(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why Peak Inflation Claims Should Finally Peak

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Here’s how bad today’s official report on the Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge for U.S. inflation was: It looked awful even without taking the baseline effect into account. That is, it looked awful even if you don’t examine how the new (August) year-on-year increases compare with both their predecessors and those for the preceding year, and understand that the 2021-22 numbers are coming off 2020-21 results that were alarmingly high to begin with,

Yes, the annual increase in August in the headline version of the Fed’s favored price index for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) dipped from 6.4 percent in July to 6.2 percent. But by last August, it had already climbed to 4.2 percent – more than twice the Fed’s target rate.

Worse, though, was the acceleration in the August annual core PCE read from 4.7 percent to 4.9 percent . These are the figures that leave out food and energy prices – supposedly because they’re volatile for reasons that have nothing to do with the economy’s underlying inflation prone-ness.

Inflation optimists had seized upon the June-July drops in the headline PCE (from seven percent to 6.4 percent and from five to 4.7 percent, respectively) as a major sign that price increases had peaked. The August statistics seem to throw frigid water on that conclusion.

Worse still was the speed up in both inflation indicators on a monthly basis. Headline PCE had actually fallen sequentially in July by 0.1 percent, but in August it rose by 0.3 percent. And that’s despite energy prices nosediving (by fully 5.5 percent on month) both because towering gasoline prices had forced many Americans to cut back on driving, and because the rest of the world economy is seeing dramatically reduced growth, which depresses energy demand.

Replacing energy as a major cost-of-living driver were food prices, which were up month-to-month by 0.8 percent. So unless you think energy prices will keep sinking like a stone, it’s become tougher to stick with the peak inflation claims.

But the biggest blow to the peak inflation case came from the monthly core results. Even omitting those volatile food and energy prices, core inflation jumped by 0.6 percent between July and August, after flatlining between June and July. And this new August monthly hike ties June’s for the year’s worst.

And I’d be remiss in closing without mentioning two recent Biden administration steps sure to buoy inflation still further – the student loan forgiveness plan (even – if it survives legal challenges – in its new scaled back form) and his big expansion of food stamp benefits (prompted at least in part, and ironically, due to those huge food price increases). Whatever you think of the merits of these programs, their net effect inevitably will put more income in consumers’ pockets and thus support spending while doing nothing to increase production. That is, as economists like to say, more money will be chasing the same amount of goods and services – an inflation-fueling formula no thinking person disputes.

Making News: Back on National Radio Tonight Talking Ukraine Fallout, Inflation, and China

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to return tonight on the nationally syndicated “Market Wrap with Moe Ansari.” Our scheduled subjects: the possibility I discussed recently that the U.S.’ strong support of Ukraine could trigger the kinds of global calamities it seeks to prevent, whether America’s torrid inflation has peaked, and what’s ahead for China’s increasingly troubled economy.

Market Wrap” airs weeknights between 8 and 9 PM EST, these segments usually begin midway through the show, and you can listen live on-line here.

As usual, if you can’t tune in, I’ll post a link to the podcast of the inteview as soon as it’s available.

And keep on checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: How Labor Shortages Can Help U.S. Manfacturing – & the Entire Economy

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Here’s some advice for Reuters reporters Allison Lampert and Rajesh Kumar Singh, and their editors Kevin Krolicki and Bill Berkrot: If you’re going to produce a story showing that labor shortages are decimating output in a certain part of the economy, make sure they really are decimating output in a certain part of the economy. Because in the case of the U.S. aircraft parts sector on which their piece this morning focuses, it ain’t.

How do we know this? First of all, it’s true that “In the United States, aerospace employment” is below its “pre-pandemic level” (though by my calculations, the Labor Department data show the fall-off has been 7.66 percent from immediately pre-pandemic-y February, 2020 through last July) and not 8.4 percent, as the article contends). And that’s indeed much worse than the record compiled in manufacturing overall – which is up 0.52 percent during that period.

Further, the workforces in aircraft engines and engine parts are down even more sharply – by 8.94 percent and 14.88 percent, respectively.

