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Inflationary Angst

Inflationary Angst

According to the dictionary, the word angst refers to “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” It comes from a German word for “fear.”

Two weeks ago I referred back to my 2017 Angst in America series. “Deep anxiety or dread” is exactly what I described then, and it hasn’t improved for most people. For some, yes, life is good and getting better, at least financially. Not so for every American… or even most of us.

Yes, life could be even harder. “Poverty” living standards in the US are better than much of the world knows. But that doesn’t reduce the angst because we compare our conditions to what we see around us, or in the media we consume.

Today I want to bring some focus to this unfocused anxiety. We will see that much of it (though certainly not all) traces back to specific policies of a specific institution that has a specific mission it is failing to achieve.

Furthermore, that angst is going to rise up and bite us in our political derrière at some point in the future. And that gives me a great deal of personal angst, because I don’t think the results will be pleasant for anyone.

Before we begin, I want to call your attention to an opportunity to get six free months of a newsletter I read every day: Jared Dillian’s The Daily Dirtnap. Jared’s market analysis is almost supernaturally sharp. I’m genuinely not sure how he manages to keep it consistently top quality every single day he publishes, but he does.

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Stable Prices, Sometimes

Contrary to popular opinion, the Federal Reserve System is not independent. Nor does it have to follow the president’s orders, as much as Donald Trump wishes it would. The Fed operates under a legal mandate from Congress. Its monetary policy role is “to promote maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”

So how is it doing?

Long-term rates are certainly moderate. Employment is historically high, though wages and job quality aren’t always great.

As for that “stable prices” part… it depends on what you are buying. As you see below, for many goods the price is nowhere near “stable.” Unfortunately, if you are in the bottom 60–70% of the income brackets, these are some of the things you buy the most.

Source: Sebastian Sienkiewicz

The Fed believes that 2% annual inflation equals “stable prices.” Yet that small amount adds up over time—to almost 50% in 20 years. Which is about where CPI lands in this 20-year chart, so the Fed is succeeding by that yardstick.

Think about that for a second. The Fed defines “stable prices” as a 2% average. And then another government agency tries to measure those prices, often using “Hedonic Quality Adjustment” to account for changes due to innovation or completely new products. So because the car you are buying has new features, they conclude it’s not more expensive. Does that match your experience? Thought so…

CPI doesn’t reflect real-life spending for most people. Prices have risen dramatically more than average for some of life’s basic necessities. So if you wonder why people are anxious, this might be a clue.

The Fed either doesn’t see this, or doesn’t think it is a problem. Officials have been wringing their hands for years at their inability to make inflation reach that 2% level. The Financial Times reported last week that they may soon change their rules.

The Federal Reserve is considering introducing a rule that would let inflation run above its 2 percent target, a potentially significant shift in its interest rate policy.

The Fed’s year-long review of its monetary policy tools is due to conclude next year and, according to interviews with current and former policymakers, the central bank is considering a promise that when it misses its inflation target, it will then temporarily raise that target, to make up for lost inflation.

The idea would be to avoid entrenching low US price growth which has consistently undershot its goal.

The key here is that 2% average inflation isn’t the same as 2% all the time. Having run below 2% for years, Fed leaders now want to go above it, potentially far above it and for long periods. In other words, give themselves permission not to worry about the inflation a low-rate policy might otherwise cause.

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As my friend Samuel Rines noted yesterday:

Bottom Line: Inflation is not going to be an issue for the Fed—too high or too low—for a while. Whether looking at CPI or the Fed favorite PCE, it is difficult to see an impending surge in underlying inflation. This should help keep longer-term yields in check with a pick-up in activity in 2020. Tariffs are already showing up in the data, but do not matter (much) for the indexes.

While Fed officials may think they have tamed inflation, their ZIRP and QE actually drove real-world prices considerably higher than CPI or PCE show. It showed up mainly in asset valuations, like stocks and real estate. These, in turn, drove up other prices like housing. Aggregate inflation isn’t higher because technology and globalization reduced manufactured goods costs and the shale revolution kept energy costs low.

