On Tuesday, August 30, 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report for July 2022. The report indicated that the U.S. labor market remained very strong, even though, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), real gross domestic product (GDP) had declined during the first half of 2022. (In this blog post, we discuss the possibility that during this period the real GDP data may have been a misleading indicator of the actual state of the economy.)
As the following figure shows, the rate of job openings remained very high, even in comparison with the strong labor market of 2019 and early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting the U.S. economy. The BLS defines a job opening as a full-time or part-time job that a firm is advertising and that will start within 30 days. The rate of job openings is the number of job openings divided by the number of job openings plus the number of employed workers, multiplied by 100.
In the following figure, we compare the total number of job openings to the total number of people unemployed. The figure shows that in July 2022 there were almost two jobs available for each person who was unemployed.
Typically, a strong job market with high rates of job openings indicates that firms are expanding and that they expect their profits to be increasing. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 (Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2) the price of a stock is determined by investors’ expectations of the future profitability of the firm issuing the stock. So, we might have expected that on the day the BLS released the July JOLTS report containing good news about the labor market, the stock market indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq Composite Index would rise. In fact, though the indexes fell, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average declining a substantial 300 points. As a column in the Wall Street Journal put it: “A surprisingly tight U.S. labor market is rotten news for stock investors.” Why did good news about the labor market could cause stock prices to decline? The answer is found in investors’ expectations of the effect the news would have on monetary policy.
In August 2022, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) were in the process of tightening monetary policy to reduce the very high inflation rates the U.S. economy was experiencing. In July 2022, inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) was 8.5 percent. Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index—which is the measure of inflation that the Fed uses when evaluating whether it is hitting its target of 2 percent annual inflation—was 6.3 percent. (For a discussion of the Fed’s choice of inflation measure, see the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline,” in Macroeconomics, chapter 15, Section 15.5 and in Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.)
To slow inflation, the FOMC was increasing its target for the federal funds rate—the interest rate that banks charge each other on overnight loans—which in turn was leading to increases in other interest rates, such as the interest rate on residential mortgage loans. Higher interest rates would slow increases in aggregate demand, thereby slowing price increases. How high would the FOMC increase its target for the federal funds rate? Fed Chair Powell had made clear that the FOMC would monitor economic data for indications that economic activity was slowing. Members of the FOMC were concerned that unless the inflation rate was brought down quickly, 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 this earlier blog post.)
In this context, investors interpretated data showing unexpected strength in the economy—particularly in the labor market—as making it likely that the FOMC would need to make larger increases in its target for the federal fund rate. The higher interest rates go, the more likely that the U.S. economy will enter an economic recession. During recessions, as production, income, and employment decline, firms typically experience lower profits or even suffer losses. So, a good JOLTS report could send stock prices falling because news that the labor market was stronger than expected increased the likelihood that the FOMC’s actions would push the economy into a recession, reducing profits. Or as the Wall Street Journal column quoted earlier put it:
“So Tuesday’s [JOLTS] report was good news for workers, but not such good news for stock investors. It made another 0.75-percentage-point rate increase [in the target for the federal funds rate] from the Fed when policy makers meet next month seem increasingly likely, while also strengthening the case that the Fed will keep raising rates well into next year. Stocks sold off sharply following the report’s release.”
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover–July 2022,” bls.gov, August 30, 2022; Justin Lahart, “Why Stocks Got Jolted,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2022; Jerome H. Powell, “Monetary Policy and Price Stability,” speech at “Reassessing Constraints on the Economy and Policy,” an economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 26, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
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 (PCE) price 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.
As we’ve discussed in several previous blog posts, in early 2021 Lawrence Summers, professor of economics at Harvard and secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration, argued that the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, was likely to cause a sharp acceleration in inflation. When inflation began to rapidly increase, Summers urged the Federal Reserve to raise its target for the federal funds rate in order to slow the increase in aggregate demand, but the Fed was slow to do so. Some members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) argued that much of the inflation during 2021 was transitory in that it had been caused by lingering supply chain problems initially caused by the Covid–19 pandemic.
At the beginning of 2022, most members of the FOMC became convinced that in fact increases in aggregate demand were playing an important role in causing high inflation rates. Accordingly, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022. After two more rate increases, on the eve of the FOMC’s meeting on July 26–27, the federal funds rate target was a range of 1.50 percent to 1.75 percent. The FOMC was expected to raise its target by at least 0.75 percent at the meeting. The following figure shows movements in the effective federal funds rate—which can differ somewhat from the target rate—from January 1, 2015 to July 21, 2022.
