Tag Archive: inflation

Labor market improving but still shows plenty of slack

In the longer-run, a key measure of inflation pressure is the amount of labor market slack (unemployed or underemployed people), which heavily influences the ability of workers to demand higher wages.

The standard reported unemployment rate data (i.e., the U-3 measure in the US) is useful in measuring labor market slack, but has limitations due (in part) to its definitions of “unemployed” and the “labor force” in the calculation: “unemployed” people as a percentage of the “labor force”. That is, to be counted as “unemployed”, a working-age person must be considered actively looking for a job (when asked if they have sought employment in the last four weeks in the monthly household surveys done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS). If they are not currently seeking employment for any reason, they are “not in the labor force” and thus do not count in the standard unemployment rate, even if they consider themselves unemployed.

Another unemployment rate put out by the BLS, known as the U-6 measure, attempts to address this issue to some degree. The U-6 rate is much broader and includes anyone who has been looking for work within the previous 12 months but has been unable to find a job and has not looked for work in the past four weeks. It also includes anyone who has gone back to school, become disabled, and people who are underemployed or working part-time hours and want to work more. The first chart below plots the traditional U-3 rate and the broader U-6 rate since 1994. We can see that they typically follow a very similar pattern, but by construction the U-6 rate is always higher, and likely a more accurate description of slack in the labor market. What is more notable right now is that even after a dramatic recovery in employment from spring of last year (supported by historically large fiscal and monetary stimulus), the current U-6 unemployment rate of 10.7% is still higher than the worst reading of the 2001-02 recession, and far from the December 2019 low of 6.8%. By comparison, the current U-3 rate of 6.0% is likely understated (too optimistic) relative to the pre-COVID (Feb 2020) low of 3.5% due to measurement issues.

However, these metrics still rely on classifying people into various employment categories with somewhat arbitrary conditions.  An even broader and simpler measure of unemployment can help address these issues, and may be a better overall metric of labor market slack: the employment/population ratio (often abbreviated as “EPOP”) among “prime age” people aged 25-54 is simply the proportion of all persons in that age range who are employed, regardless of whether they are actively seeking a job.

The second chart below shows the total EPOP ratio over the last 50 years in the top section, and the bottom section shows the breakdown between male and female EPOP readings. Even after a sharp rebound from last year’s extreme lows and a very strong employment report last week, the overall reading of 76.8% is still far from the recent “full employment” levels in the 80-82% range in recent decades. Note that the true level of “full employment” is unknown and possibly higher than previous peaks in this ratio. This pattern can be seen in the data for both men and women, with men having a downward drift in EPOP over time while women joined the workforce up until about 2000 and have then remained in a range about 10 percentage points below that of men.

Because we are looking at people in the 25-54 age range, when adults are typically working, retirement and schooling should not have much impact on the ratios (as may be the case in the whole adult population). With a population of about 126 million in this age range in the US, the 4% difference in EPOP from current (76.8%) to previous peak levels (~80-81%) suggests five million or more people who are still unemployed potential prime-age workers. The average monthly gain in employment in this age group in 2016-2019 was about 86K/month, so even at an average of 100K jobs per month on a sustained basis it would take roughly four years to return to the previous peak. Further stimulus and a decisive suppression of COVID could accelerate that pace, but there is likely to be slack in the overall labor market for some time. This, in turn, suggests that labor cost-driven inflation is unlikely to accelerate on a sustained basis, beyond the short-term impacts from supply chain disruptions and re-opening.

Inflation is steady on the surface, volatile underneath

Inflation expectations have been a topic of growing interest thanks to the extraordinary fiscal and monetary support in place for much of the last year, most recently the huge $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that is currently sending checks out to millions of Americans.

All of this new spending by the federal government, along with the economic recovery permitted by the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, is provoking more discussion about whether demand for goods and services will outpace the economy’s ability to produce them and push prices higher.

