It’s The Demand Curve, Stupid…
By Christopher Thornberg
The biggest obstacle to slowing inflation is that the real causes of it—excessive consumer demand and rapidly rising wages—are too politically toxic to acknowledge.
The August CPI report showed prices in the United States continuing to increase, contrary to the predictions of most Blue-Chip forecasts and the Federal Reserve. This has spooked the markets and caused a sharp decline in the various indexes—the S&P 500 dropped over 4%. The decline in the markets doesn’t surprise me—they are the ultimate drama queens of the economy, overreacting to everything. They will likely bounce back soon enough.
What does perplex me is how we collectively continue to be surprised when the official inflation forecasts fall well below reality. This same kabuki dance has been repeated almost monthly for more than a year now, with expert economists assuring us that price growth will soon decelerate and maybe even reverse, followed by a gnashing of teeth and predictions of doom when it turns out the data is not living up to the optimism.
I am certainly not suggesting that inflation is easy to forecast—especially on a month-to-month basis. But the problem I see here is different. The major forecasts and official prognostications aren’t just missing the mark, they have consistently predicted lower inflation rates than have been occurring. In statistical parlance the forecasts have bias. And this bias stems from the fact that the cause of inflation has been misinterpreted as primarily a supply chain issue, when in fact it is an excess demand and labor cost issue.
Consider the various explanations for inflation over the last year. They have typically attributed the problem to parts shortages (e.g., empty car dealer lots and high used-car prices), energy markets (the high cost of gasoline), the war in Ukraine and grain markets (food prices) among other issues. The following quote is from a Wall Street Journal reporter discussing her interviews with various economists prior to the summer CPI estimates:
“[June] will probably prove to be the peak for the annual measure of CPI. That’s because pretty much all of the major drivers of the inflation surge this year and last year are fading or outright reversing. Energy prices are on the downswing, most obviously gasoline prices. Upstream, energy and food commodity prices have come down a lot in recent weeks too, which suggests that there’s more easing to feed through to consumers in store, particularly on the grocery front. Supply-chain pressures seem to be gradually improving.”
If we think about inflation as being strictly driven by limitations in inputs, then any relief in those supply pressures should cause prices to fall. But this is not the case today, as the August number clearly demonstrates. The supply-chain theory of inflation is wrong. And the reason many experts continue to get it wrong is because the true causes of today’s inflation—excess consumer demand and rapidly rising labor costs—are politically toxic and difficult to acknowledge in these terse populist times.
Excess consumer demand has been caused by an overstimulation of the economy on the part of the Feds. As I have written many times, the pandemic hit to the economy was never the crisis it was portrayed to be, and the $6.5 trillion in fiscal stimulus, largely funded by $5 trillion in new money created through the Fed’s quantitative easing program, was vastly more than necessary. It set financial markets to new (unsustainable) highs and ultimately generated a 25% bump in household net worth ($30 trillion in new wealth) in just 2 years. This new “wealth” has driven consumer spending to new highs, and that is what is causing inflation. As Milton Friedman famously quipped: “Inflation is caused by too much money chasing after too few goods.”
Looking at the supply side only mistakes the symptoms for the disease. Gasoline prices shot up because the minor issues with supply were magnified by the major jump in demand. Estimates of short-run demand elasticity for gasoline suggest the market is inelastic, but still, an increase in price will lead to a decrease in consumption if those prices are only being driven by supply constraints. Yet, the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ GDP data shows that in the last 18 months, even as energy prices rose 97%, consumption of energy products increased by 7%. Prices rose so dramatically because of the surge in demand, not the limitations on supply.
And now that energy prices are falling as supply catches up, money not spent on energy is simply flowing to other spending—healthcare, housing, restaurants, travel—and causing more inflation in those categories. And those sectors also have supply shortages—driven by labor shortages rather than supply chain issues. Just as excess demand drove up energy prices, excess demand is also causing a rapid increase in worker earnings, which is another important contributor to business costs and output prices. According to the Atlanta Fed’s wage tracker, U.S. worker earnings are now growing at a 6.7% annual pace—the highest rate ever recorded in the 40 years of data they have created.
And therein lies the political problem. If we acknowledge that inflation is being driven by excessive consumer demand, then we must admit that Americans are overconsuming. That’s an idea that doesn’t fit the miserabilist narrative that underpins political debate today. Both parties consistently tell their supporters how terrible they have it and then immediately blame the other party’s policies. Apparently, in the political world, most U.S. households are living hand to mouth, workers are highly underpaid, and we’re all just one paycheck away from financial disaster. To suggest otherwise would be gauche.