In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that the FOMC was making a mistake by increasing its target for the federal funds rate. She also criticized Summers for supporting the increases. Warren worried that the rate increases were likely to cause a recession and argued that Congress and President Biden should adopt alternative measures to contain inflation. Warren argued that a better approach to dealing with inflation would be to, among other steps, increase the federal government’s support for child care to enable more parents to work, provide support for strengthening supply chains, and lower prescription drug prices by allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices with pharmaceutical firms. She also urged a “crack down on price gouging by large corporations.” (We discussed the argument that monopoly power is responsible for inflation in this blog post.)
Summers responded to Warren in a Twitter thread. He noted that: “In the 18 months since the massive stimulus policies & easy money that [Senator Warren] has favored & I have opposed, the inflation rate has risen from below 2 to above 9 percent & workers purchasing power has, as a consequence, declined more rapidly than in any year in the last 50.” And “[Senator Warren] opposes restrictive monetary policy or any other measure to cool off total demand. Why does she think at a time when there are twice as many vacancies as jobs that inflation will come down without some drop in total demand?”
Clearly, economists and policymakers continue to hotly debate monetary policy.
Source: Elizabeth Warren, “Jerome Powell’s Fed Pursues a Painful and Ineffective Inflation Cure,” Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2022.
Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 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. (CPI is discussed in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4.) 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 instead use 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 which part of the price increases 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. 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. As the inflation rate increased beginning in the spring of 2021, a number of observers pointed to hidden inflation that was occurring. There were two main types of hidden inflation:
The quality of some services was declining
Some packaged goods contained smaller quantities at the same price
Here’s one example of the deteriorating quality of some services. Because during 2021 and 2022 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, a former senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, discussed these other examples on his blog: “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. In all of these cases, the actual prices of the services had increased more than had the listed prices because the deterioration in quality meant that people were receiving less for their money.
In addition to deterioration in the quality of services, hidden inflation during this period also took the form of consumers buying some packaged goods in which the quantities had been reduced, although the price was unchanged. For example, in June 2022, an article by the Associated Press noted that:
• “A small box of Kleenex now has 60 tissues; a few months ago, it had 65.” • “Chobani Flips yogurts have shrunk from 5.3 ounces to 4.5 ounces.” • “Earth’s Best Organic Sunny Days Snack Bars went from eight bars per box to seven, but the price listed at multiple stores remains $3.69.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal observed that: “Shrinkflation, as economists call it, tends to be easier for companies to pass on to consumers. Despite labels that show price by weight, research shows that most customers look at only the overall price.”
The BLS does try to adjust the measurement of the CPI for shrinkflation, which it can do because the BLS keeps careful track of the quantities included in the packaged goods that are included in its survey.
But the BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for the deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin observes: “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?” And an economist at the BLS noted that, “We do not capture the decrease in service quality associated with cleaning a [hotel] room every two days rather than one.”
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 during 2021–2022 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: Dee-Ann Durbin, “No, You’re Not Imagining It—Package Sizes Are Shrinking,” apnews.com, June 8, 2022; Annie Gasparro and Gabriel T. Rubin, “The Hidden Ways Companies Raise Prices,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2022; 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,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” New York Times, October 14, 2021.
To answer the question in the title: Negative supply shocks—shifts to the left in the short-run aggregate supply (SRSAS) curve—and positive demand shocks—shifts to the right in the aggregate demand (AD) curve—both contributed to the acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021. But were the aggregate supply shifts, such as the semiconductor shortage that reduced the supply of new automobiles, more or less important than the aggregate demand shifts, such as the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies?
Adam Hale Shapiro of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco used a basic piece of microeconomic analysis to estimate the contribution of shifts in aggregate supply and shifts in aggregate demand to inflation during this period. He looked at the prices of the more than 100 categories of goods and services in the personal consumption expenditures(PCE) price index. 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. Changes in the PCE price index are the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of the inflation rate because that index includes the prices of more goods and services than are included in the consumer price index (CPI).
Shapiro explains how he used microeconomic reasoning to determine whether prices in one of the more than 100 categories of goods and services were increasing because of shifts in supply or because of shifts in demand:
“Shifts in demand move both prices and quantities in the same direction along the upward-sloping supply curve, meaning prices rise as demand increases. Shifts in supply move prices and quantities in opposite directions along the downward-sloping demand curve, meaning prices rise when supplies decline.”