While we have previously discussed why we do not think inflation will be a major problem in the next few years, investors in the Treasury market appear to have raised their forecasts for future inflation, at least in the near-term. This is reflected in the “breakeven rate”, which is the difference between the yield on nominal Treasury bonds and that of the corresponding TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Security) bond. TIPS provide a “real” interest rate (currently negative) plus whatever the rate of inflation is over the bond’s duration. The difference between nominal and TIPS yields indicates the level of inflation that would produce the same return to holding either type of bond after accounting for inflation.

The chart below shows the breakeven rates for five-year and 10-year maturities, and we see that the five-year inflation expectations in particular have risen sharply recently, now back to levels around 2.5% seen after the last two recessions. The 10-year breakeven rate has risen less, as investors appear to expect a temporary jump in inflation that will subsequently ease. Both figures are roughly in line with the Fed’s stated inflation target, and thus are unlikely to provoke a tightening response at this point.

Breakevens 5yr 10yr_032521

Source: Mill Street Research, Bloomberg

Reported inflation, as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) Price Index (the Fed’s preferred measure), has remained low thus far. Year-on-year comparisons will soon be skewed by the price drops around this time last year when the economy buckled under the weight of COVID and the associated limits on activity. Overall, however, there are thus far few signs of significant overall inflation in the reported data.

When we look under the surface of the inflation data, however, we find that there are a lot of significant changes going on among the various components, which are thus far mostly offsetting each other. This is not unusual around recessions, and certainly consistent with the extreme and unusual kind of shock that COVID-19 has caused in the economy.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco publishes metrics that capture the dispersion and amount of underlying change in the inflation rates of the various categories of goods and services measured in the PCE data. The charts below show the increased levels of “rotation” under the surface of the muted headline PCE inflation measures.

The first chart below shows the last 15 years of data on the PCE headline (total, dark blue line) and core (excluding food and energy, red line) inflation rates along with measures of the dispersion among the 100+ granular subcomponents of the PCE inflation data. It shows the inflation rate for the 90th and 10th percentile subcomponents of the PCE price index and below that the spread between the 90th and 10th percentiles as a measure of the cross-sectional dispersion or variation of inflation rates among products at any given time. We can see that dispersion in inflation rates among the categories of PCE components has widened significantly recently to 6-7%, up from readings closer to 4% for much of the last several years.

Also notable is the fact that even the subcomponents with the highest inflation rates (the 90th percentile, purple line) have price gains of only about 4%, marking a fairly modest upper bound on inflation pressures so far.

PCE Inflation and DispersionSource: Mill Street Research, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

With some prices falling substantially, the current inflation spread (90th vs 10th percentile) is among the widest in the last decade, and it quantifies and corroborates the intuition that the supply and demand impacts of the COVID-driven recession and recovery have led to more divergent outcomes for different industries (some hurt badly, some benefiting strongly). The inflation spread widened even more dramatically around 2008, driven by enormous volatility at that time in energy prices in particular, and there was less direct fiscal stimulus support in that recession than the current one.  This analysis helps make the point that the gap between winners and losers seen in the stock market has a fundamental driver visible in the inflation data.

The final chart below plots another way of looking at the underlying divergences beneath the surface of the headline inflation data. The same San Francisco Fed data set also calculates the percentage of PCE price index subcomponents that have had large changes in their 12-month inflation rates relative to their previous five-year averages (“large” meaning two standard deviations from the five year average). Industries that have seen their inflation rates lurch upward would be captured in the blue line, showing the percentage of all PCE components with large upward movements in inflation, while those facing big downward changes would be captured in the red line.

Proportion of Big Changes in PricesSource: Mill Street Research, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

The grey line below plots the sum of the two series to provide a measure of how many industries have seen major shifts in their respective inflation trends. Here we see that 25-30% of industries have recently had major shifts (up or down) in pricing power relative to their longer-term trends, much higher than the usual 5-15% readings for most of the last decade.

We also see that current readings are at similar levels to those seen around the 2008 recession, though with a slightly different pattern: in 2008, there was initially a spike in price increases, then a spike in price decreases, while this year has seen concurrent but less extreme spikes in both series as demand and supply had to simultaneously adapt to COVID’s impact on activity.

The implication is that some industries that may have had weak pricing power pre-COVID now have stronger price trends, while others that had higher industry-level inflation are now under more pricing pressure. While there are always a few such industries at any given time, there are many more right now.

