Monday, October 26, 2009

BusinessWeek, I love and despise you

New economic article by BusinessWeek talks about how bottlenecks could cause inflation. Ostensibly a "economic bottleneck" follows the same logic as water through a pipe. It would be limited by the exit of each section of the pipe. If there are not enough factories, or steel or workers than firms will not be able to respond to increased demand. Thus, prices will rise in a short period to allow the market to clear.

Seems plausible, the author even cites James Bullard, President of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank in which he points to the stagflation period after the recession in 1974. He states that the Fed at the time overestimated the productive capacity of the economy and inflation resulted until Mr. Volcker killed it in the early 1980s.

Three charts in retort.

This is duration of median unemployment hitting all time highs. These are workers who have not had work in almost 6 months. You think their demands for pay will be higher or lower than that of the workers in the 1975 who had been out of work for 3 months?

Here is the employment-to-population graph. You can see we have a lot of room to fall to hit the level of jobs related to the entire population that we experienced in the 1975 recession.

Finally, you can see here that unemployment rate is also higher than that of the 1970s, also showing that inflationary fears are very dim.

Now the article does take a balanced view of the economic environment. The author still feels that deflation is the bigger threat at this point, but that inflation always needs to be watched. While I can agree with the sentiment, I find it very dull to be espousing this information in this manner to the non-economic audience reading Businessweek. It is a very nuanced argument that needs to be made, just like the one Bullard made that the article cites.

What the Fed is doing is telegraphing its actions for when it actually defeats deflation. There are methods in which it stops buying Treasury securities, where it stops repo'ing [very short term loans to i-banks] collateral, where it stops buying MBS, stops buying Frannie paper and removes reserves from banks by changing the amount of interest it credits to banks. This will remove the monetary stimulus from the economy very quickly, if needs to be, but can also be done at the margin, like a Father guiding the handlebars on his child's bicycle.

Given the last paragraph, I find it very disenginous to discuss inflation to an audience that does not understand what the Fed has done, and is going to do. BW should be cheering on the Federal Reserve and hoping for inflation because deflation is far, far worse.

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