical of what is happening to inflation over a longer period, then focusing on that month can be misleading. Note also that inflation rate calculated as the compound annual change in the CPI each month results in very large fluctuations in the inflation rate, as shown in the following figure.

Sources: Anne Tergesen, “Social Security Benefits Are Heading for the Biggest Increase in 40 Years,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2022; Neil Irwin, “Inflation Drops to Zero in July Due to Falling Gas Prices,” axios.com, August 10, 2022; “Consumer Price Index Frequently Asked Questions,” bls.gov, March 23, 2022; Stephen B. Reed and Kenneth J. Stewart, “Why Does BLS Provide Both the CPI–W and CPI–U?” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Beyond the Numbers, Vol. 3, No. 5, February 2014; “Latest Cost of Living Adjustment,” ssa.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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

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

Four times per year, the members of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) publish their projections, or forecasts, of the values of the inflation rate, the unemployment, and changes in real gross domestic product (GDP) for the current year, each of the following two years, and for the “longer run.”  The following table, released following the FOMC meeting held on March 15 and 16, 2022, shows the forecasts the members made at that time.

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

Recall that PCE refers to the consumption expenditures price index, which includes the prices of goods and services that are in the consumption category of GDP. Fed policymakers prefer using the PCE to measure inflation rather than the consumer price index (CPI) because the PCE includes the prices of more goods and services. The Fed uses the PCE to measure whether it is hitting its target inflation rate of 2 percent. The core PCE index leaves out the prices of food and energy products, including gasoline. The prices of food and energy products tend to fluctuate for reasons that do not affect the overall long-run inflation rate. So Fed policymakers believe that core PCE gives a better measure of the underlying inflation rate. (We discuss the PCE and the CPI in the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5)).

The values in the table are the median forecasts of the FOMC members, meaning that the forecasts of half the members were higher and half were lower.  The members do not make a longer run forecast for core PCE.  The final column shows the actual values of each variable in March 2022. The values in that column represent the percentage in each variable from the corresponding month (or quarter in the case of real GDP) in the previous year.  Links to the FOMC’s economic projections can be found on this page of the Federal Reserve’s web site.

At its March 2022 meeting, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate with the expectation that a less expansionary monetary policy would slow the high rates of inflation the U.S. economy was experiencing. Note that in that month, inflation measured by the PCE was running far above the Fed’s target inflation rate of 2 percent. 

In raising its target for the federal funds rate and by also allowing its holdings of U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities to decline, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the FOMC were attempting to achieve a soft landing for the economy. A soft landing occurs when the FOMC is able to reduce the inflation rate without causing the economy to experience a recession. The forecast values in the table are consistent with a soft landing because they show inflation declining towards the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent while the unemployment rate remains below 4 percent—historically, a very low unemployment rate—and the growth rate of real GDP remains positive. By forecasting that real GDP would continue growing while the unemployment rate would remain below 4 percent, the FOMC was forecasting that no recession would occur.

Some economists see an inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of unemployment and inflation as shown in the table. They argued that to bring down the inflation rate as rapidly as the forecasts indicated, the FOMC would have to cause a significant decline in aggregate demand. But if aggregate demand declined significantly, real GDP would either decline or grow very slowly, resulting in the unemployment rising above 4 percent, possibly well above that rate.  For instance, writing in the Economist magazine, Jón Steinsson of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the FOMC’s “combination of forecasts [of inflation and unemployment] has been dubbed the ‘immaculate disinflation’ because inflation is seen as falling rapidly despite a very tight labor market and a [federal funds] rate that is for the most part negative in real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation).”

Similarly, writing in the Washington Post, Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers noted that “over the past 75 years, every time inflation has exceeded 4 percent and unemployment has been below 5 percent, the U.S. economy has gone into recession within two years.”

In an interview in the Financial Times, Olivier Blanchard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, agreed. In their forecasts, the FOMC “had unemployment staying at 3.5 percent throughout the next two years, and they also had inflation coming down nicely to two point something. That just will not happen. …. [E]ither we’ll have a lot more inflation if unemployment remains at 3.5 per cent, or we will have higher unemployment for a while if we are actually to inflation down to two point something.”

While all three of these economists believed that unemployment would have to increase if inflation was to be brought down close to the Fed’s 2 percent target, none were certain that a recession would occur.

What might explain the apparent inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of inflation and unemployment? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Fed policymakers are relatively optimistic that the factors causing the surge in inflation—including the economic dislocations due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the surge in federal spending in early 2021—are likely to resolve themselves without the unemployment rate having to increase significantly. As Steinsson puts it in discussing this possibility (which he believes to be unlikely) “it is entirely possible that inflation will simply return to target as the disturbances associated with Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine dissipate.”
  2. Fed Chair Powell and other members of the FOMC were convinced that business managers, workers, and investors still expected that the inflation rate would return to 2 percent in the long run. As a result, none of these groups were taking actions that might lead to a wage-price spiral. (We discussed the possibility of a wage-price spiral in earlier blog post.) For instance, at a press conference following the FOMC meeting held on May 3 and 4, 2022, Powell argued that, “And, in fact, inflation expectations [at longer time horizons] come down fairly sharply. Longer-term inflation expectations have been reasonably stable but have moved up to—but only to levels where they were in 2014, by some measures.” If Powell’s assessment was correct that expectations of future inflation remained at about 2 percent, the probability of a soft landing was increased.
  3. We should mention the possibility that at least some members of the FOMC may have expected that the unemployment rate would increase above 4 percent—possibly well above 4 percent—and that the U.S. economy was likely to enter a recession during the coming months. They may, however, have been unwilling to include this expectation in their published forecasts. If members of the FOMC state that a recession is likely, businesses and households may reduce their spending, which by itself could cause a recession to begin. 

Sources: Martin Wolf, “Olivier Blanchard: There’s a for Markets to Focus on the Present and Extrapolate It Forever,” ft.com, May 26, 2022; Lawrence Summers, “My Inflation Warnings Have Spurred Questions. Here Are My Answers,” Washington Post, April 5, 2022; Jón Steinsson, “Jón Steinsson Believes That a Painless Disinflation Is No Longer Plausible,” economist.com, May 13, 2022; Federal Open Market Committee, “Summary of Economic Projections,” federalreserve.gov, March 16, 2022; and Federal Open Market Committee, “Transcript of Chair Powell’s Press Conference May 4, 2022,” federalreserve.gov, May 4, 2022.