Try to look at this like an average worker. Your rent keeps rising, your kids can’t go to college without racking up debt, your health insurance is astronomical, and your wages, while up a bit, aren’t keeping up with your living costs.

Meanwhile, the people who are supposed to be looking out for you keep talking about how the economy is improving thanks to their brilliant policies. Of course you’re angst-ridden. How could you not be?

Deaths of Despair

In Part 2 of Angst in America, I talked about the “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white men. This alarming and uniquely American trend is getting worse.

Last month an American Medical Association study found US average life expectancy, which had been steadily increasing for decades, has now dropped for three consecutive years. It actually goes back a little further; all-cause mortality rates began rising in 2010. For some groups it went back to the 1990s.

AMA zeroes in on the driver:

A major contributor has been an increase in mortality from specific causes (e.g., drug overdoses, suicides, organ system diseases) among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups, with an onset as early as the 1990s and with the largest relative increases occurring in the Ohio Valley and New England.

The opioid crisis apparently has a lot to do with this, as do the globalization-driven factory closures in the Midwest and New England. Economic changes are literally killing us.

But again, think about this from ground level. Under-employed factory workers don’t read a lot of economic analysis. They just know they can’t pay the bills, they’re in physical pain from a life of hard labor, and no one in power seems to care. Many go on disability, which is not even close to minimum wage, and massively discouraging for somebody who wants to work. For some it leads to depression and, tragically, overdoses or suicide. And it’s common enough to bend the curve in national life expectancy stats that had been rising for decades.

Worse, it’s not like we are powerless to treat these conditions. Medical science knows what to do, and does it pretty well for those with the means to pay. For Americans, that means people who (a) are over 65 and on Medicare, or (b) are poor enough to get Medicaid, or (c) get health insurance through their employers.

Everyone else, like self-employed people or “gig” workers? Not so much. Here’s a tweet from my friend Luke Gromen.

Source: Luke Gromen

Those prices are pretty typical if you’re trying to buy insurance on the Obamacare exchanges and you’re middle-aged and not subsidy-eligible.

For illustration, let’s apply Luke’s prices to a hypothetical self-employed person making $100,000 a year. The $1,286/month premiums add up to $15,432 annually. But you get no benefits (except a basic wellness exam) until you’ve spent another $12,500. That totals $27,932, or 27.9% of your gross income that will go to healthcare if anyone in your family gets even a minor illness. A lot of angst.

Let’s take that a little further. This self-employed person is paying $12,000+ in Social Security plus another $3,000 in Medicare, plus federal income tax, in addition to state and local taxes. Which means that if someone in that hypothetical family gets sick, the family has to figure out how to make all of their payments on maybe as little as $45,000 net, after taxes and healthcare.

And in that scenario, then what? Spending that much of your income on healthcare means something else must go. Or, it will turn into medical debt and possible bankruptcy, even if you have insurance.

The irony is that much of the country thinks you are rolling in cash, and might be inclined to vote for someone who would raise your taxes.

Source: DQYDJ

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The angst isn’t just severe, it is creeping up the income ladder. Double that example worker’s income to $200,000 and they’re still spending 7.7% of it on insurance premiums and potentially another 6.3% to meet the deductible.

Imagine the outcry if we imposed extra income taxes at those rates. That’s effectively what is happening. Remember the “yellow vest” protests in France? They were about a new gasoline tax. Small potatoes really. But at the risk of a really bad pun, it just threw gasoline onto a stretched- too-thin public fire. At some point we may see the same kind of unrest here, and healthcare costs could easily trigger it.

Yes, yes, I know, the US has the best healthcare in the world. That’s debatable, given these latest mortality numbers, but we certainly have the most expensive healthcare.

Source: Forbes

(By the way, this cost difference is roughly the same if you look at it in percent-of-GDP terms. OECD has the data here.)

How do we spend so much and still have people dying from despair? That’s another topic. My point today is that the way we distribute that spending is having seriously negative economic effects. We can and should debate reform ideas, but this can’t go on indefinitely.


