Grocery Prices and Wages, in the Short Run and the Long Run

From the recent CPI inflation report, one of the biggest challenges for most households is the continuing increase in the price of food, especially “food at home” or what we usually call groceries. Prices of Groceries are up 13.5% in the past 12 months, an eye-popping number that we haven’t seen since briefly in 1979 was only clearly worse in 1973-74. Grocery prices are now over 20% greater than at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Any relief consumers feel at the pump from lower gas prices is being offset in other areas, notably grocery inflation.

The very steep recent increase in grocery prices is especially challenging for consumers because, not only are they basic necessities, if we look over the past 10 years we clearly see that consumer had gotten used to stable grocery prices.

The chart above shows the CPI component for groceries. Notice that from January 2015 to January 2020, there was no increase in grocery prices on average. Even going back to January 2012, the increase over the following 8 years was minimal. Keep in mind these nominal prices. I haven’t made any adjustment for wages or income! (If you know me, you know that’s coming next.) Almost a decade of flat grocery prices, and then boom!, double digit inflation.

But what if we compare grocery prices to wages? That trend becomes even more stark. I use the average wage for non-supervisory workers, as well as an annual grocery cost from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (for the middle quintile of income), to estimate how many hours a typical worker would need to work to purchase a family’s annual groceries. (I’ve truncated the y-axis to show more detail, not to trick you: it doesn’t start at zero.)

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McDouble vs Big Mac: Why Inflation Hits the Bottom Harder

Since they were first introduced as part of the Dollar Menu in 1997, the McDouble and the McChicken have been my go-to choices when I visit Mcdonald’s. It was always hard to justify getting one of the fancier sandwiches like a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder, since they were 4-5x the cost of a McDouble but only about twice the size. This is part of why the McDouble has been called “the greatest food in human history“. But as we’ve seen with the plagues and wars of the 2020s, history doesn’t always progress in the direction you’d hope.

I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s for a while until last weekend, when I was shocked to see the McDouble and McChicken listed at $2.99. This wasn’t at an airport restaurant either, or even in an expensive big city; I stopped in Keene, New Hampshire on a drive home from Vermont. The price is up 200% from the days of the Dollar Menu! Meanwhile, the Big Mac has also got more expensive, but much less dramatically; it was $5.89, compared to the ~$5 I expect. So, 200% price increases at the bottom, vs 18% at the top.

This location may be a bit of an anomaly, but the big picture is clear; a typical McDouble now costs well over $2 in most of the US, while a typical Big Mac is still well under $6. You used to be able to get 4-5 McDoubles for the price of a Big Mac; now you typically get less than 3 and sometimes, as in Keene, less than 2.

What’s going on here? First, the McDouble was always absurdly cheap. Second, prices rise most quickly where demand is inelastic, and demand is less elastic for goods that are cheaper and goods that are more like “necessities” than “luxuries”.

This is why I think the McDouble is worth highlighting- its part of a more general trend of where inflation hits. I’ve noticed this in the grocery store as well; the price of standard ground beef is up much more than grass-fed organic beef, likewise with standard eggs vs free-range organic. How different would the Economist’s Big Mac Index look if it used the McDouble instead?

With falling inflation we may see the end of this necessity vs luxury price compression. But I doubt we’ll ever see the glory of the standard $1 McDouble again.

The New Hampshire McDonalds was disappointing, but Vermont was nice

The Cost of Raising a Child

Raising kids is expensive. As an economist, we’re used to thinking about cost very broadly, including the opportunity cost of your time. Indeed, a post I wrote a few weeks ago focused on the fact that parents are spending more time with their kids than in decades past. But I want to focus on one aspect of the cost, which is what most “normal” people mean by “cost”: the financial cost.