For example, the figure on the left shows the effect on the market for toys of an increase in the demand for toys. (We discuss how shifts in demand and supply curves in a market affect equilibrium price and quantity in Chapter 3, Section 3.4 of Economics, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics.) The demand curve for toys shifts to the right from D1 to D2, the equilibrium price increases from P1 to P2, and the equilibrium quantity increases from Q1 to Q2. The figure on the right shows the effect on the market for toys if the price increase results from a decrease in the supply of toys rather than from an increase in demand. The supply curve shifts to the left from S1 to S2, the equilibrium price increases from P1 to P2, and the equilibrium quantity decreases from Q1 to Q2.
Shapiro used statistical methods to determine the part of a change in price or quantity that was unexpected. He took this approach in order to focus on short-run changes in these markets caused by shifts in demand and supply rather than long-run changes resulting from “factors such as technological improvements, cost-of-living adjustments to wages, or demographic changes like population aging.” In some cases, the quantity or the price in a market were very close to their expected values, so Shapiro labeled the cause of a price increase in this market as “ambiguous.”
Shapiro notes that: “Categories that experience frequent supply-driven price changes include food and household products such as dishes, linens, and household paper items. Categories that experience frequent demand-driven price changes include motor vehicle-related products, used cars, and electricity.”
The following figure shows Shapiro’s results for the period from January 2020 through April 2022. The height of each column gives the inflation rate in the month measured as the percentage change in the PCE price index from the same month in the previous year. For example, in March 2022, the inflation rate was 6.6 percent. The height of the yellow segment is the part of inflation in that month attributable to increases in demand, the height of the green segment is the part of the inflation in that month that is attributable to decreases in supply, and the height of the green segment is the part of the inflation that Shapiro can’t assign to either demand or supply. In March 2022, increased in demand accounted for 2.2 percentage points of the total 6.6 percentage point increase in inflation. Decreases in supply accounted for 3.3 percentage points, and the remaining 1.2 percentage points had an ambiguous cause.
We can conclude that, measured this way, the increase in inflation from the spring of 2021 through the spring of 2022 was due more to negative supply shocks than to positive demand shocks.
Source: Adam Hale Shapiro, “How Much Do Supply and Demand Drive Inflation?” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Economic Letter, 22-15, June 21, 2022.
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.
Actual values, March 2022
Change in real GDP
Core PCE inflation
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:
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.”
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.
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.
In several of our blog posts and podcasts, we’ve discussed Lawrence Summers’s forecasts of inflation. Beginning in February 2021, Summers, an economist at Harvard who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, argued that the United States was likely to experience rates of inflation that would be higher and persist longer than Federal Reserve policymakers were forecasting. In March 2021, the members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee had an average forecast of inflation of 2.4 percent in 2021, falling to 2.0 percent in 2022. (The FOMC projections can be found here.)
In fact, inflation measured by the CPI has been above 5 percent every month since June 2021; the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation—the percentage change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures—has been above 5 percent every month since October 2021. Summers’s forecasts of inflation have turned out to be more accurate than those of the members of the Federal Open Committee.
In this podcast, Summers discusses his analysis of inflation with four scholars from the Hoover Institution, including economist John Cochrane. Summers explains why he came to believe in early 2021 that inflation was likely to be much higher than generally expected, how long he believes high rates of inflation will persist, and whether the Fed is likely to be able to achieve a soft landing by bringing inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession. The first half of the podcast, in particular, should be understandable to students who have completed the monetary and fiscal policy chapters (Macroeconomics, Chapters 15 and 16; Economics, Chapters 25 and 26). Background useful for understanding the podcast discussion of monetary policy during the 1970s can be found in Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3.
It now seems clear that the new monetary policy strategy the Fed announced in August 2020 was a decisive break with the past in one respect: With the new strategy, the Fed abandoned the approach dating to the 1980s of preempting inflation. That is, the Fed would no longer begin raising its target for the federal funds rate when data on unemployment and real GDP growth indicated that inflation was likely to rise. Instead, the Fed would wait until inflation had already risen above its target inflation rate.
Since 2012, the Fed has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent. As we discussed in a previous blog post, with the new monetary policy the Fed announced in August 2020, the Fed modified how it interpreted its inflation target: “[T]he Committee seeks to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, and therefore judges that, following periods when inflation has been running persistently below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.”
The Fed’s new approach is sometimes referred to as average inflation targeting (AIT) because the Fed attempts to achieve its 2 percent target on average over a period of time. But as former Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida discussed in a speech in November 2020, the Fed’s monetary policy strategy might be better called a flexible average inflation target (FAIT) approach rather than a strictly AIT approach. Clarida noted that the framework was asymmetric, meaning that inflation rates higher than 2 percent need not be offset with inflation rates lower than 2 percent: “The new framework is asymmetric. …[T]he goal of monetary policy … is to return inflation to its 2 percent longer-run goal, but not to push inflation below 2 percent.” And: “Our framework aims … for inflation to average 2 percent over time, but it does not make a … commitment to achieve … inflation outcomes that average 2 percent under any and all circumstances ….”