But output “grounded,” as the headline claims? Not exactly. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve’s manufacturing production figures, output in the broad aerospace products and parts category has surged by 28.44 percent between February, 2020 and last month. In the narrower aircraft and parts grouping, the growth has been 30.60 percent.

And these numbers are inflation adjusted, meaning that they’re not being artificially boosted by price increases. They represent the volume of stuff being turned out. And they leave in the dust the results for manufacturing overall (up 3.69 percent in real terms since just before the CCP Virus arrived in force).

Even more striking, the output rebound in aerospace has remained strong recently. In that broad category, it’s jumped 10.38 percent year-on-year in August. For aircraft and parts, the surge has been an even faster 30.60 percent.

How can this be? The answer should be obvious to anyone who knows even a smidgeon of economics. These industries have become much more efficient. And indeed, official figures show that labor productivity in aerospace products and parts soared by 15.50 percent between 2020 and 2021 (the latest figures available). The comparable figure for all manufacturing? Just 3.30 percent. (As known by RealityChek regulars, the government also tracks a broader measure of productivity, called total factor productivity, but the detailed industry figures aren’t out yet.)

And here’s what’s totally weird: Steps taken by companies in aircraft parts to compensate for scarce workers, and plans to take more, were reported in the Reuters piece.

There’s no doubt that businesses in manufacturing overall and in aerospace in particular would love to have more workers – largely because demand for their products is exceptionally strong. But as the output and productivity data reveal, they’re figuring out how to solve this problem – and impressively.

That’s not only not a bad news story – it’s a great news story. And if other industries (including in the service sector) could remotely duplicate this performance, responding to labor shortages by making technological and other forms of progress, rather than by pleading for more mass immigration and other productivity-killing crutches, the entire economy and its prospects would be in much better shape than at present.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: More Evidence of Biden-Flation’s Toll

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Left-of-center critics of the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting efforts keep insisting that risking recession to tame prices would unnecessarily harm the most vulnerable Americans and their struggling working class counterparts. Instead,  many have claimed that living costs can be cut sufficiently by forcing greedy corporations to charge less through windfall profits taxes, price controls, and the like.

And they’ve bridled in particular at charges that the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) greatly worsened the problem by handing trillions of dollars of CCP Virus relief – and therefore purchasing power – to U.S. consumers well after economic growth had already rebounded strongly and unemployment had already nosedived.

Any development that can engulf the gargantuan American economy, like historically high inflation, almost by definition has many different causes. But anyone doubting the economic overheating role of the ARP should check out the graph below, which is found in this Reuters piece from over the weekend.

Reuters Graphics

The article adds to the evidence that still-towering inflation rates are devastating low-income Americans by super-charging the prices of that most basic of basics: food. But the graph makes clear as can be how the ARP contributed to the problem.

As it shows, prices of food (the darker line) began taking off just about the time that the ARP’s strings-free child tax credit payments started to be sent out (July 15, 2021, to be precise) – and not just to the needy, but to considerably better off households as well. Not so coincidentally, the share of American families with children reporting to U.S. Census Bureau surveys being “sometimes or often” short of food (the lighter line) started taking off soon after. And also noteworthy – these food price rises began many months before Russia’s February, 2022 invasion of Ukraine began playing its own major food inflation role. 

As the article also emphasizes, between 2020 and 2022, “as pandemic restrictions eased, so did the appetite for congress and some states to fund hunger prevention efforts.” But continuing federal purchases for “pantries, schools and indigenous reservations” were needed in the first place largely because food – not to mention other necessities – kept becoming so much more expensive.

The lesson here isn’t that no pandemic assistance should have been provided at all. After all, genuine suffering was widespread in its early phases and no one knew how long they would last. And the Fed’s left-of-center critics are correct that ongoing CCP Virus-related and Ukraine War-related energy supply disruptions have greatly boosted prices recently, too.

But as noted here previously, the supply- and demand-side roots of inflation are very closely related (because businesses can be relied on to continue raising prices as long as they can find enough buyers, and to cut them when customers start balking). Moreover, although in economists’ lingo, some prices are “inelastic” (because they’re for goods and services that are essential enough to prevent purchasing cutbacks even after major price increases), when they rise high enough, they can still foster lower prices for other purchases that are deemed less important.

