Inflation is definitely here. The latest CPI release puts the annual inflation rate in the US at 8.5% over the past 12 months, the highest 12-month period since May 1981. That’s bad, especially because wages for many workers aren’t keeping up with the price increases (and that’s true in other countries too).
But what about other countries? Many countries are experiencing record inflation too. The same day the US announced the latest CPI data, Germany announced that they also had the highest annual inflation since 1981.
Using data from the OECD, we can make some comparisons across countries during the pandemic. I’ll use data through February 2022, which excludes the most recent (very high!) months for places like the US and Germany, but most countries haven’t released March 2022 data quite yet.
Let’s compare inflation rates and GDP growth (in real terms, also from the OECD), using the end of 2019 as a baseline. We’ll compare the US, the other G-7 countries, and several broad groups of countries (OECD, OECD European countries, and the Euro area). The chart below uses “core inflation,” which excludes food and energy (below I will use total inflation — the basic picture doesn’t change much).
I am not worried about inflation and I’m not worried about the total spending in the economy. As I’ve said previously, total spending is on track with the pre-pandemic trend and, I think, that helped us experience the briefest recession in US history. When output growth declines below trend, we face higher prices or lower incomes. The former causes inflation, the latter causes large-scale defaults. Looking at the historical record, I’m for more concerned about the latter.
I do, however, want to call special attention to the composition of the Fed’s balance sheets. Specifically, its Mortgage Backed Security (MBS) assets. Having learned from the 2008 recession, the Fed was very intent on maintaining a stable and liquid housing market. Purchasing MBS is one way that it maintained that stability. Its total MBS holdings almost doubled from March of 2020 to December of 2021 to $2.6 trillion. Should we be concerned?
At first, a doubling sounds scary. And, anything with the word ‘trillion’ is also scary. Even the graph below looks a little scary. MBS holdings by the Fed jumped and have continued to increase at about a constant rate. Is the housing market just being supported by government financing? What happens when the Fed decides to exit the market?
Luckily for us, there is precedent for Fed MBS tapering. The graph below is in log units and reflects that a similar acceleration in MBS purchases occurred in 2013. Fed net purchases were practically zero by 2015 and total MBS assets owned by the Fed were even falling by 2018. Do you remember the recession that we had in 2013 when the Fed stopped buying more MBS’s? Wasn’t 2018-2019 a rough time for the economy when the Fed started reducing its MBS holdings? No. We experienced a recession in neither 2013 nor 2018. Financial stress was low and RGDP growth was unexceptional.
Although there was no macroeconomic disruption, what about the residential sector performance during those times? Here is a worrisome proposed chain of causation:
Relative to a heavier MBS balance sheet, the Fed reducing its holdings increases supply on the MBS market.
This means that the return on creating new MBS’s falls (the price rises).
A lower return on MBS’s means that there is less demand from the financial sector for new loans from loan originators.
A tighter secondary market for mortgages decreases the eagerness with which banks lend to individuals.
Fewer loans to individuals puts downward pressure on the demand for houses and on the price of the associated construction materials.
The data fits this story, but without major disruption.
Less eager lenders went hand-in-hand with higher mortgage rates and less residential construction spending. The substitution effect pushed more real-estate lending and spending to the commercial side. Whereas residential spending was almost the same in late 2019 as it was in early 2018, commercial real-estate spending rose 13% over the same time period.
But, importantly in the story, the income effect of a Fed disruption should have been negative, resulting in less total spending and lower construction material prices. And that’s not what happened. Total Construction spending rose and so did construction material prices. Both of these are the opposite of what we would expect if the Fed had caused disruption in the housing construction sector due to its MBS holding changes. Spending on residential construction fell understandably. But spending on commercial construction and the price of construction materials rose.
My point is that you should not listen to the hysteria.
The Fed has a variety of assets on its balance sheet and it pays special attention to the residential construction sector. Do you think that there is a residential asset bubble? Ok. Now you have to address whether the high prices are due to demand or supply. Do you suspect that the Fed unloading its MBS’s will result a popped bubble and maybe even contagion? It’s ok – you’re allowed to think that. But the most recent example of the Fed doing that didn’t result in either a macroeconomic crisis or substantial disruption in the construction markets.
The Fed has a track record and it has a reputation that serves as valuable information concerning its current and prospective activities. The next time that someone gets hysterical about Fed involvement in the housing sector, ask them what happened last time? Odds are that they don’t know. Maybe that information doesn’t matter for their opinion. You should value their opinion accordingly.
The latest CPI inflation data was released this morning. Mostly the new data just confirms what we’ve seen the past few months: consumer price inflation is at the highest levels in decades, and it is now very broad based.
To see how broad based the inflation is, we can look at any of the “special aggregates” that the BLS produces. CPI less food. CPI less shelter. CPI less food, shelter, energy, used cars and trucks (what a mouthful!). All of these are up substantially over the past year. The lowest number you can get is that last aggregate I listed, which excludes almost 60% of consumer spending, and even it is up 4.7% over the past year — the largest increase since 1991 for that particular special index.
