No Recession on the Horizon — As of Now

Henry Hazlett explains the relationship between inflation and recession:

[W]hen an inflation has long gone on at a certain rate, the public expects it to continue at that rate. More and more people’s actions and demands are adjusted to that expectation. This affects sellers, buyers, lenders, borrowers, workers, employers. Sellers of raw materials ask more from fabri­cators, and fabricators are willing to pay more. Lenders ask more from borrowers. They put a “price premium” on top of their normal interest rate to offset the ex­pected decline in purchasing pow­er of the dollars they lend. Workers insist on higher wages to compensate them not only for present higher prices but against their expectation of still higher prices in the future.

The result is that costs begin to rise at least as fast as final prices. Real profit margins are no longer greater than before the inflation began. In brief, inflation at the old rate has ceased to have any stimulative effect. Only an in­creased rate of inflation, only a rate of inflation greater than gen­erally expected, only an acceler­ative rate of inflation, can con­tinue to have a stimulating effect.

But in time even an accelerative rate of inflation is not enough. Expectations, which at first lagged behind the actual rate of inflation, begin to move ahead of it. So costs often rise faster than final prices. Then inflation actu­ally has a depressing effect on business.

This would be the situation even if all retail prices tended to go up proportionately, and all costs tended to go up proportionately. But this never happens — a crucial fact that is systematically con­cealed from those economists who chronically fix their attention on index numbers or similar aver­ages. These economists do see that the average of wholesale prices usually rises faster than the aver­age of retail consumer prices, and that the average of wage-rates also usually rises faster than the average of consumer prices. But what they do not notice until too late is that market prices and costs are all rising unevenly, dis­cordantly, and even disruptively. Price and cost relationships be­come increasingly discoordinated. In an increasing number of in­dustries profit margins are being wiped out, sales are declining, losses are setting in, and huge layoffs are taking place. Unem­ployment in one line is beginning to force unemployment in others. [“How Inflation Breeds Recession“, Foundation for Economic Education, March 1, 1975]

Inflation is a symptom — or early-warning signal — of disruptions that lead to recessions. It does not cause recessions. Here’s some evidence, based on post-World War II experience:


Derived from GDP statistics available here and CPI statistics available here. The correlation coefficient is highly significant, with a p-value <.0001.

Correlations where the change in CPI leads the change in GDP are uniformly and significantly better than correlations where there is no lead or the change in GDP leads the change in CPI. Further, the correlation where the change in CPI leads the change in GDP by 3 quarters is better than correlations with 1, 2, and 4-quarter lead — but not by much. So there is good statistical evidence on which to base my claim that the change CPI is a leading indicator of recessions.

Specifically, the strongest signal is a rising quarterly change in CPI:


Recessions are defined here, in the discussion that follows figure 1.

The good news is that, as of now, CPI isn’t signalling a recession: annualized quarterly changes aren’t on the rise.

Unorthodox Economics: 5. Economic Progress, Microeconomics, and Microeconomics

This is the fifth entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls
3. What Is Scientific about Economics?
4. A Parable of Political Economy
5. Economic Progress, Microeconomics, and Macroeconomics

What is economic progress? It is usually measured as an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) or, better yet, per-capita GDP. But such measures say nothing about the economic status or progress of particular economic units. In fact, the economic progress of some economic units will be accompanied by the economic regress of others. GDP captures the net monetary effect of those gains and losses. And if the net effect is positive, the nation under study is said to have made economic progress. But that puts the cart of aggregate measures (macroeconomics) before the horse of underlying activity (microeconomics). This chapter puts them in the right order.

The economy of the United States (or any large political entity) consists of myriad interacting units. Some of them contribute to the output of the economy; some of them constrain the output; some of them are a drain upon it. The contributing units are the persons, families, private charities, and business (small and large) that produce economic goods (products and services) which are voluntarily exchanged for the mutual benefit of the trading parties. (Voluntary, private charities are among the contributing units because they help willing donors attain the satisfaction of improving the lot of persons in need. Voluntary charity — there is no other kind — is not a drain on the economy.)

Government is also a contributing unit to the extent that it provides a safe zone for the production and exchange of economic goods, to eliminate or reduce the debilitating effects of force and fraud. The safe zone is international as well as domestic when the principals of the U.S. government have the wherewithal and will to protect Americans’ overseas interests. The provision of a safe zone is usually referred to as the “rule of law”.

Most other governmental functions constrain or drain the economy. Those functions consist mainly of regulatory hindrances and forced “charity,” which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal, State, and local “welfare” programs. In “The Rahn Curve Revisited,” I estimate the significant negative effects of regulation and government spending on GDP.

There is a view that government contributes directly to economic progress by providing “infrastructure” (e.g., the interstate highway system) and underwriting innovations that are adopted and adapted by the private sector (e.g., the internet). Any such positive effects are swamped by the negative ones (see “The Rahn Curve Revisited”). Diverting resources to government uses in return for the occasional “social benefit” is like spending one’s paycheck on lottery tickets in return for the occasional $5 winner. Moreover, when government commandeers resources for any purpose — including the occasional ones that happen to have positive payoffs — the private sector is deprived of opportunities to put those resources to work in ways that more directly advance the welfare of consumers.

