A Key Index of Inflation in the US Has Come Down

There are signs that inflation is coming down.  While still early and preliminary, recent monthly figures for the inflation indices that many economists (and Federal Reserve Board members) focus on, suggest a break from the inflation rates seen earlier in 2022. 

On January 27, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its most recent monthly report on Personal Income and Outlays, with estimates for December 2022.  The figures are part of the National Income and Product Accounts (or NIPA, often referred to as the GDP accounts) that the BEA is responsible for.  The accounts include estimates for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), and to put those into real terms the BEA also estimates the price indices that apply to those expenditures.  Items are weighted as they are for the Personal Consumption component of the GDP accounts.

The prices shown are all seasonally adjusted and at annual rates.  There is a great deal of volatility in the month-to-month figures, so it is best to focus on the trends over several months.  Many commentators focus on the year-on-year figures (a 12-month moving average), and these are shown as the red line in the charts.  But a 12-month period is long, and one does not know if changes observed are due to recent events or to events of close to a year ago.  For this reason, I prefer the shorter 3-month moving average figures (in blue).  As one can see, major changes in the 3-month figures will often give a good indication of where the 12-month figures will soon go.

The first chart at the top of this post shows values for the overall rate of inflation (where all personal consumption expenditures are included), while the second chart shows the values for core inflation (where food and energy items are excluded).  Core inflation is a better indicator of inflationary pressures, as food and energy costs are largely commodity items with prices that go down as well as up.  Their fluctuations are often wide.  Other prices are typically more “sticky”, and hence the core inflation index that excludes the volatile food and energy components serves as a better indicator of the trends. 

Three-month core inflation rates have come down from around an average of about 5% (remember that all figures are at annual rates) during most of 2021 and 2022, to 3.6% in the 3-month period ending in November and then 2.9% in the period ending in December.  The overall PCE inflation rate fell earlier, from a higher level, and by more.  It was generally between 7 and 7 1/2% from late 2021 to June 2022 (and hit 8.6% in the 3-month period ending in March), but then fell to a range of between 2 and 4% since September.  In the three months ending in December, it was just 2.1%.  Interestingly, the 6-month change for the second half of 2022 was also 2.1% (at an annual rate).

Energy prices are a major part of this.  While the core inflation rate removes energy items from the basket of items included in the inflation index (along with food), those energy items will be those directly purchased by households.  That is, the core inflation index removes items such as gasoline purchased for your car or natural gas to heat your home.  But energy prices will also affect other prices indirectly – for example from the cost of fueling the trucks that bring items to the markets.  Based on the index of energy prices used in the computation of the overall PCE inflation index, energy prices rose sharply in March 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.  But the energy price index reached a peak in June 2022 and has since fallen almost to where it was in February 2022, just prior to the invasion.  Whether it will fall further is not known, but a further major fall from where it was in December is probably not likely anytime soon.  In this case, the inflation indices may not fall much further in the coming months, and may well bounce back up a percentage point or so.  But the trend is likely still downwards.

As noted before, these figures are still early.  One should expect fluctuations going forward, as there have been in the past.  And inflation in the next few months may well be higher than in the last few.  But the figures do suggest that inflation has come down, and has come down despite still very tight labor markets.  The unemployment rate was 3.5% in December – matching the lowest it has been since 1969, more than a half-century ago.  And the labor market has been tight for some time.  Unemployment was in the range of just 3.5 to 3.7% from March onwards, which is about the range of month-to-month statistical uncertainty in the estimates.

Despite these figures on inflation, there have been at least some prominent economists arguing inflation will remain high for an extended period.  Ken Rogoff – a professor at Harvard and a former chief economist for the IMF – authored a major article for the recent November/December issue of Foreign Affairs titled “The Age of Inflation”.  In it he wrote:

the world may very well be entering an extended period in which elevated and volatile inflation is likely to be persistent, not in the double digits but significantly above two percent.

Nouriel Roubini (often nicknamed “Dr. Doom” for his frequent pessimism, but who correctly forecast the 2008 financial collapse) has argued similarly, saying that high inflation will be with us for a very long time.