These data help provide some further fundamental corroboration for the rotation in stock market industry trends and wide gaps between winners and losers, even in an environment of continued low headline inflation rates.

Bond market making some noise

The bond market has clearly awoken from what appeared to be a low-volatility Fed-induced slumber for much of last year. Longer-term bond yields in the US and elsewhere have jumped to their highest levels since just before the COVID crisis hit markets early last year (blue line in first chart below). Even after this rise, though, the 10-year Treasury yield remains below even the low points of previous cycles.

Short-term rates (0 to 2 year), meanwhile, have remained anchored near zero due to the Fed’s continued indications that any policy rate hikes are still at least two years away.

US Treasury Yields

There are two main components to Treasury yields (which do not have default risk): real yields (yield after subtracting expected inflation) and inflation expectations. The first component to move was inflation expectations (first chart below), and more recently real yields (second chart below) have also risen notably. However, real yields remain solidly negative and much lower than they were before COVID-19 hit last year.

Breakevens 5yr 10yr

Treasury 10-yr Real Yield

What have been the drivers of the recent move higher in long-term bond yields?

Some of the most prominent reasons include:

  • Additional fiscal stimulus is expected soon, which will potentially boost inflation and growth, and also require the issuance of a large amount of new Treasury bonds.
  • The economy’s recovery from COVID-related weakness is continuing thanks to ongoing vaccinations, which will combine with stimulus to push growth much higher than average this year.
  • Sharply higher prices for oil and other key commodities (copper, lumber, etc.) are raising concerns about inflation already in the pipeline, with further demand potentially driving prices even higher.
  • Selling or hedging activity by investors who trade leveraged positions in bonds, and/or own mortgage-backed securities that now appear riskier. Rising mortgage rates typically reduce pre-payments (due to less housing turnover) and refinancing of home mortgages, which increases the duration, and thus risk, of mortgage-backed bonds.

The jump in market-implied inflation expectations has been quite sharp, though something similar happened after the 2008 crisis period as well. The current inflation expectations reflected in 5-year and 10-year Treasuries (difference between nominal Treasury yields and inflation-protected TIPS yields) are now slightly above the Fed’s 2% inflation target. Indeed the 5-year implied inflation rate (breakeven rate) is at its highest level since 2013, and the 10-year rate touched its highest since 2014. Investors now appear to expect a rebound in inflation, which is likely not considered a problem by the Fed (given their stated inflation goals) as long as expectations do not become excessive. However, the Fed’s own buying of TIPS in the past year may itself have skewed the interpretation of “market expectations”: the Fed now owns well over 20% of the entire TIPS market, potentially influencing their prices (yields) more than usual.

For stock prices, a moderate amount of inflation is not necessarily a bad thing for corporate earnings, as long as it does not provoke Fed tightening. Since equities (via corporate profits) are partly hedged against inflation, real yields are often viewed as the more important rate. Thus the recent rebound in real bond yields has raised concerns about equities losing the tailwind they have had from falling real yields for more than two years. It has also provoked a shift in investor interest from Growth stocks that are attractive when economic growth and inflation are low toward Value (and other riskier) stocks that tend to do better when economic activity and inflation are accelerating.

With short-term yields still pinned near zero by the Fed, the yield curve has steepened sharply recently. This is notionally good for Value-oriented banks and other “spread lenders” (who borrow at short-term rates and lend at long-term rates), though many other factors can affect the profitability of lending, and higher rates can dampen loan demand.

And one of the biggest impacts of higher long-term yields is in fact on mortgage rates and thus the housing market. Housing has been an extremely hot area recently, as demand for single-family homes is very high and supply has been unusually low. The average 30-year mortgage rate recently hit an all-time low of about 2.8% but has now jumped back up to 3.14% in just the last two weeks (and will likely rise somewhat further near-term). While this is still very low by historical standards and may not hamper housing too much, at the margin it may cool demand, and any further increases would put additional pressure on housing demand.