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Radical Solutions

Healthcare is just one source of angst. Here’s another look at inflation which, according to the Fed, is not high enough.

Source: Lisa Abramowicz

The education part deserves some comment. The narrative goes that today’s young people need more education because work is so much more complicated now. So, we push them to attend college. Higher demand and slow-growing supply raise the cost of college, so they (and/or their families) go into debt to pay for it.

Does it pay off? Sometimes, but far from always. The chart below breaks down the change in college graduate wages since 2000 by percentile. In most cases, after that 2% average inflation the Fed thinks is too low, real wages actually dropped over this period. And note this only looks at those who actually earn degrees. Millions drop out before getting that far (but not before racking up debt).

Source: Economic Policy Institute

So not only is college more expensive, the economic benefit you get from it may well be negative. This is inflation on steroids.

Let’s think about that for a moment. You graduated in 2000 at age 22, got married, had kids, and right about now you’re facing college costs. What’s happened to the price of college? Up over 130% in 20 years. A tad more than 2% inflation.

Look, this isn’t complicated for most people. They need housing somewhere in proximity to their jobs. They want their kids to be safe and have opportunities. And they need to take care of their health. None of those are optional and their costs have risen far more than overall inflation.

To be clear, I’m not predicting higher CPI/PCE inflation, even if the Fed gets more dovish. Its present course will more likely produce more of the same: an asset bubble, lower prices for certain goods, and stable/rising prices for others. It won’t solve the problems regular people face.

And in fairness, the Fed is not alone in thinking inflation is no problem.

Source: Donald J. Trump

Trump is correct if he means the broad inflation measures like CPI though, as we have seen, even 2% is not “almost no inflation” over long periods. He’s seriously wrong about the things middle-class Americans—including the millions who voted for him—must buy just to keep their heads above water. Those goods are expensive and getting more so.

What we really need are policies that make middle class life affordable again. Lower interest rates won’t likely do that. Not when, as my friend Peter Boockvar reported last week, the average price of a new car is $34,000 and median household income is $64,000, and it’s that high only because millions need those cars to commute to underpaid jobs far, far away from the distant suburbs where they can afford to live.

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In my normal peripatetic research mode, I found a fascinating Time article by Emily Guendelsberger, who wrote a book called On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane. She describes her experiences working in warehouses, call centers, and fast food. I have family members who have worked at the places she names and their stories match. Conditions are more than a little stressful.  

I wasn’t prepared for how exhausting working at Amazon would be. It took my body two weeks to adjust to the agony of walking 15 miles a day and doing hundreds of squats. But as the physical stress got more manageable, the mental stress of being held to the productivity standards of a robot became an even bigger problem.

Technology has enabled employers to enforce a work pace with no room for inefficiency, squeezing every ounce of downtime out of workers’ days. The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital manager. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed. After I completed a task, the scan gun not only immediately gave me a new one but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do it.

It also alerted a manager if I had too many minutes of “Time Off Task.” At my warehouse, you were expected to be off task for only 18 minutes per shift—mine was 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.—which included using the bathroom, getting a drink of water or just walking slower than the algorithm dictated, though we did have a 30-minute unpaid lunch. It created a constant buzz of low-grade panic, and the isolation and monotony of the work left me feeling as if I were losing my mind. Imagine experiencing that month after month.

Vice is starting a series on what it’s like to work at low-paying jobs. The first installment from a young lady describing her experience working at McDonald’s for $9.30 an hour is deeply troubling. You can’t read it and not be emotionally moved.

It’s All Relative…

I mentioned above that even though the poverty level in the US is well above international average incomes, people compare their situation to what they see. My friend Philippa Dunne at The Liscio Report showed two charts demonstrating older generations (read Boomers) are doing much better than Gen-Xers and especially Millennials.

Source: The Liscio Report

Source: The Liscio Report

I understand the economic theories that GDP growth will eventually spread widely enough to ease the angst. But I am not sure we can wait that long. People are hurting now and they are increasingly willing to embrace radical solutions. “Just wait for better times” is not cutting it as technology eats into higher-paying jobs and aggravates the stress of lower-income jobs.