There are, of course, also economists arguing the other side – arguing that inflation has been and will be coming down.  The most well-known is perhaps Paul Krugman.  Another would be Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard and previously a chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during Obama’s presidency.  While they had argued earlier, in 2021, that inflation would not rise as far as it did and for as long as it did following the massive Covid spending packages of both Trump and Biden (totaling $5.7 trillion in federal government spending, or a huge 12.8% of GDP of 2020 and 2021 together), they now recognize and acknowledge that mistake.  But it is important also not to err in the opposite direction.

We will see what develops.  But based on what inflation has been in recent months, it very much looks like there has been a break from earlier levels and that the trend is downwards.

The Pattern of Unemployment: Fewer on Temporary Layoff, but More of the Rest

A.  Introduction

The economic downturn this year has been unprecedented in many ways.  Millions were laid off in March and April as the country desperately went into lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, following the failure of the Trump administration to recognize the extent of the crisis.  But it was always known that those lockdowns would be temporary (albeit with differing views on how long they would be needed), and hence those laid off in March and April were generally put on temporary layoff.

The number on temporary layoff then started to decline in May, with this continuing (although at a diminishing rate) through November.  This has brought down the headline figure on total unemployment – the figure most people focus on – from 14.7% in April to 6.7% as of November.  But while that focus on the overall rate of unemployment is normally appropriate (as the number on temporary layoff has usually been steady and low, while the labor force has fluctuated little), the unusual conditions of the downturn this year have masked important aspects of the story.  Unemployment is a good deal worse than the traditional measures appear to suggest.

One key issue is what happened to those who were unemployed but not on temporary layoff.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (the source of the data used here) defines those on temporary layoff to be those who are unemployed but who either have been given a date for when they will be able to return to their job, or expect to return to it within six months.  All other unemployed (defined by the BLS as being in the labor force but not employed, not on temporary layoff, and have taken concrete actions within the previous four weeks to look for a job), include those who were permanently laid off, who completed some temporary job, who left a job by choice (quit), or have newly entered (or re-entered) the labor force actively seeking a job but do not yet have a job.

That distinction – treating separately the unemployed on temporary layoff and the rest – will be examined in this post.  Also important to the story is how many are counted in the official statistics to be in the labor force at all, as that has also changed in this unprecedented downturn.  That will be examined as well.

B.  The Unemployed on Temporary Layoff Spiked Up and Then Came Back Down, but Other Unemployed Rose Steadily

The chart at the top of this post shows the unemployment rates (as a percent of the labor force) for all who were unemployed (in black), for those on temporary layoff (in blue), and for all others who were unemployed (in red).  Unemployment surged, at an unprecedented rate, in March and April of this year.  The increase in those on temporary layoff accounted for this – indeed for all of this in those months in the estimated figures.  The total increase in unemployment in March and April compared to February was 17.25 million; the increase in those on temporary layoff was almost exactly the same at 17.26 million.  (But keep in mind that these figures are estimates based on household surveys, and thus that there will be statistical noise.  That the numbers were almost exactly the same was certainly in part a coincidence.  Still, they were definitely close.)

The total unemployment rate then came down sharply from its April peak of 14.7% to 6.7% as of November.  It was led, once again. by changes in those on temporary layoff, but this time the number unemployed for reasons other than temporary layoff rose.  Their rate was 3.0% in February, which then rose to 5.0% by September.  It has kept at roughly this rate since (although so far with data for only two more months).

That increase – of 2.0% points – is significant but modest.  With all the disruption this year, one might have expected to see more.  Certainly important and effective in partially alleviating the crisis was the $3.1 trillion in several packages approved by Congress in March and April (of new government spending, tax cuts, and new loan facilities).  While adding to the public debt, such spending is needed when confronted with a crisis such as this.  The time to reduce the fiscal deficit would have been when the economy was at full employment.  But Trump added to the fiscal deficit in those years (with both higher spending and massive tax cuts) instead of using that opportunity to prepare for when a crisis would necessitate higher spending.

C.  But the Number in the Labor Force Also Fell, Which Had a Significant Impact on the Reported Unemployment Rates

There is, however, another factor important to the understanding of why the unemployment rate (for those other than on temporary layoff) rose only by this modest amount.  And that is that the number in the labor force abruptly changed.  This was another unusual development in this unprecedented crisis.