Therefore anything, like big government checks, that fills consumer pockets will strongly tend to spur inflation sooner or later. So when help does need to be provided, it should be much more precisely focused on relieving genuine privation than pandemic relief was.

Even more important: The inflationary effects of supporting household consumption can be offset – and are best offset – by policies to support more production. When the Fed’s left-of-center critics start addressing defects in that supply side of the economy, rather than trafficking in gimmicks sure to exacerbate them, their complaints about excessive central bank monetary medicine will deserve a much bigger audience. In the process, they’ll be able to deliver lasting assistance to those whose plight they rightly emphasize.        

Glad I Didn’t Say That! Energy Security One Tanker at a Time

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Germany secures more gas shipments as [Chancellor Olaf] Scholz visits [Persian] Gulf”

 —Associated Press, September 25, 2022

Number of gas shipments Scholz has secured during his visit to the Persian Gulf: 1

–Bloomberg.com, September 25, 2022

 

(Sources: “Germany secures more gas shipments as Scholz visits Gulf,” by Frank Jordan, Associated Press, September 25, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-boris-johnson-united-arab-emirates-germany-b2ff121c9b7e3931ab3c89acdf76beaa and “Germany Secures Just One Tanker of Gas During Scholz’s Gulf Tour,” by Birgit Jennen and Omar Tamo,” Bloomberg.com, September 25, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-25/germany-nabs-uae-gas-deal-as-energy-squeeze-tightens?srnd=premium&leadSource=uverify%20wall)

Following Up: Podcast Now On-Line of TNT Radio Interview

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I’m pleased to announce that the podcast is now on-line of my appearance Tuesday night on “The Hrvoje Moric Show” on the internet network TNT Radio. Click here for a timely discussion on the future of American conservatism, on the culture wars that should and shouldn’t be fought, and a on a wide range of other domestic and international subjects, both strategic and economic.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: The Other Scary Ukraine War Threat

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Take it from me – the words “Lehman” and “moment” are words that no one should ever want to see in the same sentence ever again. Yet they’ve been making a collective comeback lately (see, e.g., here, here, and here), signaling in the process that the determination of the United States and other countries to help Ukraine achieve its goal of expelling Russia from the territory it’s lost could backfire disastrously.

This specific risk has emerged not because the conflict could spread beyond Ukraine’s borders and embroil the big new concentrations of U.S. and other NATO military forces right next door – and therefore all too easily escalate to the nuclear level. It’s also emerged because of the growing economic hardship and potential political instability in major world regions created by the disruption of global energy and food trade triggered by Russia’s invasion and the sanctions it’s triggered.  

The phrase “Lehman moment” refers to the time when the national and global financial systems and economies nearly collapsed because so many of the world’s major banks and other lenders had engaged in such reckless practices, and because they were so interconnected that the failure of one – America’s Lehman Brothers – threatened to topple the whole house of cards that had been created.

Today’s Lehman moment is feared to be coming in Europe’s energy sector – also dominated by huge, closely connected institutions and also endangered by contagion. But this time the culprit hasn’t been greedy executives or asleep-at-the-switch regulators. It’s been the price of natural gas. The Russian invasion of Ukraine itself, the duration of the fighting, Russian supply curbs and threats of cut-offs have pushed it so high that many European utilities have been forced to buy the increasingly scarce fuel on the very expensive spot market and sell it to customers at the much lower prices stipulated by the contracts they’ve signed. (See here for a useful explanation of all of the above.)

As with the original Lehman moment, government bailouts are likely to save the day – at least for the foreseeable future. But the costs are shaping up to be astronomical, and even if they’re paid by all of the continent’s well- and less well-off countries alike, enormous national debts are sure to grow. Moreover, Europe’s near-term energy, and overall economic, future looks so grim because major shortages and towering prices this winter seem both inevitable and bound to bring on a serious recession and all the suffering and anxiety that accompany such downturns.