Overall, a moderate rise in long-term yields with well-anchored short-term rates is not necessarily a major cause for concern for stocks, or the economy, in general. It does however mean potentially more rotation among sectors and styles within equities. It will also bring up concerns about whether or when the Fed will decide to alter its current policy trajectory in response, as too much of a rise in yields could cause economic dislocations that the Fed would prefer to avoid.

Inflation likely to remain moderate even with more fiscal support

The news of Joe Biden winning the US presidency in November has now been joined by news that the US Senate will very likely be under the most narrow control of the Democratic party, along with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. These developments have led investors to expect more fiscal stimulus and other support than would have been expected under continued Republican control of the Executive branch and Senate.

One of the consensus views that has emerged is that the higher level of expected fiscal support along with the aggressive monetary support from the Federal Reserve (zero policy rates and ongoing bond buying programs, or QE) will provoke accelerating inflation. The view is amplified because the recent stimulus legislation, and expected future fiscal support, have included direct payments to individuals ($600 stimulus checks, possibly becoming larger in the future) along with resumption of enhanced federal unemployment benefits (though smaller than the initial CARES Act amounts), among other programs. The view is that these sorts of direct payments are more likely to be spent on consumer goods and services (to a greater degree than spending on things like health care, infrastructure, or defense), and thus that consumer prices will be forced up by the increased demand.

We are often asked about our view on inflation, particularly in light of these unusual policy conditions. So what is our take? We think the supply side of the equation needs to be considered along with the demand-oriented arguments. Our view is that the economy has a lot of slack still left in it, and thus has capacity to meet increased demand without broad-scale acceleration in inflation. We certainly expect an increase in demand due to the stimulus relative to what it would have been otherwise, but do not expect it to be so extreme that it will push the economy past its potential output limits and produce substantial sustained inflation as a result. This does not mean relative prices will not change, as indeed they already have, but there will continue to be offsetting impacts that keep the overall inflation rate from accelerating.

The chart below shows the historical and projected estimates from the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) of the “output gap”, or difference between actual real economic output and the estimated potential output the economy could produce without causing accelerating inflation. The grey shaded area indicates forecasted future data from the CBO. At the end of 2020, the economy is operating more than 6% below its estimated capacity, and even after a sharp rebound that is expected in 2021, the economy is still expected to be more than 3% below its potential at the end of this year. The CBO’s projections do not anticipate that the economy will exceed its capacity over the 10-year forecasting horizon (i.e., until 2030 at least). All such long-run forecasts should be viewed with skepticism, but the broad message makes sense given the long-run secular trends in the economy and the lasting damage caused by COVID-19. The inflation data shown in the lower section (using the Fed’s preferred measure of the Personal Consumption Expenditures core price index, i.e., excluding food and energy) corroborate our view that accelerating inflation is very unlikely when the economy is operating below its potential, as has been the case for most of the last 40 years.

Output Gap and Core Inflation

To better understand some of the key drivers of the output gap that argue that there is plenty of spare capacity in the economy, we can review the chart below. It shows the unemployment rate as a measure of labor capacity and the capacity utilization rate as a measure of manufacturing capacity. The unemployment rate remains above the long-run average (dashed line), and far from the low points near 4% where inflation (wage pressure) is more likely to become a concern. The reported (U-3) unemployment rate is also likely a conservative estimate of labor market slack, as it does not measure people who have given up seeking work but would do so under better conditions.

Unemployment and Capacity Utilization

The capacity utilization rate reported monthly by the Federal Reserve also shows a wide gap between the current reading (73%) and the historical average (80%), much less the historical peak levels that would be associated with accelerating inflation. Indeed, the fact that capacity utilization has shown lower peaks and lower troughs over the last three decades helps explain why consumer inflation has also been declining and low for much of that time. If demand can be met by current capacity, broad-based inflation is much less likely.

Long-term structural trends in demographics, debt, and productivity in the US and much of the developed world are generally disinflationary. So it would take an unusually large and persistent effort by fiscal policy makers to generate high inflation in this environment. Naturally, that could happen, but history and current politics suggest it is unlikely, and in our view any increase in consumer demand from additional stimulus can be readily met without broad-based inflation given the slack in the economy.