Or, you can just look at food. We all have probably observed that meat prices are way up recently — about 15% over the past year. But it’s not just meat. It’s fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy… the whole darn food pyramid. In fact, there are only two food categories (hot dogs and cheese) and two drinks (tea and wine) that are actually down since December 2020.
I remember people talking about Covid-19 in January of 2020. There had been several epidemic scare-claims from major news outlets in the decade prior and those all turned out to be nothing. So, I was not excited about this one. By the end of the month, I saw people making substantiated claims and I started to suspect that my low-information heuristic might not perform well.
People are different. We have different degrees of excitability, different risk tolerances, and different biases. At the start of the pandemic, these differences were on full display between political figures and their parties, and among the state and municipal governments. There were a lot of divergent beliefs about the world. Depending on your news outlet of choice, you probably think that some politicians and bureaucrats acted with either malice or incompetence.
I think that the Federal Reserve did a fine job, however. What follows is an abridged timeline, graph by graph, of how and when the Fed managed monetary policy during the Covid-19 pandemic.
February, 2020: Financial Markets recognize a big problem
The S&P begins its rapid decent on February 20th and would ultimately lose a third of its value by March 23rd. Financial markets are often easily scared, however. The primary tool that the Fed has is adjusting the number of reserves and the available money supply by purchasing various assets. The Fed didn’t begin buying extra assets of any kind until mid-March. There is a clear response by the 18th, though they may have started making a change by the 11th. One might argue that they cut the federal funds rate as early as the 4th, but given that there was no change in their balance sheet, this was probably demand driven.
March, 2020: The Fed Accommodates quickly and substantially.
In the month following March 9th, the Fed increased M2 by 8.3%. By the week of March 21st, consumer sentiment and mobility was down and economic policy uncertainty began to rise substantially – people freaked out. Although the consumer sentiment weekly indicator was back within the range of normal by the end of April, EPU remained elevated through May of 2020. Additionally, although lending was only slightly down, bank reserves increased 71% from February to April. Much of that was due to Fed asset purchases. But there was also a healthy chunk that was due to consumer spending tanking by 20% over the same period.
In the 18 months prior to 2020, M2 had grown at rate of about 0.5% per month. For the almost 18 months following the sudden 8.3% increase, the new growth rate of M2 almost doubled to about 1% per month. The Fed accommodated quite quickly in March.
April, 2020: People are awash with money
Falling consumption caused bank deposit balances to rise by 5.6% between March 11th and April 8th. The first round of stimulus checks were deposited during the weekend of April 11th. That contributed to bank deposits rising by another 6.7% by May 13th.
By the end of March, three weeks after it began increasing M2, the Fed remembered that it really didn’t want another housing crisis. It didn’t want another round of fire sales, bank failures, disintermediation, collapsed lending, and debt deflation. It went from owning $0 in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) on March 25th to owning nearly $1.5 billion worth by the week of April 1st. Nobody’s talking about it, but the Fed kept buying MBS at a constant growth rate through 2021.
May, 2020 – December, 2021: The Fed Prevents Last-Time’s Crisis
Jerome Powell presided over the shortest US recession ever on record. The Fed helped to successfully avoid a housing collapse, disintermediation, and debt deflation – by 2008 standards. The monthly supply of housing collapsed, but it had bottomed out by the end of the summer. By August of 2021, the supply of housing had entirely recovered. The average price of new house sales never fell. Prices in April of 2020 were typical of the year prior, then rose thereafter. A broader measure of success was that total loans did not fall sharply and are nearly back to their pre-pandemic volumes. After 2008, it took six years to again reach the prior peak. A broader measure still, total spending in the US economy is back to the level predicted by the pre-pandemic trend.
The Fed can’t control long-run output. As I’ve written previously, insofar as aggregate demand management is concerned, we are perfectly on track. The problem in the US economy now is real output. The Fed avoided debt deflation, but it can’t control the real responses in production, supply chains, and labor markets that were disrupted by Covid-19 and the associated policy responses.
What was the cost of the Fed’s apparent success? Some have argued that the Fed has lost some of its political insulation and that it unnecessarily and imprudently over-reached into non-monetary areas. Maybe future Fed responses will depend on who is in office or will depend on which group of favored interests need help. Personally, I’m not so worried about political exposure. But I am quite worried about the Fed’s interventions in particular markets, such as MBS, and how/whether they will divest responsibly.
Of course, another cost of the Fed’s policies has been higher inflation. During the 17 months prior to the pandemic, inflation was 0.125% per month. During the pandemic recession, consumer prices dipped and inflation was moderate through November. But, in the 16 months since April of 2020, consumer prices have grown at a rate of 0.393% per month – more than three times the previous rate. Some of that is catch-up after the brief fall in prices.
Although people are genuinely worried about inflation, they were also worried about if after the 2008 recession and it never came. This time, inflation is actually elevated. But people were complaining about inflation before it was ever perceptible. The compound annual rate of inflation rose to 7% in March of 2021. But it had been almost zero as recent as November, 2020. That March 2021 number is misleading. The actual change in prices from February to March was 0.567%. Something that was priced at $10 in February was then priced at $10.06 in March. Hardly noticeable, were it not for headlines and news feeds.