Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not Inflation

I’m sick of hearing people complain about inflation. Unless your income comes from long-duration fixed-income investments, inflation has nothing to do with how much groceries and gasoline you can afford. Inflation is a pattern of increase in the general price level. What matters for affording stuff is a relative price, not the general price level. Specifically in this case it is the price of groceries and gasoline relative to the price of labor. And whether or not you like to eat iPads, the broader problem (for people with jobs) is not that the nominal price of groceries and gasoline is going up but that the real price of labor is going down.

In fact, when measured in terms of how much that labor can produce, even the nominal price of labor is going down, as illustrated by the last part of this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:


Look at the last two years compared to the rest of the chart. As someone who thinks people are more important than gasoline, I’d say this looks a heck of a lot more like deflation than inflation.

And people are more important than gasoline – not just in the ethical sense implied by my snide suggestion, but in a cold, economic sense: labor is more important than energy as an input to the goods and services that get produced. Therefore if the price of labor is falling while the price of energy is rising, the pressure on the prices of goods and services is likely to be downward rather than upward.

Not that I’m expecting the prices of goods and services to start moving dramatically downward in the immediate future. After all, the price of energy has been rising faster than the price of labor has been falling. And the value of the dollar has been falling, while many of the goods Americans consume are produced abroad. And the price of labor is not necessarily going to continue falling. I will say, though, that I think the price of labor provides a strong anchor for the general price level: just as the gold standard provided assurances against runaway inflation, so the “labor standard” provides such assurances. In fact, the labor standard provides better assurances, because labor is the most important input into the production of many useful things, whereas gold is – well, just gold.

(You might object that we really aren’t on a labor standard, because unit labor costs could start rising at any time, and there is no guarantee that policymakers would resist such increases. All I can say is, if you think the gold standard provides a guarantee against changes in the whims of policymakers, you need to read about what happened in 1933 and 1971.)

I’m going to go further and say that I think the falling real price of labor is a good thing, at least in the short run. I’ll even say that rising food and energy prices, while not good in themselves, are symptomatic of something good that is happening and that I would like to see accelerate rather than decelerate.

The flip side of falling real wages is rising profit margins. In a simplified closed economy this would be trivially true: the profit margin for businesses in aggregate would be the difference between the prices they charge and the wages they pay, i.e., the inverse of the real wage. It’s also true to a lesser extent in the real world, although the situation is more complicated because there are imports and exports, and labor and capital are not the only inputs.

What we experienced in 2008 and 2009 can be seen as a dramatic decline in the willingness of aggregate business to produce more for any given level of the aggregate profit margin. (Obviously, the phrase “aggregate business” hides a lot of critical details: part of the problem was with banks’ willingness to lend; part was with hoarding of cash by large corporations; part was with investors’ preferences over public vs. private sector assets; and so on.) What we need to do to fix this problem (and what we are doing, to some extent) is to make profit margins so high that businesses are willing to expand despite their newfound conservatism.

And it should be noted that there is a continuum of price flexibility. At one end, wages are perhaps the least flexible; at the other end, commodity prices are the most flexible. But there is a whole range in-between. When demand picks up, commodity prices rise first, product prices rise more sluggishly (with varying degrees of sluggishness), and wages rise most sluggishly. If the objective is to raise profit margins, then product prices have to rise more quickly than wages, and an inevitable side effect is that commodity prices will rise even faster than product prices. To the (limited) extent that rising commodity prices represent domestic US demand, they are a sign of a process that needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.

In the intermediate run, the evidence is clear that real wages are procyclial. When a recovery really gets going, real wages eventually rise, presumably because the economy as a whole becomes more efficient and “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In the short run, though, we need to get the recovery going before this can happen, and the way to get the recovery going is to let real wages fall – or at least rise more slowly than productivity. Say what you like, I’m cheering for rising prices.


DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product.

34 comments:

Benjamin said...

