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Richard Yamarone

Many of you already have the heart-breaking news that the wonderful Richard Yamarone stopped breathing yesterday afternoon; he had a heart attack on Thursday morning while playing hockey with his team, his Thanksgiving tradition.

In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger safely landed his crippled plane on the Hudson River. So accomplished was he that he planned to hit the river where he thought there would be no boats, telling passengers to, “Prepare for a hard landing.” I remember thinking at the time it would have been admirable if the monetary officials could have been so blunt in 2007.

Rich was. Back in the early days of the recovery he wrote, “The recent depression—ask any real economist.” He never confused the height of the markets with the state of the economy. He thought about workers and wages, inequities, rigged systems, and he worked incredibly hard. He was incisive, deep, an awesome singer, and truly hilarious. His humor made it easier to take some of his darker observations. Once he was outlining a dreadful eventuality when suddenly he noted it was odd that we were both laughing. (I’ll leave it to those in his league to cover his fly-fishing abilities.)

A tremendous man, a tremendous friend, and a tremendous economist, the real kind.

And he had a burly Welsh heart. Also a pilot, Rich too would have thought about the boats on the river.

Rich was 55.

In today’s note his closest friend Dave Rosenberg wrote that Rich “managed to squeeze many lives into one short one.” Josh Frankel added a lovely image, his idea for a Bloomberg late night show called “Yammy in his Jammies,” featuring Rich running down, say, the nonfarm payrolls in feety pajamas. Dean Eisen called him open and honest about himself—simple words but hard to do. Josh Rosner, “He measured others, generously, by the kindness in their hearts, but few could have truly been measured against his own.” (More here.)

And don’t miss him singing and playing.

We loved Richard.

Last night I dreamed that a mighty redwood fell in the forest.

Philippa

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Inflation, that dog just won’t bark

We are happy to report that Hale Stewart will be contributing to our blog going forward. Here’s a longer look from him, with an assist from the St. Louis Fed, at pricing trends.

Friday’s inflation report was, yet again, underwhelming, further confirming that upward price pressures are contained. Core and overall CPI are 1.7% Y/Y:

fredgraph-16

Both measures are below the Federal Reserve’s 2% inflation target. Core (in blue) was slightly above 2% for most of 2016 while total CPI (in red) was rising. But its increase did not influence overall CPI, indicating that commodity pressures are weak. Although they are part of the misery index, neither food nor energy prices should concern us in terms of sticky inflation:

fredgraph-17

fredgraph-21

The top chart shows the year Y/Y percentage change in food and beverage prices, which were declining from the beginning of 2015 to 3Q2016. They are now increasing, but are only slightly above 1%. The bottom chart shows energy prices which were negative for approximately two years, turning positive at the beginning of 2017. Yes, they did spike to about 15%, but that’s as much a function of statistics as the marketplace activity. Now they are quickly declining. Just as importantly, food and beverage prices are only 13.63% of CPI while energy prices are 7.35%, meaning both would have to increase at sharply faster rates for an extended period time for us to be concerned.

Energy and food prices are the only commodity prices adding to CPI:

fredgraph-19

All commodities less these two items have subtracted from CPI for over four years. This sub-index of overall CPI accounts for 18.95% of CPI. Its negative contributions counterbalance any upward pressure from food and energy prices.

Finally, we have the sub-index for services less energy:

fredgraph-20

This was between 3%-3.2% for most of 2016, but has since decreased sharply. The underlying reasons for this spike have dissipated.

Readers sometimes suggest we adjust spending measures, like retail sales, for certain segments’ own personal deflation in order to show that spending is actually quite strong. That gets a “Huh?” from us. If spending were strong, prices would be floating up. The point is that they are not.

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All This, and Indentured Servitude Too

It’s no secret that many of our more vulnerable workers have it tough these days.

In July, the Treasury Department decided to take a look at the widespread use of non-competition agreements among low-wage workers as a factor in ongoing low job churn and wage growth.

