Trade-Offs | Economics in Plain English - Part 2

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May 26 2008

It may not be a recession, but it sure feels like one…

FT.com / Columnists / Wolfgang Munchau – Inflation and the lessons of the 1970s

It seem that everyone’s speculating about the US economy today. Recession or no recession, that is the question. The economy has even surpassed the Iraq War as the number one issue in the US presidential race! John McCain, who has publicly admitted that economics is not his strong suit, may just find himself in trouble in a general election where the most important concern among voters is the economic situation.

So what IS that situation, anyway? Is the US in a recession? In other words, has real gross domestic, or total output in the US economy, actually declined over the last six months? Technically, the answer is no. My fellow blogger, Steve Latter, explains this clearly here. What is true, on the other hand, is that the current situation shares many similarities to the global economic slowdown that did occur in the 1970s.

In 1973 OPEC, the newly formed oil cartel consisting at the time of only Arab states, reduced its output of oil and cut off exports to the United States in response to US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israelis officially occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and seized the Golan Heights from the sovereign nation of Syria. To punish the US for its position on this conflict, OPEC cut off supplies of oil to the west, driving gas and energy prices upwards by 70%, triggering a supply shock characterized by a decline in total output and an increase in both unemployment and inflation, a phenomenon known as stagflation: a macroeconomic policy maker’s worst nightmare.

Recently the world has seen a similar (albeit of a different cause) rise in the price of oil and energy prices. Today the rise in energy prices is driven primarily by rising demand, rather than reduced supply (since the 1970s the OPEC cartel has grown to include many non-Arab nations, making it harder to achieve collusion to restrict output and drive up oil prices). Global demand for oil has risen steadily, driven ever higher due to rapid growth in China and other developing nations, and exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, the currency in which oil prices are denominated.

The supply shocks of today have combined with falling aggregate demand in the US due to weak consumer spending to slow real growth rates to nearlry 0%. So technically, the US has avoided a recession, but the effect on American workers and consumers may be just as painful as the real recession of the 1970s. In order to prevent the “r” word from becoming a reality today, central banks (including the US Fed) have eased money supplies, lowering interest rates, fueling even greater increases in the price level.

…the global weighted average inflation rate will be 5.4 per cent this year, while the global money market interest rate is currently only 4.3 per cent. This means that global short-term real interest rates are negative – at a time when inflation is rapidly accelerating. As monetary policy has been excessively accommodating for more than a decade, inflationary pressures have built up in the global economy.

Central bankers like Ben Bernanke have to make tough decisions sometimes, weighing the trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and determining their monetary policies based on whatever they deem to be the “lesser of two evils”. Rising energy prices have forced firms to cut either cut back their production and raise the price of their products, both actions that result in less overall spending and output in the economy. Falling house prices have led consumers to cut back their own spending, further reducing demand for firms’ output. These factors have all pushed the unemployment rate from around 4.8% a year ago to 5.1% today, which combined with an estimated additional 3-5% of American workers having dropped out of the workforce, (referred to by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”) paints a pretty ugly picture of the reality for the American worker today.

The harsh reality of the weak labor market has led Mr. Bernanke and the Fed to pursue an expansionary monetary policy aimed at avoiding further increases in the unemployment rate and decreases in the GDP growth rate. Expansionary monetary policy means lower interest rates, with the goal being increased consumption and investment, both factors that could worsen the inflation problem already experienced thanks to the global supply shock. Evidence indicates that the inflation problem, even in the US where slow growth usually leads to lower price levels, is not going away:

In the US, a survey-based measure of inflationary expectations recently showed an increase to more than 5 per cent. I would estimate there are now several hundred basis points of difference between the current Fed funds rate and an interest rate that would be consistent with price stability in the medium term.

…meaning the Fed, in its attempt to avoid recession and rising unemployment, has created a condition where real interest rates are actually negative, a highly inflationary condition. All this wouldn’t be so bad if wages in the US were rising along with the price level. This however, does not appear to be happening:

The main difference between the situation in the 1970s and now is today’s absence of wage inflation, which explains why absolute inflation rates are a little more moderate. I guess this is probably because of some combination of deregulated labour markets and globalisation. But the lack of wage-push inflation is not necessarily good news. Falling real wages mean falling disposable income and tighter credit conditions mean less borrowing for consumption.

Rising prices for energy, transportation and food have put American households in a tough situation. In the past, periods of inflation have often been characterized by rising wages, meaning the full brunt of nominal price level increases was not entirely born by the American worker. Today, on the other hand, a recession has thus far been avoided, but the combination of record numbers of “discouraged workers”, rising unemployment and inflation may make the pain of our current economic situation just as real as recessions of the past.

In the words of billionaire investor and economic sage Warren Buffett just today:

“I believe that we are already in a recession… Perhaps not in the sense as defined by economists. … But people are already feeling the effects of a recession.”

“It will be deeper and longer than what many think,” he added.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which must decline in order for the economy to be in a recession?
  2. What impact do rising energy prices have on the behavior of individual firms?
  3. Why are low interest rates likely to make the inflation problem even worse?

9 responses so far

Sep 11 2007

The opportunity cost of sex

From the Undercover Economist:

FT.com / Weekend columnists / Tim Harford – Dear Economist

Is there a relationship between a student’s decision of whether to have sex and his/her performance in school? Tim Harford finds there just might be.

There is little doubt that virgins achieve better grades. Yet is this because sex kills brain cells, or because kids who are already bored at school look harder for ways to amuse themselves?

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24 responses so far

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