That’s doubly true if the economy weakens. Some of the data improved a bit in recent weeks. The November jobs report showed much stronger growth than we’ve seen in a while. That’s good to see and suggests we might postpone recession past 2020. But merely avoiding recession isn’t enough. Another year of sub-2% growth (which is my base case) will be another year of suffering for the millions whom this weak recovery hasn’t helped.

And it’s not clear that we can avoid a recession. One-third of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal think we will see a recession next year and almost 2/3s see a recession by 2021.

Source: John Mauldin

Danielle DiMartino Booth, whose Daily Feather is a must-read for me, showed this yesterday:

Source: Quill Intelligence

Danielle explains the above chart:

Non-manufacturing hours worked have slowed appreciably with growth falling below 2% in the seven months ended October; the ADP report confirmed the weakness in hours worked and exhibited broad-based job declines and slowing across the full spectrum of sectors.

Trade deal headlines and Fed liquidity continue to dictate market trading; the widening breadth of economic weakness suggests fundamentals will eventually prevail though it will take a weak nonfarm payrolls print to truly get the market’s attention.

Angst-Ridden Voters

No one should be surprised the lower 80% of the income pyramid is anxious and depressed. You would be, too, in their situation. And there’s a good chance you will be in their situation in a few years, because angst-ridden people can still vote. Economic theories aren’t relevant to them. They look at their own situations and want change.

History suggests that President Trump should win reelection unless recession strikes by next November. But even if we avoid a recession in 2020, what happens if there is one in 2021 or 2022? Democrats could gain power by 2024, if not sooner.

The already-growing annual budget deficit will soar to over $2 trillion. How do we finance that without creating more angst? I can easily imagine a populist Democrat winning the White House, followed by higher taxes and an echo recession. Then even higher deficits and the national debt spinning out of control. The Fed will give us massive quantitative easing and zero rates, but they may be in fact pushing on a string…

We don’t have much time to get our house in order, either in the US or globally. Everything I’ve said today applies, to various degrees, throughout the developed world. Thinking that 2% inflation or zero interest rates coupled with massive deficits will somehow help is beyond wishful thinking.

We can and should take steps to protect our individual families and lives, but that’s not enough. At the national level,  I’m beginning to fear only an enormously stressful Great Reset will deliver the deep but necessary sacrifices. The partisan divide inhibits compromise, so nothing happens and the problems grow.

Think about the late 1930s… Hopefully with just economic turmoil, not kinetic war. It will be hard but without the kind of motivation, I really question whether we will do what it takes.


Normally I end these letters talking about my travels and some personal story, but this one has me in a far too reflective mood. So I will just hit the send button and wish you a good week.

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Ron Miller 15345216
Dec. 13, 2019, 5:02 p.m.

The figures comparing US health-care costs can be pretty misleading. One reason that costs are lower in most other countries is because their national systems are quite good at one thing we generally don’t see in the United States—denial. If you deny 40% of the requests for health care, you can instantly decrease the total health care expenditures by 40%. Studies show that when costs are compared on a per-case basis rather than total national expenditures, the US costs are pretty close to European costs. Combine that with with the obesity epidemic, opioid crisis, and suicide differences, and you can explain much of the discrepancy in life expectancy. It’s a little known fact that stilllbirths, for example, are not included in European life expectancy calculations but count as death on day 1 in the U.S. Much of this is apples-to-oranges statistics that are being illegitimately weaponized by certain interest groups in America.

I’d suggest revisiting this topic after some research into the methods used to compare. The importance of doing that cannot be overemphasized because progressive elements of the radical left use bogus statistics like the ones in this edition of “Thoughts” to make voters believe the preposterous lie that health care can be delivered by the government at greatly reduced prices and that it will allow them to live longer. Money is being made by insurance companies in the U.S., but nothing on Earth is less efficient than the U.S. Government. If I was told I had to depend on the VA, with which I have personal experience, and that I’d have NO ALTERNATIVE, my age would force me to emigrate.
Dec. 10, 2019, 4:26 p.m.