Conveniently, the USDA has periodically put out reports that estimate the cost of raising a child. Their headline measure is for a middle-income, married couple with two children. Unfortunately the last report was issued in 2017, for a child born in 2015. And in the past 2 years, we know that the inflation picture has changed dramatically, so those old estimates may not necessarily reflect reality anymore. In fact, researchers at the Brookings Institution recently tried to update that 2015 data with the higher inflation we’ve experienced since 2020. In short, they assumed that from 2021 forward inflation will average 4% per year for the next decade (USDA assumed just over 2%).

Doing so, of course, will raise the nominal cost of raising a child. And that’s what their report shows: in nominal terms, the cost of raising a child born in 2015 will now be $310,605 through age 17, rather than $284,594 as the original report estimated. The original report also has a lower figure: $233,610. That’s the cost of raising that child in 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars.

As I’ve written several times before on this blog, adjusting for inflation can be tricky. In fact, sometimes we don’t actually need to do it! To see if it is more or less expensive to raise a child than in the past, what we can do instead is compare to the cost to some measure of income. I will look at several measures of income and wages in this post, but let me start with the one I think is the best: median family income for a family with two earners. Why do I think this is best? Because the USDA and Brookings cost estimates are for married couples who are also paying for childcare. To me, this suggests a two-earner family is ideal (you may disagree, but please read on).

Here’s the data. Income figures come from Census. Child costs are from USDA reports in 1960-2015, and the Brookings update in 2020.

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GDP Growth and Inflation in G7 Countries

Back in April I wrote about GDP growth rates and inflation rates in G7 countries and the OECD broadly. James also wrote about a broader set of countries (182!) using these two measures. Since the economic scene is evolving so quickly, and we now have 6 more months of data, I wanted to provide an update on the US and our other large peer nations.

Here’s the data, showing cumulative real GDP growth and cumulative core inflation since the right before the pandemic (please note that I flipped the x- and y-axis from the previous post — sorry for the confusion, but this way makes more sense).

The picture looks roughly the same, but here are a few notable changes:

  • Despite the slight slowdown in GDP growth in the first half of 2022, the US still clearly has the highest rate of economic growth
  • UK, Italy, and Canada have now moved into positive territory for cumulative economic growth (yes, it’s all inflation adjusted)
  • But Japan and Germany still have had no net economic growth during the pandemic — and even worse for Germany, they have had a healthy dose of inflation too

The US once again stands out as having both the best economic performance and the worst inflation performance in the G7. Are these two things connected? That’s a question that is unanswerable from a simple scatterplot, and may be unanswerable completely. But I think it’s fair to say that the US hasn’t taken an obviously inferior economic path relative to other countries, even if our path has been inferior compared to some ideal policy. But don’t commit the Nirvana Fallacy!

Finally, we should recognize that the GDP is not the only important measure of how an economic is performing. For example, the US labor market has not recovered as well as some other peer nations have. Still, GDP is one of the important broad measures to look at, even if it is not ideal for diagnosing recessions.

Free download: If wages fell during a recession

You can download my full paper “If Wages Fell During a Recession” with Dan Houser from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (only free until September 24, 2022).

There is a simulated recession in our experiment. We ask what happens if employers cut wages in response. Although nominal wage cuts are rare in the outside world, some of our lab subjects cut the wages of their “employee”. Employees retaliated against nominal wage cuts by shirking, such that the employers probably would have been better off keeping wages rigid.

We also tried the same thing with an inflation shock that allowed the employer to institute a real wage cut without a nominal wage cut. The reaction to that real wage cut was muted compared to the retaliation against the obvious nominal wage cut.

Inflation was implemented after 3 rounds of the same wage to create a reference point.

I blogged about the experiment previously, so I won’t go into more detail here.

The Great Recession happened when I was an undergraduate. As I started my career in research, the issue of employment and recessions seemed like THE problem to work on. The economy of 2022 is so different from the years that inspired this experiment! Below I’ll highlight current events and work from others on this topic.

Inflation used to be something Americans could almost ignore, and now it’s at the highest level I have seen in my lifetime. Suddenly, people are so mad about inflation that politicians named their bill the Inflation Reduction Act just to make it popular.  