I therefore dismiss the thrill of occasionally discovering  a gold nugget in the swamp of government, and turn to the factors that underlie steady, long-term economic progress: hard work; smart work; saving and investment; invention and innovation; implementation (entrepreneurship); specialization and trade; population growth; and the rule of law. These are defined in the first section of “Economic Growth Since World War II“.

It follows that economic progress — or a lack thereof — is a microeconomic phenomenon, even though it is usually treated as a macroeconomic one. One cannot write authoritatively about macroeconomic activity without understanding the microeconomic activity that underlies it. Moreover, macroeconomic aggregates (e.g., aggregate demand, aggregate supply, GDP) are essentially meaningless because they represent disparate phenomena.

Consider A and B, who discover that, together, they can have more clothing and more food if each specializes: A in the manufacture of clothing, B in the production of food. Through voluntary exchange and bargaining, they find a jointly satisfactory balance of production and consumption. A makes enough clothing to cover himself adequately, to keep some clothing on hand for emergencies, and to trade the balance to B for food. B does likewise with food. Both balance their production and consumption decisions against other considerations (e.g., the desire for leisure).

A and B’s respective decisions and actions are microeconomic; the sum of their decisions, macroeconomic. The microeconomic picture might look like this:

  • A produces 10 units of clothing a week, 5 of which he trades to B for 5 units of food a week, 4 of which he uses each week, and 1 of which he saves for an emergency.
  • B, like A, uses 4 units of clothing each week and saves 1 for an emergency.
  • B produces 10 units of food a week, 5 of which she trades to A for 5 units of clothing a week, 4 of which she consumes each week, and 1 of which she saves for an emergency.
  • A, like B, consumes 4 units of food each week and saves 1 for an emergency.

Given the microeconomic picture, it is trivial to depict the macroeconomic situation:

  • Gross weekly output = 10 units of clothing and 10 units of food
  • Weekly consumption = 8 units of clothing and 8 units of food
  • Weekly saving = 2 units of clothing and 2 units of food

You will note that the macroeconomic metrics add no useful information; they merely summarize the salient facts of A and B’s economic lives — though not the essential facts of their lives, which include (but are far from limited to) the degree of satisfaction that A and B derive from their consumption of food and clothing.

The customary way of getting around the aggregation problem is to sum the dollar values of microeconomic activity. But this simply masks the aggregation problem by assuming that it is possible to add the marginal valuations (i.e., prices) of disparate products and services being bought and sold at disparate moments in time by disparate individuals and firms for disparate purposes. One might as well add two bananas to two apples and call the result four bapples.

The essential problem is that A and B will derive different kinds and amounts of enjoyment from clothing and food, and those different kinds and amounts of enjoyment cannot be summed in any meaningful way. If meaningful aggregation is impossible for A and B, how can it be possible for an economy that consists of millions of economic actors and an untold, constantly changing, often improving variety of goods and services?

GDP, in other words, is nothing more than what it seems to be on the surface: an estimate of the dollar value of economic output. It is not a measure of “social welfare” because there is no such thing. (See “Social Welfare” in Chapter 2). And yet it is a concept that infests microeconomics and macroeconomics.

Aggregate demand and aggregate supply are nothing but aggregations of the dollar values of myriad transactions. Aggregate demand is an after-the-fact representation of the purchases made by economic units; aggregate supply is an after-the-fact representation of the sales made by economic units. There is no “aggregate demander” or “aggregate supplier”.

Interest rates, though they tend to move in concert, are set at the microeconomic level by lenders and borrowers. Interest rates tend to move in concert because of factors that influence them: inflation, economic momentum, and the supply of money.

Inflation is a microeconomic phenomenon which is arbitrarily estimated by sampling the prices of defined “baskets” of products and services. The arithmetic involved doesn’t magically transform inflation into a macroeconomic phenomenon.

Economic momentum, as measured by changes in GDP, is likewise a microeconomic phenomenon disguised as a macroeconomic, as previously discussed.

The supply of money, over which the Federal Reserve has some control, is the closest thing there is to a truly macroeconomic phenomenon. But the Fed’s control of the supply of money, and therefor of interest rates, is tenuous.

Macroeconomic models of the economy are essentially worthless because they can’t replicate the billions of transactions that are the flesh and blood of the real economy. (See “Economic Modeling: A Case of Unrewarded Complexity“.) One of the simplest macroeconomic models — the Keynesian multiplier — is nothing more than a mathematical trick. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Fiction vs. Fact”.)

Macroeconomics is a sophisticated form of mental masturbation — nothing more, nothing less.

Another Reason to Fear the Fed

A rah-rah story about inflation leads with this:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Consumer prices outside food and energy rose at their slowest pace in six months in September as the cost of apparel and used vehicles fell, suggesting inflation pressures remained contained.