Terrific post. I have been honking about unit labor costs. If unit labor costs are declining, and if all commercial real estate is soft (retail, industrial, office), then how do you get serious inflation? I am not sure, but I think rents and labor are close to 65 percent of total business costs.

Moreover, the commodities inflation is reaching levels where it spurs new supply, alternatives or conservation. I doubt oil can sustain above $100 for more than another year. You are going to end up with full tankers and no where to go just like last year.

Gold is gold--all fool's gold, so it may go wherever it does. The price is set in Chin and India, and has nothing to do with US money supply.

Oddly enough, now you have some economists like Martin Feldstein saying QE2 was good, though in general the "right wing" has opposed QE. It seems after each round of QE, the "right wing" allows that was okay, that was good (even though we originally opposed it), but no more. However, Feldstein predicts bad news for equity investors if QE is not sustained.

Probably we need another round of QE. Since inflation is dead, to not go ahead with QE3 would be to suffer for no reason.

David Pearson said...

Andy,

Does the timing matter? Corporate profits/margins are already at peak levels, with insufficient domestic investment to show for it. Seems to me if they were depressed, your prescription would have more impact. Also, perhaps in normal times, labor might raise future income expectations despite a "temporary" drop in real wages: given high middle-class leverage and house price deflation, these are not normal times.

Also, Fed-induced commodity and import price inflation are now denting both margins and discretionary spending. Ease further and you just get more relative price inflation. This seems to be quite a "leaky" economy in response to stimulus.

Rogue Economist said...

Interesting post, Andy. A question though. For profit margins to rise on rising product prices indicates, at the very least, sales volumes not fall. What are circuit breakers such that falling real wages do not lead to falling aggregate sales volume?

TomH said...

There can be macro deflation and micro inflation at the same time. Housing prices can decrease, so rents will decrease, but mortage payments for those with fixed rates may stay the same. So, divergences have to be considered. Some parts of the population may be under price pressure at the same time that others are experiencing an improved standard of living.

Furthermore, if some areas of labor experience increased wages, while a large segment of the population remains unemployed, we see a further divergence in micro inflation rates.

The Gross Housing Product currently diverges significantly from the Gross Mining Product. We have an economy with very divergent states of health.

It seems to me that economists tend to create fallacies by relying on essentialism--that divergent distributions can be generalized into a single number.

Short Gold said...

Hey Andy-

I hear your words and your point about the labor unit cost is great but would you or would you not agree that the Fed's policy objective is contradicting itself?

The main objective of QE2 (as best I can read it) was to keep a floor under asset prices, yet we are seeing that the wages needed to support those elevated asset prices are still falling.


Do you mean to suggest that without QE we would have seen an even more dramatic fall in real wages (coupled with a lesser fall in asset prices)?

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

AndyfromTucson said...

"What we need to do to fix this problem (and what we are doing, to some extent) is to make profit margins so high that businesses are willing to expand despite their newfound conservatism."

I can't follow this reasoning. If profits are rising due to declining labor costs, doesn't that create a disincentive to invest/expand? If your goal is rising profits, and declining labor costs are delivering rising profits, why bother to expand/invest? Spending money on expanding/investing can only reduce profits, especially when declining real wages means that there is no reason to expect substantial growth in consumer demand.

Andy Harless said...

TomH, I don't think it's conceptually possible to have "micro inflation." If it's micro, then it's not inflation; it's relative price changes. Inflation doesn't mean that the prices of some things are going up; it means that the price of one particular thing -- money -- is going down. That's not essentialism; it's just the definition of inflation. It's true that, typically, there will be some prices going up and some going down, and that certain people's consumption possibilities may be more affected by the prices that are rising than the ones that are falling. That doesn't mean those people are facing a higher inflation rate than others; it just means they're experiencing an adverse relative price shock.

Andy Harless said...