That sure sounds like a formula for even more political instability than Europe has already seen lately, including a loss of public faith in national and regional establishments and institutions of all kinds, and a further strengthening of the sort of political movements – on the right end of the political spectrum in particular – that globalists keep warning are grave dangers to the democracy and even the peace the continent has enjoyed until Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Nor is Ukraine War-rooted turmoil confined to Europe. As the Biden administration has just warned, “protracted conflicts – including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” have been developments that have “disrupted global supply chains and dramatically increased global food prices.” As a result, “world leaders [need] to act with urgency and at scale to respond…and avert extreme hunger for hundreds of millions of people around the world.”

Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the areas of greatest risk, has (rightly) never been seen as a high U.S. foreign policy priority. The other area, though, is the Middle East, which has become much less important even to America’s economic well-being because of the energy production revolution at home, but which continues to attract considerable attention from globalist U.S. leaders.

Hence the backfire risk – and a gigantic irony. Globalist backers of the current Ukraine strategy justify it as necessary to protect what they call a “rules-based international order” they believe has been essential for preventing great power conflict, as well as for promoting impressive degrees of prosperity and democracy around the globe. I’d give far more credit to the balance of nuclear terror that’s prevailed for nearly all of that period, but that’s not the main point.  The main point is that, along with great power conflict, the widespread international turbulence being fueled by the duration of the Ukraine War per se is another major geopolitical nightmare that globalism has striven to avert.  

It’s true that incurring great risks to protect specific, concrete interests the U.S. considers vital – like the security of Western Europe and, more recently, Taiwan (because of its leadership in manufacturing the world’s most advanced semiconductors) – by definition are worth running. This logic also holds for objectives like fostering and maximizing stability the world over, even though they’ve always been more dubious because they’re so much gauzier and less realistic. For whatever the damage possible from attempting to safeguard any of these interests, the term “vital” means that failure can generate even greater dangers – particularly national survival and independence.

But running such risks on behalf of Ukraine’s independence – which was never seen as remotely vital U.S. interest even at the height of the Cold War, which was habitually described as a Manichean struggle for the entire world’s future – is a different matter altogether, and indeed makes no sense at all.

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. Army officer is supposed to have told a reporter after one battle that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The Lehman moment references and mounting signs of tumult in several major regions long seen by Washington as bearing at least significantly and even vitally on America’s safety and well-being indicates how close U.S. Ukraine policy – even if it simply prolongs heavy but geographically contained fighting – is moving toward achieving that absurdly self-destructive goal.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Two Needed Changes in U.S. China Policy

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Although I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of former President Donald Trump’s China policies have been retained by President Biden (like the tariffs and tech-related sanctions and tighter export controls), two recent developments reveal how much room for improvement remains – on permitting Chinese entities to list on U.S. stock exchanges, and on those Trump tariffs.

Regarding the stock market issue, Washington incomprehensively keeps giving these entities (they shouldn’t be called “companies” or “businesses” becauuse they have nothing in common with organizations meriting those labels in largely free market economies) the kind of special treatment afforded to members of its stock exchanges from no other countries – including America itself.

Specifically, these Chinese entities continue to be able to raise vital capital in U.S. markets even though they haven’t yet been required to comply with the standards for opening their books fully that are mandatory for every single one of their domestic and foreign counterparts. Therefore, investors can’t make informed decisions, and regulators can’t discover much fraudulent activity.

It’s true that U.S. authorities have just struck a deal with Beijing that potentially gives them the access to Chinese records that they need. But that’s the problem. It’s still “potential.” And the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) may still be bending over backwards to coddle China. Why else would it have agreed with its Chinese counterparts to keep the text of the deal secret? What devils lie in the always crucial details? Full disclosure here is especially important because of Beijing’s long record of violating signed agreements (see, e.g., here) and because the Chinese government’s statement describing its interpretation of its obligation differs significantly from Washington’s – which is virtually guaranteed to produce protracted further bickering.

This typical bobbing and weaving, in fact, raises the question of why the United States has engaged recently – or ever – in any negotiatons in the first place. After all, Washington has been seeking adequate access to the entities since 2007. China has resisted American demands by citing the important national security and other state secrets that unfettered audits might reveal. But as the SEC itself has pointed out (see the preceding link), more than fifty other countries have required their companies to turn over all records as a condition for listing. China clearly has the right to withhold any information it wishes. The U.S. response from the beginning should have been that if a Chinese entity’s operations are so critical to China’s national security, it doesn’t belong in the U.S. financial system, and able to win U.S. and other investment attracted by the Good Housekeeping seal provided by being listed,to begin with.