The EWED crew has made lots of good posts on inflation. Although job openings and (nominal) wage increases are noticeable right now, Jeremy explored whether inflation has wiped out apparent wage growth.

More recently, the WSJ reports that real wages are down because inflation is so high. “Wage gains haven’t kept pace with inflation. Private-sector wages and salaries declined 3.1% in the second quarter from a year earlier, when accounting for inflation.”

Firms in 2022 did not just sit back and let real wages get eroded exactly proportional to inflation. But it is also not the case that Americans got a raise of 9% to exactly offset inflation. According to our experiment, there would be outrage if workers were experiencing a nominal wage cut in proportion to the real wage cut they are getting right now.

The high inflation combined with a hot job market makes this current economy hard to compare to anything in our recent history. Brian at Price Theory explained that inflation pressure is coming from both supply and demand factors.

Joey has a nice graph on inflation composition.

Did anyone see this coming? Watch Jim Doti of Chapman University predict high inflation based on the money supply in his forecast back in July 2021.

Lastly, our experiment on wage cuts has been cited in these papers:

Intentions rather than money illusion – Why nominal changes induce real effects

Economic stability promotes gift-exchange in the workplace

Wage bargaining in a matching market: Experimental evidence

Can reference points explain wage rigidity? Experimental evidence

Shocking gift exchange

Recession or not, the biggest GDP political football is 3 months away

US GDP fell for the second straight quarter according to statistics released this week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This means that by one common definition we’re now in a recession, which has ignited a debate about whether “two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth” is the best definition (as opposed to ‘when the NBER says there’s one’, like I generally teach and Jeremy argued for here, or something else).

Naturally this debate has political overtones, since the party in power would be blamed for a recession, so we’ve seen the White House CEA argue that we’re not in a recession, many on the other side argue that we are, and plentiful hypocrisy from people who should know better.

But in political terms, the fight over the binary “are we in a recession” call won’t be the big economic factor in November’s elections- that will be inflation and GDP, especially 3rd quarter GDP. One of the oldest and best predictors of US elections is the Fair Model, which uses inflation and the number of recent “strong growth quarters”. Fair’s update following the recent Q2 GDP announcement states:

the predicted vote share for the Democrats is 46.70, which compares to 48.99 in October. The smaller predicted vote share for the Democrats is due to two fewer strong growth quarters and slightly higher inflation

By Election Day we’ll have 3 more months of economic data making it clear whether inflation is getting under control and whether economic activity is picking back up or continuing to decline. Monthly data releases on inflation and unemployment will be closely watched, but the most discussed release will likely be third quarter GDP. It will summarize 3 months instead of just one, it will be of huge relevance to the debate over how severe the recession is or whether we’re even in one, and it will likely be released less than two weeks before election day. The NBER almost certainly won’t weigh in by then; they tend to take over a year to date recessions, not adjudicate debates in real time.

So when BEA does release their Q3 GDP estimate in late October, what will it say? Markets currently estimate at least a 75% chance it will be positive (they had estimated a 36% chance of positive Q2 GDP just before the latest announcement). That sounds high to me, the yield curve is still inverted and I bet investment will continue to drag, but forecasting exact GDP numbers is hard. Its a much easier bet that whatever the number turns out to be will loom large in political debates just before the elections. Perhaps we’ll get the Q3 GDP growth number that would make for the most chaotic debate: 0.0%.

Are We in A Recession?

The truth is, we don’t know. But let’s be clear: whether we are or not doesn’t depend on the 2nd quarter GDP report. Though two consecutive quarters of declining GDP is often cited as the definition of a recession, it’s not the definition economists use. And with good reason.

Instead, the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee uses this definition: “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.” And they explain why GDP is not their preferred measure, which includes several reasons but this one seems most germane to our current moment: “[the] definition includes the phrase, ‘a significant decline in economic activity.’ Thus real GDP could decline by relatively small amounts in two consecutive quarters without warranting the determination that a peak had occurred.”