The labor force (formally the civilian labor force, as those on active military duty are excluded) changes only slowly.  It is driven primarily by demographic factors, coupled with long-term decisions such as when to retire, whether to attend college rather than seek a job, whether both spouses in a married couple will seek to work or whether one (usually in this society the wife) will choose to remain at home with the children, and so on.

But it was different in this crisis:

The number in the labor force fell abruptly in March and April – by 8.1 million compared to February, or 4.9% of the labor force.  There has never before been such an abrupt fall, at least since 1948 when such data first began to be collected.  The largest previous two-month fall was just 1.0 million, in 1953 when this was 1.6% of the labor force.  (And the month to month “squiggles” seen in the chart above should not be taken too seriously.  They likely reflect statistical noise in the household surveys.)

Those who drop out of the labor force are not counted as unemployed, as formally defined by the BLS, as they are not actively seeking a job.  And the sharp collapse in available jobs in March and April probably contributed to some dropping out of the labor force, as that scarcity of jobs would, by itself, induce some not even to try to find a job if they lost one.  But probably more important in this unprecedented crisis is a parent (and usually the wife) dropping out of the labor force in order to take care of their children when the schools and/or daycare centers closed.  This has never happened before.

Since April, the number in the labor force has recovered some but only partially.  Compared to what the labor force likely would have been by November 2020, based on a simple extrapolation of the January 2015 to January 2020 trend (growth at an annual rate of 0.95%), the labor force in November was 5.4 million less than what it otherwise would have been.

This will have a significant impact on the unemployment figures.  Since the number unemployed are, by definition, equal to the difference between the number in the labor force less the number employed, the number unemployed will be substantially higher if one counts those who abruptly dropped out of the labor force to take care of their children.  These, including others who dropped out of the labor force but would prefer to be employed if labor market conditions were more hospitable, should be counted when assessing how much slack there may be in the economy.  And they can be considered as part of those who are unemployed for reasons other than temporary layoff (as they are similar in nature to those who had, or in this case would have, re-entered the labor force but do not have a job).

Counting such individuals as among those who are in fact unemployed, the labor market does not look to be nearly as strong as the headline figures would suggest.  Assuming that the labor force in 2020 would have continued to grow at the trend rate of the previous several years, that the number employed would have been the same as was recorded, and that the number on temporary layoff would have also been as recorded, the chart on unemployment rates then becomes:

Superficially, this chart may appear similar to that at the top of this post.  But there are two important differences.  First, note the scale is different.  Instead of peaking in April at an overall unemployment rate of 14.7%, the unemployment rate would instead have reached over 19%.  Furthermore, it would still be at 9.7% as of November, which is high.  It is not far from the peak 10.0% rate reached in 2009 following the 2008 economic collapse.

Second, both the path and the levels of the unemployment rate for those other than on temporary layoff are now quite different.  That rate jumps abruptly in March and April to 8.2% of the labor force, from 3.1% before, and then remains at around 7 1/2 to 8% since then.  This a much more worrisome level than was seen above when no correction was made for what has happened to the labor force this year.  There is also no downward trend.  All the gains in the reduction of overall employment since April would have been due to the reduction in those on temporary layoff.

D.  Conclusion

The economy remains weak.  And president-elect Joe Biden is certainly correct that a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for the economy to recover fully will be that Covid-19 be addressed.  Australia, New Zealand, and the countries of East Asia have shown that this can be done, and how it could have been done.  Simply wearing masks would have been central.  Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, has noted that wearing a mask could very well be more effective in stopping the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 than some of the vaccines now under development, if everyone wore them.  But Trump has been unwilling to call on all Americans, including in particular his supporters, to wear a mask.  Indeed, he has even repeatedly mocked those who choose to wear a mask.

As a longer-term solution, however, vaccinations will be key.  But this also depends on most Americans (probably a minimum of 70 to 80%, but at this point still uncertain) being vaccinated.  Even under the most optimistic of circumstances, constraints on vaccine availability alone means this will not be possible before the summer.  But this also assumes that, once available, 70 to 80% of the population (or whatever the minimum share required will be) will choose to be vaccinated.  Given how the simple wearing of face masks was politicized by Trump (and turned into a signal of whether one supports him or not), plus controversies among some on both the left and the right on vaccinations that pre-dates Trump’s presidency, it is hard to be optimistic that such a vaccination share will soon be reached.