Additionally, Case Western law professor Ayesha B. Hardaway is looking into the proliferation of these “non-competes” among low-wage low-skill workers as a condition of their at-will employment as a violation of the 13th Amendment. She argues that Reconstruction Era debates, legislation passed after the amendment itself, and judicial opinions of the time make it clear that the prohibitions against indentured servitude and peonage in the broader amendment were intended to prevent wage slavery.

Which is what you get if you put at-will employees on this particular one- way street. They are not protected by contracts and, since they cannot seek like similar employment elsewhere, have no bargaining power.

And therefore no economic mobility. Hardaway argues that such use is outside the original scope of post-employment restrictive covenants, which were designed to protect trade secrets, thereby encouraging employers to invest in new ideas and in the training of their employees.

Restrictive employment covenants have been addressed by the courts for centuries, and US legal thought on such matters came, originally, from British courts in the 16th century. These courts generally put attempts to restrict work opportunities of former apprentices under the rubric “improper and unethical motives of masters.” Specifically, applying the rule of reason, the court stamped the idea that an apprentice could not seek employment in the “very trade he honed during his apprenticeship to be morally improper and outside ordinary norms.” Such thinking on employment restrictions held in England, although specific confidentiality clauses, and non-solicitation and non-poaching agreements, Hardaway’s “original scope,” generally got the green light.

And so it was in America until the late nineteenth century, when judicial decisions began to wear away the precedent set by the test of reason. Even so, through the twentieth century such agreements were limited by the courts to high-level employees with access to proprietary information, employees whose names and reputations themselves often added value to the company. These sophisticated workers are on a two-way street: at the same time they sign such agreements, they also sign employment contracts.

Hardaway believes that subjecting low-wage un-skilled workers to similar arrangements “fails to comport with the established rule of reason.” Indeed, and worth thinking about with the Politics of Rage getting so much ink these days.

13th-amend

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Oil and the Economy

In our reports, we have often made the point that the belief that shoppers spend their fuel savings on other sending is largely a myth—overall spending and spending on gas generally move together, and we tend to drive more when gas is cheaper. But just what is the relationship between oil prices and economic growth? Are high prices signs of economic strength or do they portend decline? Conversely, are low prices stimulative, or are they a sign of weakness? How do we separate cause and effect?

New York Fed economists Jan Groen and Patrick Russo have been on the case. The answer is basically—and unsurprisingly—“it’s complicated.” Groen and Russo develop a model, using what they describe as “a large number of financial variables,” to isolate supply and demand influences on the price of Brent crude since 1986. In a June 2015 post, they report that the price declines of the late 1980s and late 1990s were driven by supply-side shocks, namely aggressive expansion of production by OPEC members, notably Saudi Arabia. More recently, they find that the 2001–2001 and 2007–2009 declines were driven by demand shocks resulting from U.S. recessions. But outside these recessions, tighter supplies put upward pressure on prices through 2010. Between 2010 and 2012, prices were driven higher by a combination of rising demand and supply constraints. But since then, expanding supply has driven prices lower—a tendency that was partly counterbalanced at first by rising demand through mid-2014. Since then, demand has weakened while supply has remained plentiful.

And what are the effects of changes in oil prices? They find that price declines resulting from supply shocks have only modestly stimulative effects on GDP and consumption—roughly a +0.10–0.15% kick to both from a one-standard-deviation supply shock in the first quarter or two afterwards that decays in about four quarters. Real nonresidential fixed investment responds more strongly but more slowly, maxing out at about 0.30% three quarters after the shock. Investment takes a little longer to decay, but the effect is all gone in seven or eight quarters. Their model projected that the decline in oil prices of late 2014 and early 2015 would have only a modest stimulative effect during the second half of 2015, and would be mostly dissipated by early 2016. Given recent growth rates, that looks like not a bad forecast.

In a recent post, Groen and Russo updated their work. Their model suggests that the price declines in late 2015 and early 2016 have had and will have little effect this year. Perhaps, then, we all pay too much attention to oil prices.

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