If not GDP, what do they look at? I’ll get into more detail later, but in short, they look at monthly measures of income, consumption, employment, sales, and production (a direct measure of production, which GDP is not — it’s a proxy).

However, the American public seems convinced that we are in a recession. The most recent poll I can find on this is from mid-June, which is useful because (as we’ll see below) we have most of the relevant measures of the economy for June 2022 already. In that poll, 56% of Americans say we are in a recession. And while there is some partisan bent to the responses, even 45% of Democrats seem to think we are in a recession. For those that say we are in a recession, 2/3 cite inflation as the primary indicator that we are in a recession.

Already here we can see the difference between the general public and NBER: the rate of inflation is not one of the measures that NBER considers when defining a recession. So, what are the measures they use?

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Market Concentration & Inflation

We are living in volatile times. With covid-19, big federal legislation packages, and the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict disruptions to grain, seed oils, and crude oil, relative prices are reflecting sudden drastic ebbs of supply and demand. I want to make a small but enlightening point that I’ve made in my classes, though I’m not sure that I’ve made it here.

Economists often get a bad rap for being heartless or unempathetic. Sometimes, they are painted as ideologues who just disguise their pre-existing opinions in painfully specific terminology and statistics. Let’s do a litmus test.

Consider two alternative markets. One is a perfect monopoly, the other has perfect competition. All details concerning marginal costs to firms and marginal benefits to consumers are the same. In an erratic world, which market structure will result in greater price volatility for consumers? Try to answer for yourself before you read below. More importantly, what’s your reasoning?

Extreme Market Power

A distinguishing difference between a competitive market and a monopoly concerns prices. While firms maximize profits in both cases, the price that consumers face in a competitive market is equal to the marginal cost that the firms face. There is no profit earned on that last unit produced. In the case of monopoly, the price is above the marginal cost. Profits can be positive or negative, but the consumer will pay a price that is greater than the cost of producing the last unit.

Below are two graphs. Given identical marginal costs of production and benefits that the consumers enjoy, we can see that:

  1. The monopoly price is higher.
  2. The monopoly quantity produced is lower.

But static models only go so far. What about when there is volatility in the world?

Volatile Costs

Oil and gasoline are important inputs for producing many (most?) physical goods. Not only that, they are short-lived, meaning that they disappear once they are used, making them intermediate goods. Therefore, changes in the price of oil constitutes a change in the marginal cost for many firms. If the price of oil rises, or is volatile otherwise, then which type of market will experience greater price and quantity volatility?

Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in the marginal cost. We can see that:

  1. Monopoly price volatility is lower (in absolute terms and percent).
  2. Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).

The take-away: While monopoly does constrict supply and elevate prices, Monopoly also reduces price and output volatility when there are changes in the marginal cost.  

Volatile Demand

That covers the costs. But what about volatile demand? A large part of the Covid-19 recession was the huge reallocation of demand away from in-person services and to remote services and goods. What is the effect of market power when people suddenly increase or decrease their demand for goods?

Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in demand. We can see that:

  1. Monopoly price volatility is higher (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).
  2. Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).

Monopolies Don’t Cause Inflation

Economists know that inflation can’t very well be blamed on greed (does less greed beget deflation?). Another problematic story is that market concentration contributes to inflation. But the above illustrations demonstrate that this narrative is also a bit silly. Monopolistic markets cause the price level to be higher, it’s true. But inflation is the change in prices. Changing market concentration might be a long term phenomenon, but can’t explain acute price growth. If demand suddenly rises, monopolies result in no more price growth than perfectly competitive markets. If the marginal cost of production suddenly rises, monopolies result in less price growth.

All of this analysis entirely ignores welfare. Also, no market is perfectly competitive or perfectly monopolistic. They are the extreme cases and particular markets lie somewhere in between.

Did you guess or reason correctly? Many econ students have a bias that monopolies are bad. So, in any side-by-side comparison, students think that “monopolies-bad, competition-good” is a safe mantra. But the above illustrations (which can be demonstrated mathematically) reveal that economic reasoning helps to reveal truths about the world. Economists are not simply a hearty band of kool-aid drinking academics.