Inflation began to increase rapidly in mid-2021. The following figure shows three measure of inflation, each calculated as the percentage change in the series from the same month in the previous year: the consumer price index (CPI), the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index, and the core PCE—which excludes the prices of food and energy. Inflation as measured by the CPI is sometimes called headline inflation because it’s the measure of inflation that most often appears in media stories about the economy. The PCE is a broader measure of the price level in that it includes the prices of more consumer goods and services than does the CPI. The Fed’s target for the inflation rate is stated in terms of the PCE. Because prices of food and inflation fluctuate more than do the prices of other goods and services, members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) generally consider changes in the core PCE to be the best measure of the underlying rate of inflation.
The figure shows that for most of the period from 2002 through early 2021, inflation as measured by the PCE was below the Fed’s 2 percent target. Since that time, inflation has been running well above the Fed’s target. In February 2022, PCE inflation was 6.4 percent. (Core PCE inflation was 5.4 percent and CPI inflation was 7.9 percent.) At its March 2022 meeting the FOMC begin raising its target for the federal funds rate—well after the increase in inflation had begun. The Fed increased its target for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percent, which raised the target from 0 to 0.25 percent to 0.25 to 0.50 percent.
Should the Fed have taken action to reduce inflation earlier? To answer that question, it’s first worth briefly reviewing Fed policy during the Great Inflation of 1968 to 1982. In the late 1960s, total federal spending grew rapidly as a result of the Great Society social programs and the war in Vietnam. At the same time, the Fed increased the rate of growth of the money supply. The result was an end to the price stability of the 1952-1967 period during which the annual inflation rate had averaged only 1.6 percent.
The 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks also contributed to accelerating inflation. Between January 1974 and June 1982, the annual inflation rate averaged 9.3 percent. This was the first episode of sustained inflation outside of wartime in U.S. history—until now. Although the oil price shocks and expansionary fiscal policy contributed to the Great Inflation, most economists, inside and outside of the Fed, eventually concluded that Fed policy failures were primarily responsible for inflation becoming so severe.
The key errors are usually attributed to Arthur Burns, who was Fed Chair from January 1970 to March 1978. Burns, who was 66 at the time of his appointment, had made his reputation for his work on business cycles, mostly conducted prior to World War II at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Burns was skeptical that monetary policy could have much effect on inflation. He was convinced that inflation was mainly the result of structural factors such as the power of unions to push up wages or the pricing power of large firms in concentrated industries.
Accordingly, Burns was reluctant to raise interest rates, believing that doing so hurt the housing industry without reducing inflation. Burns testified to Congress that inflation “poses a problem that traditional monetary and fiscal remedies cannot solve as quickly as the national interest demands.” Instead of fighting inflation with monetary policy he recommended “effective controls over many, but by no means all, wage bargains and prices.” (A collection Burns’s speeches can be found here.)
Few economists shared Burns’s enthusiasm for wage and price controls, believing that controls can’t end inflation, they can only temporarily reduce it while causing distortions in the economy. (A recent overview of the economics of price controls can be found here.) In analyzing this period, economists inside and outside the Fed concluded that to bring the inflation rate down, Burns should have increased the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate until it was higher than the inflation rate. In other words, the real interest rate, which equals the nominal—or stated—interest rate minus the inflation rate, needed to be positive. When the real interest rate is negative, a business may, for example, pay 6% on a bond when the inflation rate is 10%, so they’re borrowing funds at a real rate of −4%. In that situation, we would expect borrowing to increase, which can lead to a boom in spending. The higher spending worsens inflation.
Because Burns and the FOMC responded only slowly to rising inflation, workers, firms, and investors gradually increased their expectations of inflation. Once higher expectation inflation became embedded, or entrenched, in the U.S. economy it was difficult to reduce the actual inflation rate without increasing the target for the federal funds rate enough to cause a significant slowdown in the growth of real GDP and a rise in the unemployment rate. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3 (Economics, Chapter 27, Sections 27.2 and 27.3), the process of the expected inflation rate rising over time to equal the actual inflation rate was first described in research conducted separately by Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps during the 1960s.
An implication of Friedman and Phelps’s work is that because a change in monetary policy takes more than a year to have its full effect on the economy, if the Fed waits until inflation has already increased, it will be too late to keep the higher inflation rate from becoming embedded in interest rates and long-term labor and raw material contracts.
