House Rich – House Poor

Last week I presented a graphic that illustrates the changing average price of homes by state. This week, I want to illustrate something that is more relevant to affordability. FRED provides data on both median salary and average home prices by state. That means that we can create an affordability index. Consider the equation for nominal growth where i is the percent change in median salary (s), π is the percent change in home price (p), and r is the real percent change in the amount of the average home that the median salary can purchase (h).

(1+i)=(1+π)(1+r)

Indexing the home price and salary to 1 and substituting each the percent change equation (New/Old – 1) into each percent change variable allows us to solve for the current quantity of average housing that can be afforded with the median salary relative to the base period:

h=s/p-1

If h>0, then more of the average house can be purchased by the median salary – let’s vaguely call this housing affordability. Both series are available annually since 1984 through 2021 for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The map below illustrates affordability across states. Blue reflects less affordable housing and green reflects more affordable housing since 1984.

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Tough Year for Investing (with one little-known, totally safe exception)

There’s still a few more days left in the year, but at this point it is safe to say, unfortunately, that it was a very bad year for investing. This Google chart shows most of the bad news. Note: nothing in this post is investment advice about the future, just a summary of the past.

The S&P 500, the typical benchmark for US equities, was down 20%. Bonds, usually a safe haven, were down over 14% as measured by the Vanguard Total Bond fund (more on bonds later).

Gold, the traditional hedge against bad times, was flat. I guess that’s not so bad. But gold is also traditionally considered a hedge against inflation, and inflation will probably end up being somewhere in the range of 5-7% this year (depending on your preferred index). So in real terms, even gold was down. And the supposed new hedge against fiat currency? Bitcoin is down 65% (crypto has other potential redeeming features, but inflation hedging was supposed to be one of them).

Did anything do well? Oil was basically flat too, starting and ending the year in the $75-80 range. Of course, oil companies did very well this year — Exxon is up over 70%, since prices were elevated for much of the year. But picking individual stocks is always fraught with danger. For example, you might think electric car companies would have done well in the past year, given the high gas prices for much of the year, yet Tesla was down over 70% (I won’t speculate here about why, but it may have other idiosyncratic explanations).

There is one boring, sleeper investment that would have earned you a decent return. Not a massive return, but one that will likely be slightly higher than the rate of price inflation (once we have complete inflation data). And the investment is totally safe, and by April you would have known exactly your rate of return for the full year: 8.5%.

That investment? Series I Savings Bonds, issued by the US Treasury. Series I Bonds pay a fixed rate of return for 6 months, which you know at the time you buy it. The interest rate rests every 6 months based on the rate of CPI inflation. If you invested in these bonds in January 2022, you would have earned 3.56% for 6 months, and then you would have earned 4.81% for the second half of 2022. And this was all known as early as April 2022 (though not officially confirmed by the Treasury until May).

While a lot of people were talking about the possibility of high inflation at the beginning of 2022, I don’t recall many people advising anyone to buy these bonds. It’s not a super well known investment, and not super exciting. Plus each investor is capped at $10,000 per year in most cases, so you couldn’t have moved all your money into I Bonds. Another restriction is that you lose some of the interest if you pull the money out before 5 years.

Still, this was one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for most broad investment types.

Average US Consumption: 1990 Vs 2021

On Twitter, folks have been supporting and piling on to a guy whose bottom line was that we are able to afford much less now than we could in 1990 (I won’t link to it because he’s not a public figure). The piling on has been by economist-like people and the support has been from… others?

Regardless, the claim can be analyzed in a variety of ways. I’m more intimate with the macro statistics, so here’s one of many valid stabs at addressing the claim. I’ll be using aggregates and averages from the BEA consumer spending accounts.

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Food Price Increases Won’t Be Solved by Raising Interest Rates

I make a hobby of reading, and sometimes acting on, investment advice, particularly regarding high-yielding securities (many of my holdings are now yielding over 10%/year). One of the best authors on the Seeking Alpha investing site writes under the name of Colorado Wealth Management. He mainly writes on REIT (real estate investment trust) stocks, but recently opined on the wisdom of raising interest rates to combat inflation regarding some of the major components of CPI.

His article, Why High Yields Will Be Popular Again, may be behind a paywall for some readers, so I will summarize some key points. He kind of sidesteps the influence of massive federal deficit spending that injected trillions and trillions of new dollars into the economy for COVID, which I think has been the major driver for this inflation; and the reignited deficit spending which is already on the books for November and likely even huger for December of this year. However, he does make some interesting (and new to me) points regarding food prices in particular.