The fact of the matter is that inflation, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is on the rise:

Methinks I see the effects of quantitative easing: More money is pushing against a stubborn “refusal” by businesses to invest and expand, given the present anti-business, anti-wealth, pro-entitlement regime in Washington.

Related posts:
Politicizing Economic Growth
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Fed and Business Cycles
Presidential Chutzpah
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
The Great Recession Is Not Over
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Unemployment and Economic Growth
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession

Does the CPI Understate Inflation?

REVISED AND RE-DATED

A website called Shadow Government Statistics offers an alternative estimate of inflation. According to SGS, “methodological shifts in government reporting have depressed reported inflation, moving the concept of the CPI away from being a measure of the cost of living needed to maintain a constant standard of living.” (Related post, here.) According to a chart at the linked page, year-over-year inflation is now about 9 percent, as opposed to the official government figure of about 2 percent.

The claim by SGS has merit, and not only because the definition of inflation has shifted. Specifically:

  • Government spending (at all levels) rose by 6 percentage points between 1980 and 2009. (See the graph at this post.)
  • Most government spending is inherently inflationary.

The inherently inflationary nature of government spending can be grasped by considering the case where government spending is financed by taxes:

  • Suppose that in the absence of government the GDP of the United States would be, as it is today, about $15 trillion. (Actually, as I show here, GDP would be a lot more than today’s $15 trillion were government to do nothing more than provide defense and justice.)
  • Suppose, further, that a bunch of governors arrives on the scene one fine day to announce: “You Americans need our services, so we’re going to tax you $5 trillion in order to provide things that we want you to have.” About 20 percent of the $5 trillion — the money spent on defense and justice — will be of value to almost everyone because (among other things) it protects economic activity. But most of the things our governors wants us to have — a hodge-podge of programs and regulations — will be valued mainly by those governors (i.e., politicians and bureaucrats) and narrow constituencies. The hodge-podge of programs and regulations, along with our governors’ habit of taxing success, raises the real price of government to far more than the $5 trillion shown in our national income accounts.
  • Our governors’ “generous” confiscation of $5 trillion has the same effect as if the producers of $5 trillion worth of real (non-government) goods and services walk off the job. More accurately, it’s as if they walk off the job and begin to vandalize their capital (homes, commercial buildings, computer networks, etc.). Specifically, according to the chairwoman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, tax increases have a multiplier effect of about 3 (i.e., every dollar of a tax increase yields a 3-fold decrease in GDP). Another economist estimates that the supply of labor declines by 1.9 percent in response to a 1 percent cut in wages (a tax is equivalent to a cut in wages). Even transfer-payment schemes (e.g., Social Security) have a negative economic effect because they penalize producers for the benefit of non-producers.
  • Despite the reduction in real output that accompanies government,our governors pretend that they are producing $5 trillion worth of services, so (1) they levy taxes for those services, most of which taxes fall on the productive sector, and (2) they pay the producers of government services (government employees and contractors)  with those taxes.
  • In sum, government pays the producers of government services in “empty dollars,” which those producers then try to spend on real output. And so we have $15 trillion chasing $10 trillion worth of real goods and services.

That’s real inflation. No deficit spending necessary. And it happens every time our governors commandeer additional resources, thus widening the gap between what the productive sector could produce and what it actually produces.

What if government were to borrow the $5 trillion instead of imposing $5 trillion in taxes? Borrowing doesn’t change the outcome, just the way we get there. There is still $15 trillion chasing real output of $10 trillion.

Now, not all of that government spending is inherently inflationary. The protection of citizens and their property from foreign and domestic predators (defense and justice) is essential to economic growth and the orderly functioning of free markets. Government spending on defense and justice currently accounts for 8 percent of GDP, whereas government spending (at all levels) currently accounts for 36 percent of GDP. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, (1) that the “right” level of government spending is 10 percent of GDP (the level that obtained in the early 1900s), (2) that the 10 percent is funded by a system of taxes which isn’t punitive toward investors and entrepreneurs (e.g., a single, flat, tax rate), and (3) that the 10 percent is not accompanied by burdensome regulations. Even in the absence of punitive taxes and burdensome regulations, the increase in government spending from 10 to 36 percent of GDP caused prices to rise by 25 percent. Inflation of 25 percent, when spread over 80 years and more, may seem inconsequential. But it is real — real theft, that is.

Moreover, the growth of government spending has been accompanied by punitive taxes and burdensome regulations. As a result, real GDP is 68 percent below its potential. In other words, in the absence of the regulatory-welfare state, real GDP would be more than 3 times its present level.

Visible inflation is bad enough; invisible inflation is a real killer.

Whither Inflation?

Who knows? My only observations: The recent up-tick is consistent with price behavior during an economic recovery. And, even with the up-tick, the current year-over-year rate of inflation is in line with the down-trend that began in 1980.


Derived from U.S. Department Of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics: Consumer Price Index, All Urban Consumers – (CPI-U), U.S. city average, All items, 1982-84=100.

UPDATED 05/27/10: See this post for an alternative estimate of the rate of inflation.