2014 could be year inflation makes comeback

Could 2014 be the year that the U.S. economy gets back to normal, with faster inflation as one consequence? That’s the argument that Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal made. Such predictions have been wrong before, but enough has changed during the past six years to make this a serious position.

The difference between this recovery and previous ones is that people no longer were willing, or able, to borrow as they once did. The effect was a steady contraction in the amount of debt owed by the household sector — until now. The latest Flow of Funds data show that American households increased their total borrowing for the first time since 2008. In theory, this could be attributed solely to the hedge funds and private-equity firms included in that category, but it’s more likely that the combination of rising asset values, an improving job market and relatively robust real wage growth has made regular people more confident about the future.

Why should a growing economy cause inflation to accelerate? Milton Friedman famously quipped that “inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon,” but this isn’t actually very useful for people who want to know why the prices of goods and services rise. After all, nobody knows just what exactly a “monetary phenomenon” is. Over the past six years, the Fed’s balance sheet has more than quadrupled. That sounds like a lot, but M2, which is the total value of checking and savings accounts, has only increased by about 50 percent. Broader measures of money have been little changed since 2008.

In a fascinating post for the CFA Institute, Matt Busigin argued that the capital stock and labor supply were much better predictors of future inflation than anything having to do with monetary policy. Domestic capital investment has been weak for years, in part because capacity was developed abroad. Even now, businesses are reluctant to invest in additional productive output when there are so few customers.

At the same time, we are now in a situation where, despite high unemployment, there may not be much spare capacity left in the labor market. That may sound strange (or even offensive) given the yawning “employment gap” found by researchers at the International Monetary Fund, but it’s possible. Suppose, for a moment, that most of the long-term unemployed and those who temporarily dropped out of the labor force never work again. This would be a tragic waste of millions of people’s talents and a damning failure of public policy, but it is plausible given what we know about employers’ tendency to discriminate against the jobless. Now consider that the number of people out of work for six months or less has fallen to levels associated with a booming economy.

If companies are only willing to hire people who are employed, they may soon have to compete with each other for workers. That means bidding up wages. The good news is that those with jobs may be about to enjoy years of real income gains as bargaining power shifts from capital to labor. The corollary is relatively faster consumer price inflation and lower corporate profit margins — unless the Fed decides to lean against the incipient economic recovery.

More in Herald Business Journal

Camano artist mixes flask, paintings for successful cocktail

Art flasks prove popular as bachelorette gifts, birthday presents and wedding favors.

Small retailers aim for emotional ties big chains may lack

“Put yourself into the community more and the money will come back to you.”

A look at what some stores have planned for Black Friday

With unemployment low, stores are hoping customers are in a mood to shop.

Boeing bolsters team for potential 797 with leading engineer

Terry Beezhold has been chief project engineer for the 777X program.

Uber paid off their hackers — they’re far from the only ones

“More and more companies have their own Bitcoin wallets for such cases.”

Airline defendants to pay $95 million in 9/11 settlement

The litigation claimed that security lapses led the planes to be hijacked in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Trump SoHo to shed ‘Trump’ amid reports of sagging business

The president’s company said it would have no comment beyond its news release announcing the move.

Uber reveals cover-up of hack affecting 57M riders, drivers

Uber acknowledges paying the hackers $100,000 to destroy the stolen information a year ago.

Mountlake Terrace-based 1st Security Bank wasn’t traded publicly during the recession, but it has seen a steady growth since the recession. (Jim Davis / HBJ)
How stocks in local banks fared since the recession

Every bank was hit hard during the recession, but most have bounced back in a big way.

Most Read