He sees the price 2021-2022 price increases in some major food items as being driven by supply constraints, rather then by excessive demand. Specifically eggs, coffee, and vegetable oils have been hit by exogenous factors which have constrained supply; raising interest rates will not help here, and may even hurt if higher rates make it harder for farmers to recover and re-start high production. I’ll transition to his charts and mainly his excerpted words, in italics below:

Avian Flu, Culled Hens, and the Price of Eggs

The background here is that tens of millions of chickens, including egg-laying hens, have been deliberately killed (“culled”) this year in an attempt to slow the spread of avian flu. This, of course, cuts into the egg supply and raises egg prices. We went through a similar cycle in 2015 with avian flu, where culling led to a rise in egg prices, but then prices fell naturally as a new crop of chicks grew into egg-laying hens. Similarly, the current shortage in eggs should correct itself:

Raising interest rates has never produced additional eggs. Raising interest rates and driving a recession (with larger credit spreads) only makes it more difficult for farmers to get the funding necessary to replace tens of millions of hens that were culled to slow the spread of the avian flu….If interest rates don’t work, what will? The cure for high prices is high prices. We can see how it played out with the Avian flu in 2015:

  • Is Jerome Powell going to lay even one egg? Probably not.
  • Are farmers going to focus on turning their chicks into egg-laying hens? Absolutely.

Since eggs go into several other products, it drives inflation throughout the grocery store. Even if a product doesn’t use eggs, the drop in egg production means more people eating other foods.

Drought in Brazil and the Price of Coffee

Coffee prices have been rising rapidly. Well, domestic prices have been rising rapidly. Global prices actually declined since peaking in February 2022:

So, what drove the price up? Brazil normally produces over 35% of the world’s coffee and bad weather in Brazil (not to mention the pandemic impacts) drove dramatically lower production in 2021. As the shortfall in production became evident, global prices began rising rapidly. That’s why the global [wholesale] prices were ripping higher in 2021, not 2022. However, [retail] consumers are seeing most of the impact over the last several months.

War in Ukraine and the Price of Sunflower Oil

Margarine requires vegetable oil. Soybean, palm, sunflower, and canola oil are the key ingredients. What country produces the most sunflower oil? Ukraine. This is one of several inflationary impacts of the war. You can see the impact of reduced supply in the following chart:

Government Bungling in Indonesia and the Price of Palm Oil

What happened to palm oil? How could it soar so much and then fall so hard?

The first issue is that dramatic increases in the price of fertilizer made production more expensive. … That contributed to a reduction in supply. However, Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil. Yet exports of palm levy were subject to a huge levy. That made exporting far more expensive. Despite the levy, it was still worth producing and exporting palm oil. Then the Indonesian government decided to simply ban exports over concern about higher domestic prices. Banning exports for a country that produces 59% of the world’s total palm oil exports had a predictable impact.

If you guessed that the supply of palm oil couldn’t be sold domestically, you’d be right. The ban was lifted. However, it was only after:

High palm oil stocks have forced mills to limit purchases of palm fruits. Farmers have complained their unsold fruits have been left to rot. There were 7.23 million tonnes of crude palm oil in storage tanks at the end of May, data from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) showed on Friday.

With palm oil prices at all time-record highs, nearly triple the level from two years prior, the supply was left to rot. Each business tried to make the best decision they could, given the ban on exports. Rather than record profits for mills and record profits for farmers, the produce was wasted. That’s supply constraints for the global market, and it destroys the local economy.

Global prices are plunging now as mills seek to unload their storage. As bad as the higher prices were for the rest of the world, no one suffered worse than the farmers whose product became worthless as a result of government failure.

Contrary to today’s popular opinion, higher interest rates won’t do anything to improve production of vegetable oil.

Inflation-Adjusted Wages Have Been Rising Since June 2022

Back in May 2022, I wrote about the very bad picture for inflation-adjusted wages in the US. While they were still slightly above pre-pandemic levels, wages had been falling consistently since the beginning of 2021.

But since then, we’ve got some better news. The chart below shows the data (note: I’m using wages for private production and non-supervisory workers here, rather than for all private workers in the May post).

While the overall inflation picture still looks bad, with 7.1% annual inflation in the latest report, we also see that in the past 5 months wage growth has exceeded CPI growth. It’s also been true compared with the PCE price index for the past 4 available months (November PCE data won’t be available until next Friday). Inflation has cooled slightly in the past few months, while wages have continued to grow.

This all means that real (inflation-adjusted) average wages in the US have been rising consistently since June 2022. Finally, some good news!

Inflation, Information, & Logic

Most economists know that the CPI is overestimated and therefore prefer the PCE price index. However, monthly CPI data is consistently released before PCE data for a given month. One would think that they move in the same direction and be highly correlated. Indeed, in the past five years, the correlation is 0.96. Therefore, it stands to reason that the there is less new relevant information on the PCE release dates than on the CPI release dates. Yes, CPI is biased, but it still contains some information about prices and it is known well prior to the more accurate PCE numbers.

Supply and Demand react to new information. Sometimes the new information changes our expectations about the future, and other times we learn that our beliefs about goods and assets were previously not quite right. So, with new relevant information comes new prices as people update their beliefs and expectations.