David Pearson, I think the easing thus far has succeeded in raising profit margins and produced some increase in investment, and I would expect further easing to have more of the same effect. I would think that further easing would actually have less impact on commodity prices because storage capacity is limited: speculation (as induced by easy money) can only go so far in raising commodity prices, and the rest has to be due to demand by actual producers and consumers.

Rogue Economist, for the US, we can increase export volume, as real wages are clearly rising in some places. More generally, if falling real wages lead to higher employment, then sales volumes should increase overall even if they don’t increase for individual employed workers. In the bad equilibrium, you have high real wages, low employment, and low sales. In the good equilibrium, you have low real wages, high employment, and high sales.

Short Gold, I don’t see why high wages are needed to support high asset prices. There are plenty of entities with a lot of cash to bid up asset prices even if wages go down.

AndyFromTuscon, I don’t see why it would create a disincentive to invest. Just because your current profits are high doesn’t mean won’t be eager for additional profits if they are available. I should make the distinction, though, between average profit margins and marginal profits margins. What matters for investment incentives are marginal profit margins – profit margins on new investments. I’ve kind of tacitly assumed average and marginal profit margins rise in tandem, which I think is a reasonable assumption, although someone might be able to challenge it.

Anonymous said...

ANDY ,..AND OTHERS , ..Quit renting out your brains to ''IDIOTS''..THERE IS INFLATION , EVERY WHERE ..IT ACTS ON INCOME FROM HIDDEN TAXES ON ''NON-INFLATION'' ..FOOD- ENERGY '' ..NO COLA`S'' ..HA !..HOLDING GOLD- SILVER ..YES ..

Anonymous said...

'''
Gold is gold--all fool's gold, so it may go wherever it does. The price is set in Chin and India, and has nothing to do with US money supply. '''........oh really !

Anonymous said...

"It is absolutely impossible for a country with a Fiat currency, and the ability to print or electronically create "money" to be forced to default!"

Okay, then. That's great to know. What do you think of this thing?
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

I suppose Zimbabwe wasn't forced to default, and therefore it had a good and healthy economy. It just stunk to be you if you lived there. Let's just print our way to happiness!

Anonymous said...

I believe the Fed and its cronies are getting desperate. Last week the CME increased the margin requirements on silver and gold, yet again.

And now they're jaw-boning.

QE3 is a lock.

Anonymous said...

Last but not least ...Ben and the FED will do whatever GS, JPM, and other big banks want them to do. They have no real interest in what is best for 99% of the population.

AndyfromTucson said...

"I’ve kind of tacitly assumed average and marginal profit margins rise in tandem, which I think is a reasonable assumption, although someone might be able to challenge it."

Let's assume a situation where aggregate consumer demand is completely stagnant (and there is no reason to believe it will grow in the near or even medium term) and real labor costs are falling. Wouldn't average profits and marginal profits diverge in those circumstances? Average profits would rise because labor costs are falling. However, wouldn't marginal profits be 0 because with aggregate consumer demand flat you would expect any additional output to just depress prices and not result in any new sales? What am I missing?

dirk said...

Andy, great post. I agree emphatically.

I do question one point you made above, though. You said "I would think that further easing would actually have less impact on commodity prices because storage capacity is limited."

How does limited storage limit speculation? These days anyone can buy an ETF that invests in oil, metals or ag futures. No storage necessary.

Andy Harless said...

AndyFromTuscon, yes, under the conditions you describe, my assumption would be completely wrong. You're supposing that a typical firm faces a demand curve that looks like the edge of a cliff. At the other extreme, one could suppose that firms face horizontal demand curves (which is what would happen under perfect competition), in which case my assumption would be exactly true. I think a realistic case is that firms face demand curves that are smoothly downward-sloping. If labor costs go down, their profit-maximizing point will be further to the right: they will choose to produce more and sell it at a lower price but still have higher profits. (In the post, though, I'm assuming that a rising general price level is part of the mechanism for lowering real labor costs, so selling "at a lower price" might mean selling at a higher price in dollar terms but not in terms of purchasing power.)