Paul Volcker, appointed Fed chair by Jimmy Carter in 1979, showed that, contrary to Burns’s contention, monetary policy could, in fact, deal with inflation. By the time Volcker became chair, inflation was above 11%. By raising the target for the federal funds rate to 22%—it was 7% when Burns left office—Volcker brought the inflation rate down to below 4%, but only at the cost of a severe recession during 1981–1982, during which the unemployment rate rose above 10 percent for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Note that whereas Burns had largely failed to increase the target for the federal funds as rapidly as inflation had increased—resulting in a negative real federal funds rate—Volcker had raised the target for the federal funds rate above the inflation rate—resulting in a positive real federal funds rate.
Because the 1981–1982 recession was so severe, the inflation rate declined from above 11 percent to below 4 percent. In Chapter 17, Figure 17.10 (reproduced below), we plot the course of the inflation and unemployment rates from 1979 to 1989.
The Fed chairs who followed Volcker accepted the lesson of the 1970s that it was important to head off potential increases in inflation before the increases became embedded in the economy. For instance, in 2015, then Fed Chair Janet Yellen in explaining why the FOMC was likely to raise to soon its target for the federal funds rate noted that: “A substantial body of theory, informed by considerable historical evidence, suggests that inflation will eventually begin to rise as resource utilization continues to tighten. It is largely for this reason that a significant pickup in incoming readings on core inflation will not be a precondition for me to judge that an initial increase in the federal funds rate would be warranted.”
Between 2015 and 2018, the FOMC increased its target for the federal funds rate nine times, raising the target from a range of 0 to 0.25 percent to a range of 2.25 to 2.50 percent. In 2018, Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta justified these rate increases by noting that “… we shouldn’t forget that [the Fed’s] credibility [with respect to keeping inflation low] was hard won. Inflation expectations are reasonably stable for now, but we know little about how far the scales can tip before it is no longer so.”
He used the following figure to illustrate his point.
Bostic interpreted the figure as follows:
“[The red areas in the figure are] periods of time when the actual unemployment rate fell below what the U.S. Congressional Budget Office now estimates as the so-called natural rate of unemployment. I refer to these episodes as “high-pressure” periods. Here is the punchline. Dating back to 1960, every high-pressure period ended in a recession. And all but one recession was preceded by a high-pressure period….
I think a risk management approach requires that we at least consider the possibility that unemployment rates that are lower than normal for an extended period are symptoms of an overheated economy. One potential consequence of overheating is that inflationary pressures inevitably build up, leading the central bank to take a much more “muscular” stance of policy at the end of these high-pressure periods to combat rising nominal pressures. Economic weakness follows [resulting typically, as indicated in the figure by the gray band, in a recession].”
By July 2019, a majority of the members of the FOMC, including Chair Powell, had come to believe that with no sign of inflation accelerating, they could safely cut the federal funds rate. But they had not yet explicitly abandoned the view that the FOMC should act to preempt increases in inflation. The formal change came in August 2020 when, as discussed earlier, the FOMC announced the new FAIT.
At the time the FOMC adopted its new monetary policy strategy, most members expected that any increase in inflation owing to problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic—particularly the disruptions in supply chains—would be transitory. Because inflation has proven to be more persistent than Fed policymakers and many economists expected, two aspects of the FAIT approach to monetary policy have been widely discussed: First, the FOMC did not explicitly state by how much inflation can exceed the 2 percent target or for how long it needs to stay there before the Fed will react. The failure to elaborate on this aspect of the policy has made it more difficult for workers, firms, and investors to gauge the Fed’s likely reaction to the acceleration in inflation that began in the spring of 2021. Second, the FOMC’s decision to abandon the decades-long policy of preempting inflation may have made it more difficult to bring inflation down to the 2 percent target without causing a recession.
Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard recently remarked that “it is of paramount importance to get inflation down” and some Fed policymakers believe that the FOMC will have to begin increasing its target for the federal funds rate more aggressively. (The speech in which Governor Brainard discusses her current thinking on monetary policy can be found here.) For instance James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has argued in favor of raising the target to above 3 percent this year. With the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation running above 5 percent, it would take substantial increases int the target to achieve a positive real federal funds rate.
It is an open question whether Jerome Powell finds himself in a position similar to that of Paul Volcker in 1979: Rapid increases in interest rates may be necessary to keep inflation from accelerating, but doing so risks causing a recession. In a recent speech (found here), Powell pledged that: “We will take the necessary steps to ensure a return to price stability. In particular, if we conclude that it is appropriate to move more aggressively by raising the federal funds rate by more than 25 basis points at a meeting or meetings, we will do so.”