The issue with education inflation especially college is a leftover from the Great Rescission. States cut education massively to balance their budgets, and have never replaced the funding. Colleges have been raising costs to cover the lack of funding from states. We are slowing getting back to semi-private education system in this country. Where only the wealthy will be able to afford college for their children. This is where Bernie comes in and announces free college for everyone. Warren says Medicare for all, which addresses the cost of health care in this country. I think you (me, everyone) needs to plan financially on either Bernie or Warren as president. I think not to do so is putting your head in the sand.

Stephen Zdechlik
Dec. 9, 2019, 4:04 p.m.

Fantastic letter John!  A few months ago I called an economist at the BLS and had a discussion with him about the hedonic adjustment.  I wanted to get inflation measurements before the hedonic adjustment; he said they didn’t exist.  I exclaimed that it could be easily computed and he said no it couldn’t because the adjustment was embedded in the price of things.  He also immediately stated that they did not have an agenda and all they wanted to do was accurately measure inflation.

This made me think he had been coached to handle my kind of telephone call.  I believe they don’t want to publish these numbers to deliberately hide the real inflation we all experience.  It reminds me of lack of transparency in medical procedure pricing.  I asked him if they did a hedonic adjustment for airline fares(where the quality has gone down & the adjusted price would go up).  He said no they didn’t do hedonic adjustments on airline fares.  I quickly responded…you guys pick & choose what to adjust; that’s the problem.  Dead silence after my comment!  How many good & services that we purchase have gone up in quality versus down in quality?

If Joe six pack gets raises that match the official CPI then what we are saying is he is not entitled to participate in technological and other improvements;  and that’s further aggravated by the BLS picking and choosing what gets a hedonic adjustment.  What amazes me is the general public doesn’t seem to be mad as h… about this.  It’s kind of like the proverbial frog in the pot of water that slowly increases in temperature; doesn’t jump out and finally dies.

John do you know anyone who could apply pressure to get disclosure of the pre-hedonic CPI numbers(Danielle DiMartino Booth)?  The Fed uses the even typically lower PCE number…what other kind of manipulation goes into that statistic?
Dec. 9, 2019, 1:04 p.m.

Sword of Damocles

Thank you another excellent newsletter. If I could make a few suggestions

1. It should have been titled “Sword of Damocles”. That is what it must mean to live in the US without health insurance or with health insurance and a large deductible. In both cases you can’t afford to get sick.

2. Sanjay Gupta has an excellent HBO documentary called “One Nation Under Stress”. He talks to a lot of people suffering from the things in your article.

3. I was surprised you did not look into any of the reasons why healthcare is so expensive in the US compared to the rest of the world. Some very powerful groups make a lot of money off healthcare and they want their gravy train to stay.

4. The parable of the broken window was introduced by French economist Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas” to illustrate why destruction, and the money spent to recover from destruction, is not actually a net benefit to society. I believe healthcare spending falls into the same category. Spending $30k on a new hip is not like spending $30k on converting your basement into a BnB rental. The US is now spending 20% of GDP just to stay in the same place. That is almost twice as much as any other country.

5. The No 1 source of new jobs in the US over the last 10 years has been Healthcare. At some point US Healthcare system will revert to the mean. In theory this would mean 50% of the healthcare jobs would disappear. This would be welcome news for the 80% who have to support the 20%.

6.The next US election should be fought on healthcare. Sadly no-one knows what to do or how to communicate an approach to the American people. Finland would be a good place to start.
Dec. 8, 2019, 11:58 a.m.

Is it any wonder that the fastest rising costs, education and healthcare, also suffer the most government regulation.  Add the steep curve of defense expenditures, and it’s a godawful mess.  We need more “free” in the free market, and less experts trying to fix it.
Dec. 8, 2019, 6:27 a.m.

Note in the chart that all the lines above “Average Hourly Income” are for things that the Federal Government has been emphasizing:  heath care, college and other education.  I am wondering what index was used for housing costs, since the prices for real estate ownership would also have been included.