Inflation for Thee, But Temporarily Not for FL

On May 6, 2022, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, signed House Bill 7071. The bill was touted as a tax-relief package for Floridians in order to ease the pains caused by inflation. In total, the bill includes $1.2 billion in forgone tax revenues by temporarily suspending sales taxes that are levied on a variety of items that pull at one’s heartstrings. Below is the list of affected products.

A minor political point that I want to make first is that the children’s items are getting a lot of press, but they are only about 18.4% of the tax expenditures. The tax break on hurricane windows and doors received 37% of the funds and gasoline is receiving another 16.7%. There are ~$150 million in additional sales, corporate, and ad valorem tax exemptions. Looking at the table, it seems that producers of hurricane windows and doors might be the biggest beneficiary and that that the children’s items are there to make the bill politically palatable. Regardless, this is probably not the best use of $1.2 billion.


There are at least three economic points worth making.

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Is this the peak of inflation?

I think so, though the path back to 2% is a long one. Two months ago I wrote that “the Fed is still under-reacting to inflation“. We’ve had an eventful two months since; last Friday the BLS announced CPI prices rose 1% just in May, and that:

The all items index increased 8.6 percent for the 12 months ending May, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending December 1981

Then this Wednesday the Fed announced they were raising interest rates by 0.75%, the biggest increase since 1994, despite having said after their last meeting that they weren’t considering increases above 0.5%. I don’t like their communications strategy, but I do like their actions this month. This change in the Fed’s stance is one reason I think we’re at or near the peak.

Its not just what the Fed did this week, its the change in their plans going forward. As of April, the Fed said the Fed Funds rate would be 1.75% in December, and markets thought it would be 2.5%. But now the Fed and markets both project 3.5% rates in December.

The other reason I’m optimistic is that the days of rapid money supply growth continue to get further behind us. From March to May 2020, the M2 and M3 supply exploded, growing at the fastest pace in at least 40 years:

Rapid inflation began about 12 months later. But the rate of money supply growth peaked in February 2021, then began a rapid decline. Based on the latest data from April 2022, money supply growth is down to 8%, a bit high but finally back to a normal range. Money supply changes famously influence prices with “long and variable lags”, so its hard to call the top precisely. But the fact that we’re now 15 months past the peak of money supply growth (and have stable monetary velocity) is encouraging. Old-fashioned money supply is the same indicator that led Lars Christiansen to predict this high inflation in April 2021 after successfully predicting low inflation post-2009 (many people got one of those calls right, but very few got both).

Stocks also entered an official bear market this week (down 20% from highs), which is both a sign of excess money no longer pumping up markets, and a cause of lower demand going forward.

Markets seem to agree with my update: 5-year breakevens have fallen from a high of 3.6% back in March down to 2.9% today, implying 2.9% average inflation over the next 5 years. Much improved, though as I said at the top the path to 2% will be a long one- think years, not months. Even the Fed expects inflation to be over 5% at the end of this year, and for it to fall only to 2.6% next year.

What am I still worried about? The Producer Price Index is still growing at 20%. The Fed is raising rates quickly now but their balance sheet is still over twice its pre-Covid level and is shrinking very slowly. The Russia-Ukraine war drags on, keeping oil and gas prices high, and we likely still have yet to see its full impact on food prices. Making good predictions is hard.

While I’m sticking my neck out, I’ll make one more prediction, though this one is easier- Dems are in for a bad time in November. A new president’s party generally does badly at his first midterm, as in 2018 and 2010. But this time the economy will be a huge drag on top of that. November is late enough that the real economy will be notably slowed by the Fed’s inflation-fighting effects, but not so late that inflation will be under control (I expect it to be lower than today but still above 5%). Markets currently predict a 75% chance that Republicans take the House and Senate in November, and if anything that seems low to me.