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At the end of last month, I wrote that if a national government (including its central bank) wants to get inflation down, it’s not a rocket science-type challenge.” Basically all that’s needed is the willingness to take some combination of the kinds of fiscal and monetary measures that are guaranteed to slow economic growth.

Keep that in mind as you read the mushrooming number of claims that America’s recent historic burst of inflation is either peaking (see, e.g., here, here, and here) or should peak soon (e.g., here, here, and here). Because wherever softening prices can be seen, levels of demand have fallen off either because goods and services are becoming unaffordable and sales are down, or because easy money has gotten harder, or some degree of both. So let’s not conclude that inflation progress stems from a sudden outburst of policy-making genius.

Anyone doubting the start of a economic downshifting should check out the many of the latest reports released by the federal government on the economy’s performance. In the first quarter of this year, the gross domestic product (GDP – the standard measure of the economy’s size) fell by 1.58 percent at an annual rate adjusted for inflation, and the pretty reliable forecasters at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve system expect about the same kind of contraction for the second quarter.

If this prediction holds, the United States will have entered a recession by the most widely used yardstick – two straight quarters of what economists call “negative growth.”   

Manufacturing production – which RealityChek regulars know has held up very well during the pandemic period – has now dropped sequentially for two straight months. And a downshifting U.S. economy is importing less, which has reduced the bloated trade deficit for two straight months as well.

The employment picture is better (including in manufacturing) but on an economy-wide basis some signs of deterioration are visible as well. Chiefly, if you look at three-month averages (which help smooth out often misleading short-term fluctuations, you see that from January through March, this measure of private sector job growth totalled 527,000. From April through June, it dropped to just under 362,000, and may sink lower, as the April and May figures have been downwardly revised, signaling that the same may be in store for June’s results.

Some of the best evidence of declining affordability – across the board – come from the official retail sales figures. On an annual basis, their increase is down from the mid-double digit levels of January and February (propped up by the unusually weak numbers from the heavily pandemic-affected figures for the previous – baseline – winter), to 9.26 percent in June.

That may not sound like a lot, but when inflation is considered, these retail sales increases turn into decreases for three of the last four months through June’s preliminary report. In other words, because of rapidly rising prices, consumers weren’t actually buying more in the way of goods and services. They were simply paying more for quantities that had actually shrunk. And the month-on-month sales numbers have been negative for three of the last four months, too.

The affordability issue is especially clear from the recent decrease in gasoline prices. Yes, they’ve tumbled for more than a month. But less driving is the obvious reason. For example, here we are in the middle of peak summer driving season, when the subsiding of the pandemic supposedly has millions of Americans determined to engage in so-called “revenge travel.”

But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption “is just above the same time two years ago [when revenge travel was popular, too, as the virus’ first wave receded, but was still taking a much bigger toll than today] but below every other year going back to 2000.”

The American Petroleum Institute added that last month’s 9.1 million barrels per day of demand was “down 2.3% y/y compared with June 2021—a third straight month in which gasoline trailed its year-ago levels.” Moreover, so far, this year’s May-June increase of 0.4 percent in gasoline use has badly “lagged the average 2.9% seasonal increase seen between May and June in 2012-2021.”

Meanwhile, the role of higher interest rates (and consequently tighter credit) is best seen in the housing market. Summarizing the latest findings of the National Association of Realtors, The Wall Street Journal just reported that “sales of previously owned homes fell for a fifth straight month, dropping 5.4% in June to an annualized rate of 5.12 million.”

The main reason? The big run up in mortgage rates has depressed mortage applications for three straight weeks has pushed them down to their lowest levels since 2000. That means they’re below where they were even during the deflation of the mid-2000s housing bubble that helped trigger the global financial crisis and Great Recession.

Most important of all, even those believing that American leaders deserve credit for figuring out a successful anti-inflation fighting strategy, should remember that although interest rates are higher, they’re far from historically high and even fall well short of even recent very low norms; and that even though some prices are down, they’re still historically high. And that’s not even considering that the supply chain troubles also contributing to recent inflation could well intensify as long as the Ukraine war drags on, and the threat of more over-the-top Zero Covid lockdowns in China can’t be dismissed.

So even though this kind of bitter policy medicine is needed to avoid worse inflation down the road, and genuinely harsh austerity measures (especially as long as U.S. leaders seem to lack a clue regarding the inflation-fighting potential of productivity growth improvement), American voters aren’t likely to be grateful this November – or in any elections in the foreseeable future. And who could blame them?