But Powell argued that the FOMC could achieve “a soft landing, with inflation coming down and unemployment holding steady” even if it is forced to rapidly increase its target for the federal funds rate:
“Some have argued that history stacks the odds against achieving a soft landing, and point to the 1994 episode as the only successful soft landing in the postwar period. I believe that the historical record provides some grounds for optimism: Soft, or at least softish, landings have been relatively common in U.S. monetary history. In three episodes—in 1965, 1984, and 1994—the Fed raised the federal funds rate significantly in response to perceived overheating without precipitating a recession.”
Some economists have been skeptical that a soft landing is likely. Harvard economist and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has been particularly critical of Fed policy, as in this Twitter thread. Summers concludes that: “I am apprehensive that we will be disappointed in the years ahead by unemployment levels, inflation levels, or both.” (Summers and Harvard economist Alex Domash provide an extended discussion in a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper found here.)
Clearly, we are in a period of great macroeconomic uncertainty.
With the owners of the Major Labor Baseball teams and the Major League Players Association having finally settled on a new collective bargaining agreement, the baseball season will soon begin. Ernie Banks, the late Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, was known for his upbeat personality. However bad the weather might be at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Banks would run on the field and say, “What a great day for baseball! Let’s play two.”
In honor of Ernie Banks, today let’s do two Solved Problems in macro. They both involve errors that students in principles courses often make. So, in that sense they would also work as Don’t Let This Happen to You features.
Solved Problem 1.: Bond Yields and Bond Prices
An article in the Financial Times had the following headline: “U.S. Government Bond Prices Drop Ahead of Federal Reserve Meeting.” The first sentence of the article reads: “U.S. government bond yields rose to multiyear highs on Monday ahead of this week’s Federal Reserve meeting ….”
a. When a media article mentions “U.S. government bonds,” what type of bonds are they referring to?
b. Is there a contradiction between the headline and the first sentence of the article? Is the article telling us that U.S. government bonds went up or down? Briefly explain.
Solving the Problem
Step 1:Review the chapter material. This problem is about the inverse relationship between bond yields and bond prices, so you may want to review Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Appendix, “Using Present Value” (Economics, Chapter 8, Appendix, “Using Present Value”). You may also want to review the discussion of U.S. Treasury bonds in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6, “Deficits, Surpluses, and Federal Government Debt” (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6, “Deficits, Surpluses, and Federal Government Debt”).
Step 2:Answer part a. by explaining what media articles are referring to when they use the phrase “U.S. government bonds.” As discussed in Chapter 16, Section 16.6, most of the bonds issued by the federal government of the United States are U.S. Treasury bonds. The Treasury sells these bonds to investors when the federal government doesn’t collect enough in tax revenues to pay for all of its spending. So, when the media refers to U.S. government bonds, without further explanation, the reference is always to U.S. Treasury bonds.
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining that there is no contradiction between the headline and the first sentence of the article. An important fact about bond markets is that when the price of a bond falls, the yield—or interest rate—on the bond rises. The reverse is also true: When the price of a bond rises, the yield on the bond falls. The reason why this relationship holds is explained in the Appendix to Chapter 6: The price of a bond (or other financial asset) should be equal to the present value of the payments an investor receives from owning that asset. If you buy a U.S. Treasury bond, the price will equal the present value of the coupon payments the Treasury sends you during the life of the bond and the final payment to you by the Treasury of the principal, or face value of the bond. Remember that present value is the value in today’s dollars of funds to be received in the future. The higher the interest rate, the lower the present value of a payment to be received in the future. So a higher yield, or interest rate, on a bond results in a lower price of the bond because the higher yield reduces the present value of the payments to be received from the bond.
Therefore, whenever the yield on a bond rises, the price of the bond must fall (and whenever the yield on a bond falls, the price of the bond must rise. So, we can conclude that the headline of the Financial Times article and the first sentence of the article are consistent, not contradictory: Because the prices of Treasury bonds fell, the yields on the bonds must have risen.
Source: Nicholas Megaw, Naomi Rovnick, George Steer, and Hudson Lockett, “U.S. Government Bond Prices Drop Ahead of Federal Reserve Meeting,” ft.com, March 14, 2022.
