Back in 2010 a group of conservative academics, economists and money managers signed an open letter warning that the efforts of the Federal Reserve to support the economy would be dangerously inflationary. But the inflation never came. So four years later Bloomberg reached out to as many of the signatories as they could, to ask what happened.
Not one was willing to admit having been wrong.
I don’t want to be like those guys. So I’m currently spending a fair bit of time trying to understand why my relaxed view of inflation early last year has been refuted by events. What I want to do today is share where I am now on that topic, and what my current take says about future policy.
Last spring the debate was focused on the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration’s large spending package. A number of economists, including Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Jason Furman, warned that this package would overstimulate the economy — that output and employment would soar to levels that would create a lot of inflationary pressure.
Those of us on the other side argued that the risks of excess spending were much less than they warned — that large parts of the Biden package, like aid to state and local governments, would end up being disbursed gradually over time and therefore not have that much of an inflationary impact. To use the jargon, I argued that the A.R.P. would have a low “multiplier.”
So here’s the funny thing: The multiplier does indeed seem to have been low. The economy has expanded fast, but it started in a deep hole, and at this point is still if anything a bit below its prepandemic trend.
Here, for example, is real gross domestic product:
The Congressional Budget Office regularly publishes projections of “potential” G.D.P. — the level of output consistent with stable inflation. So far the official numbers through the third quarter of 2021, extended by private estimates of growth in the fourth quarter, still put us slightly below what we thought the economy’s potential was going to be.
Here’s another number, the employment rate of prime-age adults, which has generally been a good indicator of the state of the labor market (probably better than the unemployment rate):
We’ve seen a strong recovery in employment, but we’re still significantly below prepandemic levels.
The point is that if you had told me a year ago that this is what current output and employment numbers would be, I wouldn’t have predicted soaring inflation. To put it another way, my expectations of a relatively muted effect of government outlays on demand were more or less vindicated. But of course my expectations of moderate inflation weren’t. So what happened?
Part of the answer lies in supply-chain issues. Overall demand hasn’t grown all that fast, but fear of face-to-face interactions has skewed demand away from services toward goods, overstraining shipping and in some cases manufacturing capacity. These issues account for a lot of recent inflation, but in a way they don’t worry me too much: The private sector has huge incentives to get stuff moving, so sooner or later supply-chain issues will fade away.
However, it’s not just the supply chain; it’s obvious that we’re now experiencing widespread labor shortages even though employment is still below its prepandemic trend.
I mentioned that the employed percentage of prime age adults has generally been a good indicator of the state of the labor market. Another good indicator is the rate at which workers are quitting their jobs: Quits are high when people believe that new jobs are easy to find. Normally these two measures move in tandem; but something has changed.
Here’s a scatter plot of the prime-age employment rate against the quit rate since 2001; the blue dots represent the prepandemic era, the red dots the era since early 2020:
You can see the close relationship between the two measures before 2020. Since then, however, the relationship seems to have shifted, so that a labor market that seems only OK judging by the employment rate looks extremely tight judging by the number of people who are quitting. And wages are rising rapidly, which suggests that quits are telling the real story.
What we’re seeing, of course, is the Great Resignation — which is also, to an important extent, a Great Retirement. A recent blog post from the International Monetary Fund shows that there has been a surge in the number of older Americans (and Britons) choosing not to be in the labor force. (Memo to the IMF: That’s a rather unfortunate acronym you’ve chosen there.)
Now, a labor market in which jobs are easy to find and workers can bargain for higher wages is a good thing. But the fact that labor markets are so tight even though employment and real G.D.P. are below prepandemic projections suggests that we can’t rely on those projections to assess the economy’s productive capacity. For whatever reason or reasons — presumably reasons linked to Covid — the U.S. economy apparently can’t sustainably produce as much as we expected.
And that in turn tells us that it’s time for policymakers to pivot away from stimulus — in particular, that the Federal Reserve is right to be planning to raise interest rates in the months ahead. As I read the data, they don’t call for drastic action: the Fed should be taking its foot off the gas pedal, not slamming on the brakes. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, the moral is that Covid-19 means that we can’t assess where we are simply by comparing our situation to the prepandemic trend. That trend, at least, no longer appears to be our friend.