For the record, U.S. consumers are overconsuming. Consumer spending as a share of nation’s GDP is the highest it’s ever been, except during the runup to the Great Recession—not a comfortable comparison. This overconsumption is one of the root causes of the growing U.S. trade deficit, currently at almost 5% of GDP, again the widest it’s ever been except for the 2005 and 2006 period. As for the idea that real earnings growth is negative, you only get this result if you use the CPI estimate of inflation, which overstates the situation for technical reasons we won’t dive into here. The appropriate deflator is the PCE deflator from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and if we use that, real earnings growth is positive, albeit not at a 40-year high pace.
Of course, this story is only explaining the mechanisms within basic monetary theory. If you want to predict how much prices will increase, you only need to look at money supply. The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program expanded the money supply of the United States by 40%. Therefore, holding all else constant, prices need to go up by 40% to equilibrate the size of the economy to the size of the money supply.
While the Fed’s quantitative easing caused inflation, oddly their response to the problem has been primarily to push up the Federal Funds rate, the old tool that Ben Bernanke had largely moved past during his tenure. The big hikes in the Federal Funds rate have done very little to reduce the money supply; it has only stopped growing. If the Fed is serious about slowing inflation, they need to engage in quantitative tightening—which they say they will be starting this month.
By tightening of course, they will, by definition, cool consumer demand and weaken labor markets, as these are the ultimate sources of inflation. Given that policymakers are seemingly unwilling to acknowledge that the problem is excessive spending as well as wage growth, it unfortunately suggests they will be unwilling to do what is necessary to slow inflation.
The only question then is how much longer will we continue to be surprised by it.
2 For more about the CPI’s inflation estimate see: https://www.clevelandfed.org/newsroom-and-events/publications/economic-trends/2014-economic-trends/et-20140417-pce-and-cpi-inflation-whats-the-difference.aspx
California’s Worker Shortage Struggle Continues…And Likely to Continue in 2023
Job Growth Modest In Latest Numbers; Unemployment Rate Unchanged
California’s labor market expanded modestly in the latest numbers, with total nonfarm employment in the state growing by just 16,200 positions during December, according to an analysis released jointly by Beacon Economics and the UCR School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development. November’s gains were also revised down to 19,900 in the latest numbers, a 6,900 decrease from the preliminary estimate of 26,800.
Overall, California added jobs at a healthy pace in 2021 and 2022. As of December 2022, the state had recovered all of the jobs that were lost in March and April 2020 at the pandemic’s outset, and there are now 70,000 more people employed in California compared to February 2020. Over this time, total nonfarm employment in the state has grown 0.4% compared to a 0.8% increase nationally. California’s economy increased payrolls by 3.6% from December 2021 to December 2022, outpacing the 3.0% increase nationally over the same period.
“During the year, California’s employers added jobs more quickly than was the case in the national economy, but labor shortages in the state dampened job growth towards the end of the year and will continue to be a drag on job growth in 2023,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at Beacon Economics and the Center for Economic Forecasting.
Indeed, the state’s struggle to add available workers continues. In December, the state’s labor force contracted by 26,800 workers. Since February 2020, California’s labor force has fallen by 313,600 workers, a 1.6% decline. This lack of workers made it difficult for some employers to bring on the additional staff they typically recruit during the holiday season. California’s unemployment rate held steady at 4.1% in December, unchanged from the previous month. While this figure is near historic lows, the state’s unemployment rate remains elevated relative to the 3.5% rate in the United States overall.
- Employment in nearly half of the job sectors in California now exceed their pre-pandemic levels; sectors that were hit the hardest by the pandemic have yet to recover all the jobs that were lost.
- Health Care led job gains in December, with payrolls expanding by 8,900. Health Care payrolls are now 4.4% above their pre-pandemic peak.
- Other sectors posting strong gains during the month were Construction (7,500), Government (6,000), Leisure and Hospitality (5,300), Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (4,500), Other Services (1,300), and Real Estate (1,100).
- Retail Trade (-9,500) posted the most job losses during the month. Other sectors with significant job losses were Information (-6,100), Wholesale Trade (-2,000), and Administrative Support (-1,900).
- Regionally, job gains were led by Southern California. The Inland Empire saw the largest increase, where payrolls grew by 9,400 (0.6%) during the month. San Diego (8,600 or 0.6%), Orange County (4,300 or 0.3%), Los Angeles (MD) (2,100 or 0.0%), and Ventura (1,200 or 0.4%) also saw payrolls jump during the month. Since April 2020, the Inland Empire (140.8%) has experienced the strongest recovery in the region, followed by El Centro (115.3%), San Diego (105.1%), Orange County (100.0%), Los Angeles (MD) (94.7%), and Ventura (91.5%).