Solved Problem 2: Being Careful about the Definition of Inflation
An article in the New York Times contrasted inflation during the 1970s with inflation today:
“Price increases had run high for more than a decade by the time Mr. Volcker became chair [of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors] in 1979 …. Shopper expected prices to go up, businesses knew that, and both acted accordingly. This time, inflation has been anemic for years (until recently), and most consumers and investors expect costs to return to lower levels before long, survey and market data show.”
a. What does the article mean by “inflation has been anemic for years”?
b. In the last sentence what “costs” is the article referring to?
c. Is the article correctly using the definition of inflation in the last sentence? Briefly explain.
Solving the Problem
Step 1: Review the chapter material. This problem is about the definition of inflation, so you may want to review Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4, “Measuring Inflation” (Economics, Chapter 20, Section 20.4, “Measuring Inflation”).
Step 2:Answer part a. by explaining what the phrase “inflation has been anemic for years” means. Anemia is a medical disorder that usually has the symptom of fatigue. So, the word “anemic” is often used to mean weak. The article is arguing that until recently, the inflation rate had been weak, or slow.
Step 3: Answer part b. by explaining what the article is referring to by “costs.” Economists typically use the word costs for the amount that firm pays to produce a good—labor costs, raw material costs, and so on. Here, though, the article is using “costs” to mean “prices.” Costs is often used this way in everyday conversation: “I didn’t buy a new car because they cost too much.” Or: “Has the cost of a movie ticket increased?”
Step 4: Answer part c. by explaining whether the article is correctly using the definition of inflation. In writing “consumers and investors expect costs to return to lower levels” the article is making a common mistake. The article seems to mean that consumers and investors expect that the rate of inflation will be lower in the future. But even if the rate of inflation declines from nearly 8 percent in early 2022 to, say, 3 percent in 2023, prices will still be increasing. So, prices (“costs” in the sentence) will still be higher next year even if the rate of inflation is lower. In other words, even if the rate of increase in prices—inflation—declines, the price level will still be higher.
It’s a common mistake to think that a decline in the inflation rate means that prices will be lower, when actually prices will still be increasing, just more slowly.
Source: Jeanna Smialek, “Powell Admires Volcker. He May Have to Act Like Him,” New York Times, March 14, 2022.
Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from the same month in the previous year was 7.9 percent in February 2022, the highest rate since January 1982—near the end of the Great Inflation that began in the late 1960s. The following figure shows inflation in the new motor vehicle component of the CPI. The 12.4 percent increase in new car prices was the largest since April 1975.
The increase in new car prices was being driven partly by increases in aggregate demand resulting from the highly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies enacted in response to the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and partly from shortages of semiconductors and some other car components, which reduced the supply of new cars.
As the following figure shows, inflation in used car prices was even greater. With the exception of June and July of 2021, the 41.2 percent increase in used car prices in February 2022 was the largest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing these data in 1954.
Because used cars are a substitute of new cars, rising prices of new cars caused an increase in demand for used cars. In addition, the supply of used cars was reduced because car rental firms, such as Enterprise and Hertz, had purchased fewer new cars during the worst of the pandemic and so had fewer used cars to sell to used car dealers. Increased demand and reduced supply resulted in the sharp increase in the price of used cars.
Another factor increasing the prices consumers were paying for cars was a reduction in bargaining—or haggling—over car prices. Traditionally, most goods and services are sold at a fixed price. For example, some buying a refrigerator usually pays the posted price charged by Best Buy, Lowes, or another retailer. But houses and cars have been an exception, with buyers often negotiating prices that are lower than the seller was asking.
In the case of automobiles, by federal law, the price of a new car has to be posted on the car’s window. The posted price is called the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), often referred to as the sticker price. Typically, the sticker price represents a ceiling on what a consumer is likely to pay, with many—but not all—buyers negotiating for a lower price. Some people dislike the idea of bargaining over the price of a car, particularly if they get drawn into long negotiations at a car dealership. These buyers are likely to pay the sticker price or something very close to it.
As a result, car dealers have an opportunity to practice price discrimination: They charge buyers whose demand for cars is more price elastic lower prices and buyers whose demand is less price elastic higher prices. The car dealers are able to separate the two groups on the basis of the buyers willingness to haggle over the price of a car. (We discuss price discrimination in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.) Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of car dealers to practice this form of price discrimination had been eroded by the availability of online car buying services, such as Consumer Reports’ “Build & Buy Service,” which allow buyers to compare competing price offers from local car dealers. There aren’t sufficient data to determine whether using an online buying service results in prices as low as those obtained by buyers willing to haggle over price face-to-face with salespeople in dealerships.