Long COVID fuelling brain health crisis disrupting workforce, economy – Financial Post
An estimated 10 to 30 per cent of COVID-19 survivors are currently experiencing a range of long COVID symptoms, which means that more than one million Canadians, or about five per cent of the Canadian labour force, could be affected.
Though long COVID affects the entire body, many of the most persistent symptoms are linked to brain health. These symptoms include headaches, “brain fog,” chronic fatigue, impaired memory or concentration, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Such symptoms directly limit a person’s ability to work or be productive at their former, pre-pandemic levels. That has implications for the economy. Knowledge-based economies rely on optimal “brain capital” for economic prosperity, and so without brain health, we compromise our wealth.
What’s more, long COVID is striking people in their prime working years. According to a survey conducted in May 2021 by Viral Neuro Exploration (VINEx), the COVID Long Haulers Support Group Canada and Neurological Health Charities Canada, nearly 60 per cent of the more than 1,000 long haulers polled are between the ages of 40 and 59. Their top symptoms include fatigue and “brain fog,” which have impacted their work. Nearly 70 per cent of long-haulers said they were forced to take a leave from their jobs and more than half had to reduce their hours. Over one quarter had to go on disability, but nearly 44 per cent were unable to access disability insurance.
Long COVID brain health symptoms have persisted, and so have its impacts. In a follow-up survey and report conducted this spring, more than 80 per cent of respondents said the virus has negatively or very negatively affected their brain health. More than 70 per cent had to take a leave from work, which in some cases stretched beyond a year. Still others had to leave the workforce altogether. Troublingly, more than 30 per cent of survey respondents felt they weren’t believed when initially describing their symptoms to a health-care professional.
Women appear to be bearing the brunt of long COVID symptoms; more than 87 per cent of the survey respondents identify as female. This is consistent with other studies showing women are disproportionately affected by as much as a four-to-one ratio to men, impacting women’s labour participation rate and further aggravating gender inequalities.
The brain health crisis in Canada isn’t new. Even before COVID-19, one in three people were estimated to have been directly impacted by a disease, disorder or injury of the brain, with indirect costs to families, the workplace, economy and society. But the pandemic, which led to shutdowns that caused social isolation and anxiety about an uncertain future, along with the virus itself and its lasting effects on long-haulers, only increased the prevalence of neurological and psychiatric disorders, putting additional stress on overall brain health.
We are now facing a global mental health crisis. In the United States, “an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the U.S. is in the grips of a full-blown mental health crisis,” according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll. President Joe Biden also announced a strategy to address national mental health issues as part of his first state of the union address. In Canada, the federal government created a cabinet position dedicated to mental health. The minister of mental health and addiction has a mandate to create a comprehensive, evidence-based plan “to address the crisis in mental health,” and establish a Canada Mental Health Transfer to help expand the delivery of mental health services, including for prevention and treatment.
These investments in mental health are to be lauded, as is the the greater awareness of long COVID. But they fall short of what is needed for people living with persistent COVID symptoms, mental health impacts from the pandemic, and for those whose brain health is otherwise not optimal.
Lost productivity and increased insurance payouts have resulted from this accelerated brain health crisis. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health estimates poor mental health costs the Canadian economy more than $50 billion annually, of which more than $6 billion is due to lost productivity. And according to the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association’s latest data, Canadian insurers paid out $420 million in psychology claims in 2020, a staggering 24 per cent increase from 2019.
Much of the discussion about the “new normal” at the workplace has focused on how we will work. But we need to pay more attention to ensuring people are able to fully participate in the labour market. We are already facing labour shortages thanks to a shift in demographics and as workers choose to retire earlier or leave the workforce because of the pandemic.