Let’s get financial.

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Thanksgiving Dinner is Once Again More Expensive (But Not the Most Expensive Ever)

Last year inflation hadn’t quite hit the levels we would see in 2022, but they were already rising. When Thanksgiving rolled around, many media sources were reporting that it was the “most expensive Thanksgiving ever.” In nominal terms that was true, though in nominal terms it isn’t that surprising. In a post last year, I compared the prices of Thanksgiving dinners (using the same data from Farm Bureau) to median earnings going back to 1986. While 2021 was more expensive the 2020, it turned out it was still the second lowest it had been since 1986.

As you might expect, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is even more expensive than last year in nominal terms. It’s up about 20% since last year or over $10 more, according to Farm Bureau. That’s certainly more than the overall rate of inflation (7.7% in the past 12 months) and more than inflation for groceries (12.4% in the past 12 months). But how does that compare with median wages? Comparing the 3rd quarter of this year with the same quarter in 2021, median wages are only up about 7%, certainly not enough to keep up with those rising turkey prices.

When we add 2022 to the historical chart, here’s what it looks like.

The spike in the last 2 years is clear in the chart but notice that at about 6% of median weekly earnings, we have essentially returned to the average level of the entire series. From 2017-2021, we could be thankful that the price of your Thanksgiving dinner had dropped below that 6% level. We’ll have to find something else to be thankful for this year.

The Unimportance of Inflation: Stocks & Flows

One of my specializations in graduate school at George Mason University was monetary theory. It included two classes taught by Larry White who specializes in free-banking, Austrian macroeconomics, and monetary regimes. Separately, my dad was a libertarian and I’ve attended multiple Students for Liberty events. Right now, I’m writing from my hotel room at a Catholic/Crypto conference, where I learned that the deepest trench in Dante’s Inferno includes money debasers.

Everything about my pedigree suggests that I should have a disdain for the Federal Reserve and cast a wistful gaze toward the perpetually falling value of the US dollar. But I don’t. I certainly do have opinions about what the Fed should be doing and how our monetary system could work. But I’m not excited by the long-run depreciation of the dollar.

Let me tell you why.

Learning a little bit of theory is a dangerous thing. Monetary theory is especially hard because we examine the non-good side of the transaction: the medium of exchange. In frantic excitement, enthusiasts often point out that the value of the dollar has lost very much of its value in the past 100 years. They describe that loss by describing the lower quantity of something that a dollar can purchase now versus what it could have purchased historically. That information is incapsulated in the price of a good. The price of a good is the number of dollars that one must exchange in order to purchase the good. Similarly, the price of a dollar is the number of goods that one must give up in order to purchase the dollar.

We can consider a variety of goods. Below is a graph that describes the quantity price of the dollar where the quantities are CPI basket units, gold, and housing. In the 35 years following 1986, a single dollar purchases 60% less of the consumer basket, 74% fewer houses (not quality adjusted), and 76% less gold.

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The Price of Food: Farm to the Table

If you’re like me, then you are very fond of food. What determines the price of food? Supply and demand of course!

We can consider food as a commodity because just about anyone can buy and sell it. Almost all foods have partial substitutes. Therefore, the long-run price in the competitive market for food is largely dictated by the marginal cost. Demand has an impact on the price only in the short run.

A long-run driver of food prices are the costs that food producers face. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics divides the Producer Price Index into multiple categories that are relevant for a variety of sectors and points within the production process. Below is a table of the most fundamental, relatively unprocessed farm products and their weight among all farm products in December 2021. Cotton is a relatively large component for farm products even though it’s not a food and I include it for completeness. Fruits, veggies, and nuts makeup the overwhelming proportion of the cost of farm products. I was at first surprised that grains composed such a small proportion. But, being dirt cheap, it makes sense.

We all know that inflation has been in the news. It’s been elevated since the second quarter of 2021. Consumer prices tend to lag producer prices. One indicator of where food prices will be in the near future is where the producer prices are now. Below is a graph that displays the above seasonally adjusted farm product prices since the start of 2021*.

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What do they even want?: Inflation Edition

People were all excited last week when the CPI numbers were released because… the year-over-year rate of inflation did a whole lot of nothing. See below. The 12-month rate of inflation was practically constant. The 8.2% number was all over the headlines and twitter. We already know that news outlets don’t always report on the most relevant numbers. And I say that this is one of those times.

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=UQ4T

First of all, there is a problem with the year-over-year indicator. Well, not so much problem in the measure itself, but more a problem of interpretation. The problem is that the 12-month rate of inflation is the cumulative compound rate for 12 individual months. Each month that we update the 12-month inflation rate, we drop a month from the back of the 12-month window and we add a month to the front of the 12-month window. Below are both a graph and a table indicating the monthly rate of inflation and the 12-month periods ending in August 2022 (pink) and in September 2022 (green).

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