Dirk, in order for speculators to affect spot prices, somebody has to be storing the commodities. It may not be the speculators themselves, but if, for example, speculators buy ETF's and the ETF's buy futures contracts, the either (a) somebody is going to arbitrage the futures and the spot by storing the spot commodity until delivery or (b) the spot price will remain lower than the futures price, and producers/consumers will still be able to buy the commodity at the lower price. (You could argue that, with minerals, there is a special case where the storage occurs underground and the mineral doesn't get extracted in the first place. In that case there is effectively unlimited storage capacity, but it doesn't seem realistic to me to think that easier money would, for example, lead OPEC to reduce production significantly.)

BethA said...

What role does demand play in your model? It seems to me that currently the reluctance of companies to expand is directly related to the lack of aggregate demand, which is partially the result of weak aggregate demand. Further wage cuts are likely to weaken demand, not strengthen it, and thus lower the likelihood of further investment. It isn't just a matter of convincing companies to spend; we also need to convince consumers to buy.

Until we can get money into the hands of people with domestic unfulfilled demand, or alternatively increase exports dramatically, I don't think it will matter much how much profit corporations accumulate: expansion won't pay off. Personal income has finally begun rising again, and only then has consumer spending begun to grow.

Of course, the upcoming cuts to government payrolls could easily reverse that particular trend...

ShaunP said...

I disagree that there will not be Inflation because wages and Unit Labor Costs are falling. Just because Non-Labor items are increasing drastically and Labor costs are not does not mean that one will check the other. Given rising wealth in the developing world, more mouths to feed, and more energy needed, it could very easily overshoot and head higher. (Whether prices are decoupling from US demand is a whole other debate, but I suspect it is the case.) A company trying to get it's variable costs under control will most certainly not take on more fixed costs i.e. labor. To do the opposite would not be logical and management, acting in their self interest, will not take a risk like that.

Certainly your argument would make sense in a "closed economic system" but we definitely do not live in one of those, so why debate it on such terms? Stagflation might be the likelier outcome, but I do agree in the end that it will all work itself out. It will be horrible and painful for many whose lives have been destroyed by the recession, but for an Economist looking at non-threatining data points it seems much more easy to swallow, so I understand why you would think that to be a good thing. In real life, it will be much more painful and far more destructive.

David Pearson said...

Andy,

I think you dismiss too easily the prospect of producers maximizing revenues by leaving commodities in the ground.

Further, hoarding and pull-forward buying need not lead to increased storage. Imagine oil is at $109. buyer A will pay $110 for oil in an attempt to store and speculate. Another buyer sees that and also bids $110. The first buyer, seeing that, bids $111. The second buyer matches. They stand still. Effect on price? +$2. Effect on storage? Nil.

In Brazil during the high inflation era, raw materials goods inventories were relatively high, but they did not climb linearly as a function of inflation.

Andy Harless said...

David, I don't understand your example. Either the bids will be filled, in which case there will be increased storage, or the bids won't be filled, so they will have to be withdrawn, and the price will go back down. In order to maintain a higher price, somebody who is willing to pay that price actually has to put their money where their mouth is, and when they do that, they'll have to store what they buy (or else use it, but in that case it's not speculation).

Regarding in-the-ground storage, I don't deny that low real interest rates create an incentive for that, but short-term real interest rates are probably about as low as the Fed can push them. (If they go any lower, via an increase in short-term inflation expectations, it will not be a result of monetary policy.) So further easing would take the form of reducing longer-term real interest rates (either directly or by promising to keep short-term rates low for a longer time). It's hard for me to believe that, for example, the two-year-forward two-year real interest rate has a big net effect on commodity producers' current extraction decisions. If some commodity producers leave things in the ground with the intention of leaving them there for a long time, others will see the price go up and start digging now.