Long COVID: The invisible public health crisis fuelling labour shortages
Why the fight against COVID-19 won’t end with a high vaccination rate
Don’t let the two-dose summer fool you — there is a long battle ahead against COVID-19
There is a way forward: we need to treat the post-pandemic brain health crisis with the same urgency as the pandemic crisis. The development and deployment of vaccines bridged existing technology and research from basic to clinical trials; showed us the power and potential of global collaboration across disciplines, institutions, sectors, and countries; and brought together business and science leadership. We can apply these lessons to both research and care, beginning with long COVID. Governments and funders must move away from traditional silos, and think differently about how these may link to a bigger story about brain health. Here’s what that looks like:
- We need to continue the work to develop a concise definition of long COVID and develop a single test for diagnosing long COVID. This will allow us to better understand the size and impact of the problem;
- We need to bring attention to the stories of people with lived experience and counter the stigma being faced by those who are not believed because the illness is not well-defined and not always properly diagnosed. Beyond the mental health stress, this has an impact on the ability to access unemployment benefits and disability insurance;
- We need to establish more multidisciplinary care clinics to be able to treat the different dimensions of long COVID;
- We need to increase funding for multidisciplinary research and longitudinal studies, in order to advance our understanding of what causes long COVID, how to treat it, and the potential long-term impacts, which may include contributing to the development of neurodegenerative diseases in the future. This is not just up to governments. Businesses and the private sector have a role to play and a stake in funding such research; and
- Finally, from a workplace perspective, employers need to provide more flexibility and a gradual return to work for those ready to come back.
We cannot leave long-haulers behind and let long COVID mine the full potential of up to a million Canadians who may be in their prime working years. Brain health is our most precious asset; the health of our workplaces and of our labour force is a function of our brain health. Acting now to ensure it remains optimal will yield higher productivity, and a more dynamic, creative and resilient workforce.
— Inez Jabalpurwala is global director of VINEx.
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U.S. economy shrank by 1.5% in first-quarter but consumers kept spending – The Globe and Mail
The U.S. economy shrank in the first three months of the year even though consumers and businesses kept spending at a solid pace, the government reported Thursday in a slight downgrade of its previous estimate for the January-March quarter.
Last quarter’s drop in the U.S. gross domestic product – the broadest gauge of economic output – does not likely signal the start of a recession. The contraction was caused, in part, by a wider trade gap: The nation spent more on imports than other countries did on U.S. exports.
Also contributing to the weakness was a slower restocking of goods in stores and warehouses, which had built up their inventories in the previous quarter for the 2021 holiday shopping season.
Analysts say the economy has likely resumed growing in the current April-June quarter.
The Commerce Department estimated that the economy contracted at a 1.5% annual pace from January through March, a slight downward revision from its first estimate of 1.4%, which it issued last month. It was the first drop in GDP since the second quarter of 2020 – in the depths of the COVID-19 recession – and followed a robust 6.9% expansion in the final three months of 2021.
The nation remains stuck in the painful grip of high inflation, which has caused particularly severe hardships for lower-income households, many of them people of colour. Though many U.S. workers have been receiving sizable pay raises, their wages in most cases haven’t kept pace with inflation. In April, consumer prices jumped 8.3% from a year earlier, just below the fastest such rise in four decades, set one month earlier.
High inflation is also posing a political threat to President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress as midterm elections draw near. A poll this month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research found that Biden’s approval rating has reached the lowest point of his presidency – just 39% of adults approve of his performance – with inflation a frequently cited contributing factor.
Still, by most measures, the economy as a whole remains healthy, though likely weakening. Consumer spending – the heart of the economy – is still solid: It grew at a 3.1% annual pace from January through March.
And a strong job market is giving consumers the money and confidence to spend. Employers have added more than 400,000 jobs for 12 straight months, and the unemployment rate is near a half-century low. Businesses are advertising so many jobs that there are now roughly two openings, on average, for every unemployed American.
The economy is widely believed to have resumed its growth in the current quarter: In a survey released this month, 34 economists told the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that they expect GDP to grow at a 2.3% annual pace from April through June and 2.5% for all of 2022. Still, their forecast marked a sharp drop from the 4.2% growth estimate for the current quarter in the Philadelphia Fed’s previous survey in February.
Considerable uncertainties, though, are clouding the outlook for the U.S. and global economies. Russia’s war against Ukraine has disrupted trade in energy, grains and other commodities and driven fuel and food prices dramatically higher. China’s draconian COVID-19 crackdown has also slowed growth in the world’s second-biggest economy and worsened global supply chain bottlenecks. The Federal Reserve has begun aggressively raising interest rates to fight the fastest inflation the United States has suffered since the early 1980s.
The Fed is banking on its ability to engineer a so-called soft landing: Raising borrowing rates enough to slow growth and cool inflation without causing a recession. Many economists, though, are skeptical that the central bank can pull it off. More than half the economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics foresee at least a 25% probability that the U.S. economy will sink into recession within a year.