- In the Bay Area, San Francisco (MD) experienced the largest job increase, with payrolls expanding by 6,400 (0.4%) positions in December. The East Bay (3,100 or 0.3%), San Jose (1,800 or 0.2%), Santa Rosa (800 or 0.4%), San Rafael (MD) (600 or 0.6%), Vallejo (500 or 0.4%), and Napa (400 or 0.6%) also saw payrolls expand during the month. Since April 2020, San Jose (105.3%) has experienced the strongest recovery in the region, followed by San Francisco (MD) (96.1%), the East Bay (92.6%), Santa Rosa (88.3%), Napa (79.4%), Vallejo (74.3%), and San Rafael (MD) (55.5%).
- In the Central Valley, Sacramento experienced the largest monthly increase, as payrolls expanded by 2,800 (0.3%) positions in December. Payrolls in Fresno (1,400 or 0.4%), Visalia (500 or 0.4%), Chico (300 or 0.4%), Modesto (300 or 0.2%), Merced (200 or 0.3%), and Madera (100 or 0.2%) increased as well. Since April 2020, Stockton (147%) has experienced the strongest recovery in the region, followed by Visalia (135%), Madera (124%), Merced (122%), Sacramento (115.7%), Fresno (114.4%), Redding (113.9%), Hanford (110.3%), and Yuba (110%).
- On California’s Central Coast, San Luis Obispo added the largest number of jobs, with payrolls increasing by 900 (0.8%) during the month. Santa Cruz (600 or 0.6%), Santa Barbara (600 or 0.3%), and Salinas (400 or 0.3%) experienced payroll declines during the month. Since April 2020, Santa Barbara (103.6%) has enjoyed the strongest recovery in the region, followed by San Luis Obispo (100%), Santa Cruz (91.6%), and Salinas (84.3%).
Pandemic Left Behind, the Inland Empire Economy Flourished in 2022
A Driving Force: Local Transportation and Warehousing Industry Has Helped The Region Outperform Other Areas
Despite the recession drumbeat getting louder in many quarters across the nation, the Inland Empire’s economy is not only showing strength, but is outstripping California’s other major metros and the state as a whole along some very key measures, according to an analysis released today by the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development.
From employment to the labor force to consumer spending to wages to commercial and residential real estate, the Inland Empire has been a relative standout as the COVID-19 crisis fades further into the past. In particular, the pandemic-driven surge in e-commerce has pushed the region’s Transportation and Warehousing sector to new heights, boosting payrolls by more than 41% since February 2020, which outpaces growth in the state by a wide margin.
“This sector has long been one of the Inland Empire’s core industries and, ultimately, has been a driving force behind the region’s better and faster recovery,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at the Center for Economic Forecasting and one of the report’s authors. “Moreover, the enduring shift towards online purchasing has intensified ongoing demand for the industry’s services, which bodes well for the Inland Empire as there is such a strong base and existing infrastructure already on the ground.”
- Labor Market Fully Recovered… And Growing: The Inland Empire has more than recovered the 228,700 jobs it lost due to the pandemic’s shutdowns. Since April of 2020, the region’s economy has added more than 316,000 jobs, outpacing both the state and the nation. Regionally, total non-farm employment has grown 5.5% since February 2020 compared to just 0.2% in California and 0.5% in the United States.
- IE Labor Force Growth A Standout: Unlike other areas of California, the Inland Empires’ labor force (individuals willing and able to work) has grown steadily. From February 2020 to October 2022, the region’s labor force rose by 75,800 workers, a 3.6% increase. California’s labor force, on the other hand, declined by -1.3%, or -256,900 workers.
- IE Wage Growth Besting Other Areas… Then There’s Inflation: From 1st quarter 2021 to 1st quarter 2022 (the latest data available), wage growth in the Inland Empire (4.6%) has significantly outpaced California overall (1%). Local wage growth was stronger in San Bernardino County (5.2%) compared to Riverside County (3.9%). However, importantly, real wages fell -2.9% over the last year due to high inflation.
- Consumers: Spend, Spend, Spend!: From 2nd quarter 2021 to 2nd quarter 2022 (the latest data available), taxable sales receipts in the Inland Empire jumped a hefty 9.5%. With fuel prices near record highs earlier in the year, and more people traveling for work and leisure, spending at Fuel and Service Stations was the region’s fastest growing taxable sales category, surging 39.2%.
- IE Warehouse Space Now More Expensive Than OC and San Diego: The trends occurring in e-commerce have caused the demand for Warehouse and Distribution space to surge in the Inland Empire. The vacancy rate among these properties fell to 1.1% in the 3rd quarter of 2022 as asking rents ballooned 92.4%. While warehouse space in the region is still more affordable than it is in Los Angeles County, it is now more expensive than in Orange and San Diego Counties.
- Housing Market Blues Not So Blue: Although today’s elevated mortgage rates are constraining demand, home prices in the Inland Empire continue to rise. From November 2021 to November 2022, the region’s median home price rose 3.5%, stronger growth relative to Los Angeles (-0.5%) yet slower compared to Orange (10.8%) and San Diego (6.3%) Counties.