Andy Harless said...

ShaunP, certainly it's true that if the developing world starts using a lot more natural resources, there will be less available for Americans, and that will make things harder for the US economy and tend to reduce both production and real wages (as well as employment). But that has nothing to do with inflation. It will happen no matter what the inflation rate. In fact, it will be worse if the inflation rate is lower, because that will make it harder to reduce real wages, and therefore more of the adjustment will take place by means of reducing employment.

And it's true that the developing world is using more and more natural resources, but I don't think the evidence indicates that that process is happening fast enough to drive the US inflation rate up to an uncomfortably high level (or even a normal level, for that matter). Rather, what's happening at the moment is that political tensions and weather problems have temporary accelerated the prices of food and energy, so that we are seeing temporarily high headline inflation rates (and temporarily normal core inflation rates, which are likely to go back below normal when the world calms down).

But I'll emphatically restate what I said in the first paragraph of this comment: to the extent that inflation, as such, is an issue here, the inflation is a good thing because it makes it easier to cut real wages and thereby to adjust to rising materials costs without reducing employment. And more inflation would be even better. It's bad for people that have secure jobs, but only because they're being "grandfathered in" with artificially high wages. For people looking for jobs or in danger of losing their jobs, the more inflation, the better, because higher product prices make them more employable. Right now employment at least seems to be stable. If we were adjusting to increased international commodity demand while keeping a tighter lid on product prices, the US would be back in a recession.

Andy Harless said...

BethA, that is an issue, but I think employment and job security are much more important than wages when it comes to consumer demand. I think declining real wages have been at least partially responsible for the decline in layoffs over the past year. If people are more secure about their jobs, presumably they'll start spending more. In the short run, if a continued fall in real labor costs induces businesses to start hiring more, the increase in demand from the newly employed will likely outweigh any reduction in demand from the already employed.

Andy Harless said...

Also, BethA, ShaunP, and others, let me say this: given that US currently runs a fairly large trade deficit, the best way to recover would be via an export boom (which would generate multiplier effects internally of increased investment by export producers and increased consumption by the newly employed). These days most large businesses have the option of choosing in what country to produce, and labor costs are a critical issue in their decision. So in this respect, falling labor costs in the US relative to other countries clearly tend to have a positive impact on US production and employment. This isn't strictly the same issue as "real labor costs," because what matters is not the price level but the exchange rate. However, the two are obviously related.

David Pearson said...

Andy,

In any auction, the presence of unfilled bids does result in a higher price. Picture one in which three buyers, one real and the other two "fake", continue to bid higher and higher. Ultimately the two "fake" ones pull out, and the remaining buyer (consumer of oil) is forced to pay a higher price. Speculators essentially "front run" real buyers, whether they have their bids filled or not. Yes, they must be willing to take delivery -- that is the condition.

Andy Harless said...

OK, David, I see what you're saying. But is it realistic to think that user demand for commodities is so inelastic that speculators can collectively bid up prices significantly without taking (or inducing arbitrageurs to take) physical positions? (For speculators to avoid taking any position at all, the user demand would have to be perfectly inelastic. Beyond that it's a matter of degree, but as long as the storage technology exhibits increasing marginal costs, the tendency should be for speculation incentives to have decreasing marginal impact on prices.)

David Pearson said...

Andy,

I think its a matter of degree. In inflationary economies (Brazil in the 90's), speculation and "forward buying" drove up prices much faster than they drive up inventories. Yes, inventories were ultimately "bloated", but its not like you couldn't find a place to store the stuff. Also, a key marginal cost of inventory is the s.t. real interest rate. When it is strongly negative, it pays for a lot of warehouse space.

The essence of (collective) inflationary psychology is the thought, "I will have to try to secure my supply before you do."

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It’s also true to a lesser extent in the real world, although the situation is more complicated because there are imports and exports, and labor and capital are not the only inputs.

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