This month, inflation reached its highest rate since 1991—5.4%. As consumers, we definitely feel it at the grocery store, with meat prices up some 12%, and at the gas pump, where fuel prices are up 42% over last year.
The White House is worried: Inflation is an administration killer. This is how presidents find themselves in single terms. We saw it in the 1970s with Presidents Ford and Carter and the inflation-spiked recession of the early 1990s did President George H.W. Bush no favors.
President Biden sees a shortage of goods and container ships piling up outside the Port of Los Angeles. So, last month he directed that the nation’s largest container port begin 24-hour round-the-clock operations.
It’s unlikely that round-the-clock operations at the Port of Los Angeles alone will solve consumer goods shortages, much less stem inflation anytime soon, however. When the Port of Los Angeles ramps up to 24-hour operations, there may not be the ground logistics—drayage, warehousing and cross-country freight—to distribute it.
The adjacent port at Long Beach has been operating 24 hours a day for nearly a month; drayage freight (the trucks that haul from the piers to adjacent warehouses) is past capacity now, and containers are even being placed in residential neighborhoods because warehouses are full. And we have seen the new influx of trucks clogging I-40 eastbound as they struggle up Sedillo Hill.
This open-the-port Hail Mary play seems especially pointless given the overall state of the economy in 2021. We will continue to see consumer goods shortages due to lack of vaccines in Southeast Asia where many of these goods are being manufactured. We will continue to see high prices for food the remainder of this year due to severe weather, labor shortages, packaging shortages and transportation bottlenecks. This is only expected to ease 2-3% in 2022.
Then there’s fuel. It is a global truth that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. But we are by no means there yet. Oil is now over $80 a barrel—which should mean great things for the U.S. oil industry. But production may not ramp up fully until 2022 because the small producers hit by the pandemic and by the drilling license moratorium in the first part of this year won’t be able to start up as quickly as their larger counterparts. Gas will remain expensive. Which will make shipping and freight expensive. And so on and so on. Inflation is a bear.
It will be an expensive winter. Natural gas prices are expected to reach record highs worldwide, with Russia pulling the rug out from under much of Europe this week with the announcement that it will not increase natural gas deliveries there this winter. Inexplicably, the Biden administration decided to okay the Nordstar pipeline between Russia and Germany after killing Keystone XL.
This inflation feels a little different, though. People aren’t lining up at gas stations like they did in the 1970s. Purchasing power remains stable-ish because of cash infusions via government stimulus and increased personal savings during the pandemic. What is really different is the upheaval in the labor market which remains the single greatest variable threatening our economic recovery.
Here’s the most challenging labor statistic: The childcare industry has 10% fewer workers in 2021 than it did pre-pandemic. If you can’t get your kid in daycare, you can’t go back to work. Every industry is impacted by this. About a million Americans are childcare workers. We’ve got a shortfall of 100,000 employees. This problem isn’t going to be fixed overnight, or by a federal stimulus package.
The most obvious thing to do in a period of sustained inflation is to institute a contractionary monetary policy. Simply put, this means making less money available to slow purchasing demand. In the United States, this is achieved primarily through adjusting interest rates though the Federal Reserve.
In the 1970s the U.S. endured seven years of inflation beginning in 1973, when inflation leapt from 3.4% to 8.7% (the optimal inflation rate is around 2%). The Federal Reserve raised the federal funds rate—the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans—from 6% to 11%, and inflation dropped to 5.7%. The ensuing OPEC crisis pushed inflation still higher in 1974, requiring another rate hike to 13%.
But the Fed didn’t hold to this policy after 1974. The prevailing economic belief at the time of the OPEC crisis was that the U.S. was facing cost-push inflation, which is a phenomenon where prices increase due to increases in the cost of production; that is, higher costs for raw materials and wages. Higher costs of production can then result in a decrease in the total production, or aggregate supply in the nation, driving prices higher. (That might certainly sound like our current state in 2021.)
After interest rates hit a high of 13% in 1974, the Federal Reserve actually started cutting interest rates because it felt it necessary to offset the recession that was developing under stagflation (where jobs and production slow while inflation increases). Inflation was at 14% in 1979 when Fed Reserve chair Paul Volcker, influenced by economist Milton Friedman, finally implemented decisive constrictive monetary policy and set the Fed rate at 20%.
This move had two impacts. It sent the economy into a deep recession cycle while stopping excessive inflation; and it began a new era for the Federal Reserve. Inflation dropped to 3.8% by 1982, and stabilized for the rest of the decade, setting up the tremendous economic boom of the 1980s. The action also began a trend for the Federal Reserve to again function as a credible inflation fighter, which it has been able to do with relative success for the last four decades.
Friedman maintained that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” His theory certainly proved its validity in 1979 and was the prevalent wisdom for the rest of the century. Today, and for the last few years, Federal interest rates are close to zero, to the delight of Wall Street and the banking industry.
Now, with inflation over five percent, and the world still emerging from an economic shock—the pandemic—the Federal Reserve is hinting at a modest increase (a quarter point!) in 2022. That won’t be enough.
In an economy where the only “savings” programs are dependent on private investment funds, not interest-bearing bank accounts, and our economy has seen unprecedented growth over a seemingly endless money supply, will the Fed intervene to check inflation in a meaningful way in time by staunching the supply of money into the economy? Will the President urge such an action?
Inflation is an administration killer. The White House will have to move quickly to manage the national obsession with cheap debt and urge the Fed to make stronger moves if Biden/Harris are to stand a chance in 2024.