- Rental Market Surges: Demand for apartments in the Inland Empire is also booming. The apartment vacancy rate fell to 2.9% in the 3rd quarter of 2022 as asking rents jumped 7.9% to $1,854 per unit, per month. But even with that increase, the Inland Empire remains a more affordable rental market than Los Angeles ($2,358), Orange ($2,499), and San Diego ($2,247) Counties.
The new Inland Empire Regional Intelligence Report was authored by Osman and Senior Research Associate Brian Vanderplas. The analysis examines how the Inland Empire’s labor market, real estate markets, and other areas of the economy have recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and their outlook for the remainder of the year.
View the full analysis here.
Greatest Risk to Today’s Economy? The FED Despite Turbulence, Recession Remains Unlikely in 2023
Today’s Maladies Are Symptoms Of A ‘Stimulus Hangover’ Not Drivers Of A Downturn; California Finally Recovers All Jobs Lost To Pandemic
A leading economic forecast does not see a downturn in 2023 as assured, or even likely, as long as the Fed doesn’t drive one. According to Beacon Economics‘ latest outlook for the United States and California, today’s ailments are symptoms of a hangover from the over stimulus that was injected into the U.S. economy during the pandemic, not signs of deeper weakness or triggers of a near-term recession.
“Today’s economy is running at full speed, the exact opposite of what economists call a recession, when an economy produces less than it is able,” said Christopher Thornberg, Founding Partner of Beacon Economics and one of the forecast authors. “The United States is not struggling with a lack of demand; we’re struggling to meet demand.”
The new forecast points to the fact that the U.S. economy has added 4 million payroll jobs since the start of the year, that the unemployment rate remains well below 4%, that the job openings rate is well above its pre-pandemic peak, that industrial production is at a record high, that manufacturing orders are still rising as inventories remain low, that corporate profits have started to climb, and that consumers continue to spend, spend, spend – all signs that the economy is operating at capacity.
According to the outlook, today’s maladies of high inflation, declining asset prices, rising interest rates, and a turning housing market are symptoms of an economy ‘cooling’ back to normal after being overstimulated by the Federal government during the pandemic, not any fundamental deficiency in the system. Indeed, some of what is happening today is bringing numbers that hit record high levels over the past couple of years, such as stock market values and housing prices, back down to earth.
“Stock markets today are still 15% to 20% above where they were pre-pandemic, and even if home prices fell by 20%, which is highly unlikely, they would still be 20% above where they were before COVID hit,” said Thornberg. “Some of this is a recalibration – we need to recognize that and not panic.”
However, the new outlook’s call for ‘no recession in 2023’ comes with a big caveat: the Federal Reserve. If the Fed continues to raise rates until something truly snaps in the lending markets, they could needlessly drive a downturn, according to the forecast. If, on the other hand, they start to moderate, the economy will likely ride out the bumps caused by inflation and asset price declines and achieve the proverbial ‘soft landing’, meaning that the post-pandemic expansion will continue, but at a slower rate.
“While we don’t see a recession as an assured outcome as many other forecasts have suggested, we certainly acknowledge that bad choices by policymakers in the months ahead could set one off,” said Thornberg. “Today’s economy is indeed fragile and highly susceptible to a large negative shock, such as rapidly rising rates, but that die is not cast yet.”
Additional Key Findings:
- In the housing market, there is no debt crisis behind today’s repricing (unlike prior to the Great Recession) meaning it won’t have much of an impact on the broader economy. What happens in real estate will stay in real estate this time around.
- U.S. households are sitting on over $4 trillion in checking account balances, almost five times as much as pre-pandemic. Consumer demand will remain strong based on wealth effects alone, which will help carry the economy into 2023.
- Consumers may be starting to indulge in too much new debt, but the rapid interest rate spike will prevent a dangerous build-up.
- While the overall consumer economy is healthy, inflation causes transfers of real wealth—from savers to borrowers, from those on fixed incomes to those on variable ones—and some households will be hurt.
- California reached a key milestone in October 2022: The state finally recovered all the jobs lost due to the pandemic-driven shutdowns. Because of its heightened worker shortage, it reached this goal more slowly than the U.S. as a whole and more slowly than many other states. “Typically, there are more unemployed workers in California than there are job openings, but since the outbreak of the pandemic, that status quo has been turned on its head,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at Beacon Economics and one of the forecast authors. “Today, employers in the state are struggling to hire the workers they need.”
- Currently, the number of homes that have sold in California stands at around half the level it was in 2021 and is approximately one-third lower than during the years immediately prior to the pandemic.
- The pandemic has accentuated one of California’s most troubling long-term trends: the divide between coastal and inland regions. Since 2000, the number of housing units in the state’s inland communities has grown at three times the rate of coastal communities; at the same time, inland communities have added jobs at three times the rate of coastal areas.
View the new The Beacon Outlook including full forecast tables here.
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