The problem seems to be that the Federal Government knows how to send money, but does not know how to assure that the money gets value commensurate with the money spent.

Note that many of the things we buy from day to day show up with price changes well below the rate of increase in earnings.  Much of the economy seems to work the way testbooks say it should.

So I would say that the problem is not that the government does not spend enough, but that it has not developed a method of assuring that the money it sends is spent effectively.
Dec. 7, 2019, 9:49 p.m.

Dear John,
clearly limiting the decline in the US life expectancy to unhealthy eating and zero exercise was wrong. I exaggerated. Other factor especially the opioid crisis do play a major role. However, the JAMA article also says:
“Two recent studies estimated that drug overdoses accounted for 15% or less of the gap in life expectancy between the United States and other high-income countries in 2013 and 2014, respectively.” and
“Compared with the average mortality rates of 16 other high-income countries, the United States has lower mortality from cancer and cerebrovascular diseases but higher mortality rates from most other major causes of death, including circulatory disorders (eg, ischemic heart and hypertensive diseases), external causes (eg, drug overdoses, suicide, homicide), diabetes, infectious diseases, pregnancy and childbirth, congenital malformations, mental and behavioral disorders, and diseases of the respiratory, nervous, genitourinary, and musculoskeletal systems.”  and
“As long ago as 2005, the increasing prevalence of obesity prompted Olshansky et al93 to predict a forthcoming decrease in US life expectancy. By 2011, Preston et al94 estimated that increases in obesity had reduced life expectancy at age 40 years by 0.9 years. Elo et al33 noted that changes in obesity prevalence had the largest correlation with geographic variations in life expectancy of any variable they examined.
However, neither smoking nor obesity can fully explain current mortality patterns, such as those among younger adults and increasing mortality from conditions without known causal links to these risk factors.” and
“Moving from speculation to evidence about root causes will require innovative research methods, including cohort studies, multivariate modeling, investigation of migration effects, and the application of machine learning to historical data sets.”
With regards,
Detlef Schmitt

Richard Hodges
Dec. 7, 2019, 3:41 p.m.

I have been hearing for 20 years that there is no inflation in new cars.  A fact illustrated by your first chart.  However, I checked the current price of a new chevy pick up matching the one I bought in 2003 and the price is 49% higher now (2.5%/yr). I would like to have that explained.  If other categories are similarly biased, we are in much worse shape than indicated.

Thanks for your great letters.
Rick Hodges
Dec. 7, 2019, 3:12 p.m.

John, you talked around a couple of important and fundamental points.  First, if you don’t finish high school, or have a criminal record, or use drugs, you have self selected to forever be at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  I have no sympathy for this large group of people.  Second, with the push to send everyone to college, those of below average intellect, even if they graduate, will quickly be evaluated for their real ability in the job market.  We do these people a tremendous disservice by encouraging them to attend college.  We also do little or nothing to inform college students about the career prospects for their degrees.  Too many graduate with pretty useless degrees.  College can make you better educated; not smarter.
Dec. 7, 2019, 2:33 p.m.

John, I spent my career as an observer of this.  After getting my MBA and short stints in corporate America then teaching, I spent my career as a builder.  My employees and sub-contractors are those who have been losers in the economy since the 1970’s. 

Try suggesting to white collar workers that we change the 501B visa program to something that matches the reality of blue collar workers.  Tell them we should offer every person, worldwide work visa’s if they have a college education.  More than that though, we will offer them free medical care, free food, free housing, free education for their kids…..When I propose this to my white collar friends their response is quite emotional, they go ballistic.

White collar workers, those who have benefited greatly from the income gap, are well aware that they make more because of the restrictions on educated workers getting visas while at the same time paying less for houses, food, nannies, gardeners and more because of the legal and illegal immigration programs. Those programs exist, not because high-earners generally care about those at the bottom, they don’t.  Those programs exist because it allows those with higher incomes to further benefit by walking on those at the bottom.

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