Hopefully a sufficiently large share of the population will at some point have chosen to be vaccinated to end the spread of the virus.  But until that happens, further support to the economy, and not least relief to those most affected by the crisis, needs to be passed by Congress and signed by the president.  The House passed such a measure already last May, but Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, has so far blocked consideration of anything similar.  As I write this, there appears to be a possibility of some compromise being considered in the Senate, but it remains to be seen if that will happen (and if Trump then will sign it).

It is certainly desperately needed.

Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance Are at Record Lows

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance, January 7, 2006, to November 21, 2015

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance as a Ratio to Employment, January 1967 to October 2015

 

Initial claims for unemployment insurance are now at their lowest level, in terms of absolute numbers, in forty years, and the lowest ever when measured relative to employment (although the series goes back only to 1967).  There has been a steady improvement in the job market since soon after Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with (as discussed in a recent post on this blog) a steady increase in private sector jobs and an unemployment rate now at just 5.0%.  Yet the general discussion still fails to recognize this.  I will discuss some of the possible reasons for this perception later in this post.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance provides a good measure of the strength of the labor market, as it shows how many workers have been involuntarily laid off from a job and who are then thus eligible for unemployment insurance.  The US Department of Labor reports the figure weekly, where the numbers in the chart above are those updated through the release of November 25, 2015 (with data through November 21).  While there is a good deal of noise in the weekly figures due to various special factors (and hence most of the focus is on the four week moving average), it does provide a high frequency “yardstick” of the state of the labor market.  The charts above are for the four week moving averages.

The measure has been falling steadily (abstracting from the noise) since soon after President Obama took office.  News reports have noted that the weekly figures have been below 300,000 for some time now (close to a year).  This is a good number.  Even in the best year of the Bush administration (2006, at the height of the housing bubble), weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance averaged 312,000.  So far in 2015 (through November 21) it has averaged 279,000, and the lowest figure was just 259,250 for the week of October 24.  Initial claims for unemployment have not been so low in absolute numbers since December 1973.

But the population and labor force have grown over time.  When measured as a ratio to the number of those employed, initial claims for unemployment insurance have never been so low, although the series only begins in January 1967.  It is now well below the lowest points ever reached in the George W. Bush administration, in the Reagan administration, and even in the Clinton administration, under which the economy enjoyed the longest period of economic expansion ever recorded in the US (back to at least 1854, when the recession dating of the NBER begins).

Why then has the job market been seen by many as being especially weak under Obama? It should not be because of the unemployment rate, which has fallen steadily to 5.0% and is now well below where it was at a similar point during the Reagan administration.  Private job creation has also been steady and strong (although government jobs have been cut, for the first time in an economic downturn in at least a half century).  There has also been no increase in the share of part time employment, despite assertions from Republican politicians that Obamacare would have led to this.  And growth in GDP, while it would have been faster without the fiscal drag of government spending cuts seen 2010, has at least been steady.

What has hurt?  While no one can say for sure as the issue is some sense of the general perception of the economy, the steady criticism by Republican officials and pundits has probably been a factor.  The Obama administration has not been good at answering this.

But also important, and substantive, is that wages have remained stagnant.  While this stagnation in wages has been underway since about 1980, increased attention is being paid to it now (which is certainly a good thing).  In part due to this stagnation, the recovery that we have seen in the economy since the trough in mid-2009 has mostly been for the benefit of the very rich.  Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley has calculated, based on US tax return data, that the top 1% have captured 58% of US income growth over the period 2009 to 2014.  The top 1% have seen their real incomes rise over this period by a total of 27% in real terms, while the bottom 99% have seen income growth over the period of only 4.3%.  Furthermore, most of this income growth for the bottom 99% only started in 2013.  For the period from 2009 through 2012, the top 1% captured 91% of the growth in national income.  The bottom 99% saw their real incomes rise by only 0.8% total over that period.

The issue then is not really one of jobs or overall growth.  Rather it is primarily a distribution problem.  The recovery has not felt like a recovery not because jobs or growth have been poor (although they would have been better without the fiscal drag), but rather because most of the gains of the growth have accrued to the top 1%.  It has not felt like a recovery for the other 99%, and for an understandable reason.