Washington’s position all along also should have been that there’s literally nothing to talk about. The United States should have declared listing to be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for China, and that it will serve as judge, jury, and court of appeals (as it is in all cases). As of this past spring, America’s long failure to do so has permitted these entities to amass a market value of $1.3 trillion. And because all of them are always subject to all of Beijing’s whims, that means these valuable resources have been put at the disposal of the Chinese regime.

What to do now?  Ditch the diplomacy stuff and tell Beijing that unless each of its listed entities turn over to U.S. auditors every scrap of information demanded by date certain (meaning real soon), they all get kicked off Wall Street immediately.

When it comes to trade issues, the Biden administration’s mistake is much simpler – and easier to correct. The President deserves considerable praise for the September announcement that the Trump tariffs will be kept in place for the foreseeable future. But China’s predatory trade policies have not remained in place, and in at least one vital respect, have gotten worse – on the value of its currency, the yuan.

For many years, especially in the first decade and a half of this century, Beijing kept the value of the yuan versus the U.S. dollar artificially low. As known by RealityChek regulars, this practice gave goods made in China (including by offshoring-happy U.S.- and other foreign-owned multinational companies) big price advantages the world over for reasons having nothing to do with market forces. The result were equally artificial boosts to Chinese exports and artificial reductions of Chinese imports.

This year, China has doubled down (not literally!) on this tactic, depressing the yuan’s value versus the greenback by fully nine percent. So the American response should be obvious: The tariffs on each of the roughly $370 billion worth of Chinese goods intended each year for the U.S. market should be raised by nine percent also. And each future Beijing move to devalues the yuan another one percent or more should be matched by another equivalent U.S. tariff hike.

This American retaliation isn’t likely to fuel inflation at home, because of falling U.S. demand due to a slowing economy and a shift in consumer spending to services. So importing U.S. companies won’t have the pricing power to pass on their higher costs. But it will put further pressure on a Chinese economy whose other growth engines (like the real estate sector and the domestic consumer market) are faltering mainly because of the deflation of a ginormous Chinese housing bubble and dictator Xi Jinping’s politically inspired crackdown on his own tech companies and his over-the-top Zero Covid policies.

P.S. If China starts strengthening the yuan again, I wouldn’t lower the tariffs in response. For the aim of U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic now can’t afford to be an indulgence like fairness, but weakening this increasingly hostile and dangerous government, and maximum U.S. economic disengagement (often called “decoupling”). But I’d be amenable to some easing of economic pressure and decoupling if I saw major evidence of big, concrete improvements in Beijing’s economic and military policies – say over a five- or ten-year period for starters.

Making News: Back on National Radio Talking Conservatism’s Future & Batchelor China Manufacturing Podcast Now On-Line

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to return tonight to “The Hrvoje Moric Show” on the internet network TNT Radio. The segment is slated to be broadcast at 9-10 PM EST, and will focus on my impressions of the National Conservatism conference at which I spoke last week, and what this new movement will mean for the future of right-of-center politics in America. But I’m sure that the state of the economy will come up, too!

Click here to listen live, and of course if you can’t tune in, I’ll post a link to the podcast as soon as one’s available.

Speaking of podcasts, here’s a link to the recording of my interview last night on “CBS Eye on the World” with John Batchelor. The segment, with co-host Gordon G. Chang, featured a timely discussion of how China’s manufacturing is rapidly automating, and the implications for U.S. domestic industry.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Those Stubborn Facts: U.S. National Security Outsourced to China

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Number of Chinese entities in the U.S. Defense Department’s supply base, 2019: 655

Increase since 2012: “More than fivefold.”

 

(Source: “Pentagon Pushes Defense Companies to Limit Use of Chinese Supplies,” by Doug Cameron, The Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2022, Pentagon Pushes Defense Companies to Limit Use of Chinese Supplies – WSJ )