“While we still expect the Fed to steer the economy toward a soft landing, downside risks to the economy and the probability of a recession are increasing,” economists Lydia Boussour and Kathy Bostjancic of Oxford Economics cautioned Thursday in a research note.
“A more aggressive pace of Fed rate hikes, a tightening in financial conditions, the ongoing war in Ukraine and China’s zero-Covid strategy increase the risk of a hard landing in 2023,” they added.
In the meantime, higher borrowing rates appear to be slowing at least one crucial sector of the economy – the housing market. Last month, sales of both existing homes and new homes showed signs of faltering, worsened by sharply higher home prices and a shrunken supply of properties for sale.
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Fed officials signal rates may head to ‘restrictive’ levels to stabilize economy – PBS NewsHour
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve officials agreed when they met earlier this month that they might have to raise interest rates to levels that would weaken the economy as part of their drive to curb inflation, which has reached a four-decade high.
At the same time, many of the policymakers also agreed that after a rapid series of rate increases in the coming months, they could “assess the effects” of their rate hikes and, depending on the economy’s health, adjust their policies.
After their meeting this month, the policymakers raised their benchmark short-term rate by a half-point — double the usual hike. According to minutes from the May 3-4 meeting released Wednesday, most of the officials agreed that half-point hikes also “would likely be appropriate” at their next two meetings, in June and July. Chair Jerome Powell himself had indicated after this month’s meeting that half-point increases would be “on the table” at the next two meetings.
All the officials believed that the Fed should “expeditiously” raise its key rate to a level at which it neither stimulates or restrains growth, which officials have said is about 2.4 percent. Some policymakers have said they will likely reach that point by the end of this year.
The minutes suggest, though, that there may be a sharp debate among policymakers about how quickly to tighten credit after the June and July meetings. The economy has showed more signs of slowing, and stock markets have dropped sharply, since the Fed meeting.
Government reports have shown, for example, that sales of new and existing homes have slowed sharply since the Fed meetings, and there are signs that factory output is growing more slowly. Gennadiy Goldberg, senior rates strategist at TD Securities, suggested that the minutes released Wednesday might reflect a more “hawkish” Fed — that is, more focused on rate hikes to restrain inflation — than may actually be the case now.
Some officials, particularly Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, have indicated since this month’s meeting that the Fed could reconsider its pace of rate hikes in September.
At the meeting, Fed officials agreed to raise their benchmark rate to a range of 0.75 percent to 1 percent, their first increase of that size since 2000. The officials also announced that they would start to shrink their huge $9 trillion balance sheet, which has more than doubled since the pandemic.
The balance sheet swelled as the Fed steadily bought about $4.5 trillion in Treasury and mortgage bonds after the pandemic recession struck to try to hold down longer-term rates. On June 1, the Fed plans to let those securities start to mature, without replacing them. That should also heighten the cost of long-term borrowing.
Powell has said the Fed is determined to raise rates high enough to restrain inflation, leading many economists to expect the sharpest pace of rate hikes in three decades this year. Powell says the central bank is aiming for a “soft landing,” in which higher interest rates cool borrowing and spending enough to slow the economy and inflation. But most economists are skeptical that the Fed can achieve such a narrow outcome without causing an economic downturn.
Stock prices have plunged on fears that the Fed’s rate hikes will send the economy into recession. The S&P 500 has fallen for seven straight weeks, the longest such stretch since the aftermath of the dot-com bubble in 2001. The stock index nearly fell into bear-market territory last week — defined as a 20 percent drop from its peak — but rallied Wednesday.
The minutes also showed that some policymakers decided it was appropriate to consider selling some of its holdings of mortgage-backed securities, rather than simply letting them mature. Sales would make it easier for the Fed to transition to a portfolio composed mainly of Treasurys, the minutes said. The Fed did not mention any timing of such sales but said they would be “announced well in advance.”
The Fed has said that by September it would allow up to $30 billion of mortgage-backed securities to mature each month, along with $60 billion in Treasurys. Many analysts doubt that the cap will be reached for mortgage-backed bonds, because mortgage rates having jumped more than 2 percentage points since the start of the year. That means that fewer homeowners will refinance their mortgages because their current loan rates are lower than what is now available in the mortgage market.
Fewer refinancings would force the Fed to sell mortgage-backed securities to maintain its plans to reduce its balance sheet.
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