Comments & Context

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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Coffee into the Waves

For us, a good remedy for the brutal political tenor in the country these days is to read long and hard. You always figure that someone like Stuart Hampshire, who during his high-school years in the 1930s watched the men unemployed by the closing of the Mersey shipyards stamping their cold feet in the streets of Liverpool, while the women sold wildflowers to passers-by. He saw kids without shoes while shoe factories were laying off workers because they couldn’t sell their shoes, and coffee jettisoned into the sea for price controls. He knew those shipbuilders could well remain unemployed unless or until the looming war ramped up demand for ships. When that war did so he went into intelligence work focusing on the espionage efforts of Himmler’s Central Command, and came to believe there is nothing we are not capable of doing, and that a “thin layer of procedural justice” is crucial in balancing competing moralities within a society. He calls such justice more important to morality than courage (we’ll add that’s “acting from the heart”) because, say, a bookish life might require little courage. “Not so for justice, always required.”

Hard to argue with him, and he does a far better job of incorporating Shakespeare throughout his books than we ever have.

But we bring Hampshire up because he makes the distinction between restrictive morality, what we must not do, and the immorality that results from a lack of imagination. It’s not being Pollyannaish to say that the posturing that has replaced insight and discussion as we confront the economic issues we face these days has led to a profound failure of imagination, to all of our peril. And all the while the combatants fiendishly defend their negatives, what they believe cannot work.

Oh, and, Hampshire calls, “Which side are you on?” a “fatally over-simple question.”

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Hey, the market is working!

“Finally, our insurance system drives up costs for everyone. Between 1998 and 2015, the cost of cosmetic surgery for top procedures, which is paid by the consumer and not covered by insurance, rose at about half the rate of inflation, while overall health care rose at around double the rate of inflation — more than a threefold difference.”

 

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A Missed Opportunity

We’ve often lamented the low level of capital spending—bad news for productivity and income growth—despite high rates of corporate profitability. Here’s another perspective on that: real rates of return are higher than returns on financial assets, but that hasn’t led to a rush of capital into real investment.

Graphed below are two financial rates of return—the earnings yield on stocks (the inverse of the P/E ratio) and the ten-year Treasury yield—against our measure of nonfinancial corporate profitability (pretax profits from the national income accounts divided by the value of the tangible capital stock from the Fed’s financial accounts). Note that in recent years, returns on real capital have been comfortably higher than financial returns. Since 2012, the earnings yield on stocks has lagged real returns by an average of 1.1 percentage points—not as big as the 1.9-point gap of the late 1990s, when there was a gusher of real investment that produced a serious acceleration in productivity growth, but still wide compared to the -0.3 point average of the full 1952–2015 scope of the graph.

Missed_opp

The gap with Treasury yields is even more striking—4.4 points since 2012, compared to an 0.3 point average in the late 1990s and 0.4 for the full 63-year history presented here.

Profitability is now weakening, so the relative lure (at least on paper, or its silicon equivalent) of real investment is losing some of its charm. But this period of high real returns and low investment is looking like a missed opportunity. That so much corporate cash has been either hoarded, or devoted to buybacks and M&A, is not what long-term prosperity is made from. (Along with mildly tightening standards on C&I loans, the Fed’s recent loan officer survey found weakening demand for them, with “decreased investment in plant or equipment [as] the most commonly cited reason.”) Thirty years ago, as the buyout and buyback booms were just getting going, Peter Drucker wrote: “Everyone who has worked with American management can testify that the need to satisfy the pension fund manager’s quest for higher earnings next quarter, together with the panicky fear of the raider, constantly pushes top managements toward decisions they know to be costly, if not suicidal, mistakes.” It’s amazing how little has changed since the mid-1980s.

 

 

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