In any event, in 2022 most car buyers were faced with a different situation: Rather than serving as a ceiling on the price, the MSRP, had become a floor. That is, many buyers found that given the reduced supply of new cars, they had to pay more than the MSRP. As one buyer quoted in a Wall Street Journal article put it: “The rules have changed so dramatically…. [T]he dealer’s position is ‘This is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.’” According to the website Edmunds.com, in January 2021, only about 3 percent of cars were sold in the United States for prices above MSRP, but in January 2022, 82 percent were.
Car manufacturers are opposed to dealers charging prices higher than the MSRP, fearing that doing so will damage the car’s brand. But car manufacturers don’t own the dealerships that sell their cars. The dealerships are independently owned businesses, a situation that dates back to the beginning of the car industry in the early 1900s. Early automobile manufacturers, such as Henry Ford, couldn’t raise sufficient funds to buy and operate a nationwide network of car dealerships. The manufacturers often even had trouble financing the working capital—or the funds used to finance the daily operations of the firm—to buy components from suppliers, pay workers, and cover the other costs of manufacturing automobiles.
The manufacturers solved both problems by relying on a network of independent dealerships that would be given franchises to be the exclusive sellers of a manufacturer’s brand of cars in a given area. The local businesspeople who owned the dealerships raised funds locally, often from commercial banks. Manufacturers generally paid their suppliers 30 to 90 days after receiving shipments of components, while requiring their dealers to pay a deposit on the cars they ordered and to pay the balance due at the time the cars were delivered to the dealers. One historian of the automobile industry described the process:
The great demand for automobiles and the large profits available for [dealers], in the early days of the industry … enabled the producers to exact substantial advance deposits of cash for all orders and to require cash payment upon delivery of the vehicles …. The suppliers of parts and materials, on the other hand, extended book-account credit of thirty to ninety days. Thus the automobile producer had a month or more in which to assemble and sell his vehicles before the bills from suppliers became due; and much of his labor costs could be paid from dealers’ deposits.
The franchise system had some drawbacks for car manufacturers, however. A car dealership benefits from the reputation of the manufacturer whose cars it sells, but it has an incentive to free ride on that reputation. That is, if a local dealer can take an action—such as selling cars above the MSRP—that raises its profit, it has an incentive to do so even if the action damages the reputation of Ford, General Motors, or whichever firm’s cars the dealer is selling. Car manufacturers have long been aware of the problem of car dealers free riding on the manufacturer’s reputation. For instance, in the 1920s, Ford sent so-called road men to inspect Ford dealers to check that they had clean, well-lighted showrooms and competent repair shops in order to make sure the dealerships weren’t damaging Ford’s brand.
As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3, consumers often believe it’s unfair of a firm to raise prices—such as a hardware store raising the prices of shovels after a snowstorm—when the increases aren’t the result of increases in the firm’s costs. Knowing that many consumers have this view, car manufacturers in 2022 wanted their dealers not to sell cars for prices above the MSRP. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “Historically, car companies have said they disapprove of their dealers charging above MSRP, saying it can reflect poorly on the brand and alienate customers.”
But the car manufacturers ran into another consequence of the franchise system. Using a franchise system rather than selling cars through manufacturer owned dealerships means that there are thousands of independent car dealers in the United States. The number of dealers makes them an effective lobbying force with state governments. As a result, most states have passed state franchise laws that limit the ability of car manufacturers to control the actions of their dealers and sometimes prohibit car manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers. Although Tesla has attained the right in some states to sell directly to consumers without using franchised dealers, Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers still rely exclusively on dealers. The result is that car manufacturers can’t legally set the prices that their dealerships charge.
Will the situation of most people paying the sticker price—or more—for cars persist after the current supply chain problems are resolved? AutoNation is the largest chain of car dealerships in the United States. Recently, Mike Manley, the firm’s CEO, argued that the substantial discounts from the sticker price that were common before the pandemic are a thing of the past. He argued that car manufacturers were likely to keep production of new cars more closely in balance with consumer demand, reducing the number of cars dealers keep in inventory on their lots: “We will not return to excessively high inventory levels that depress new-vehicle margins.”
Only time will tell whether the situation facing car buyers in 2022 of having to pay prices above the MSRP will persist.
Sources: Mike Colias and Nora Eckert, “A New Brand of Sticker Shock Hits the Car Market,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022; Nora Eckert and Mike Colias, “Ford and GM Warn Dealers to Stop Charging So Much for New Cars,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2022; Gabrielle Coppola, “Car Discounts Aren’t Coming Back After Pandemic, AutoNation Says,” bloomberg.com, February 9, 2022; cr.org/buildandbuy; Lawrence H. Seltzer, A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.