San Francisco earns windfall from driving up the cost of parking on holidays

Parking enforcement is one of the sneakier ways a local government can drive up to costs of living in a city without generating direct protest and sometimes without generating even much notice. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in the last fiscal year, the city of San Francisco raked in $1.5M in additional revenue – $660K from meters and $820K from parking fines – from removing Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Veterans Day as meter-free holidays. The change occurred July, 2009 and has produced eight holidays that are no longer meter-free.

While the city celebrates the extra money it makes, the citizens can only lament the extra inconvenience and hassle of remembering to pay meters on these holidays, not to mention the additional costs in parking. The disparity in fines versus collected fees likely demonstrates (or confirms for me) that parking rules are mainly about generating lucrative fines.

For more details see “Holiday parking enforcement: cash cow for the city

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Bullard recommends targeting monetary policy at headline, not core, inflation

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis just published an article written by James Bullard, a non-voting member of the Federal Reserve and President of the St. Louis Fed, called “Measuring Inflation: The Core Is Rotten.” It is based on a speech Bullard delivered two months ago to the Money Marketeers of New York University. It is a refreshing perspective on the use of core inflation for guiding monetary policy; it is also a bit surprising coming from someone on the Federal Reserve!

Bullard starts and ends with a critique familiar to those of us who insist food and energy prices should not be excluded from measures of inflation:

“One immediate benefit of dropping the emphasis on core inflation would be to reconnect the Federal Reserve with households and businesses who know price changes when they see them. With trips to the gas station and the grocery store being some of the most frequent shopping experiences for many Americans, it is hardly helpful for Fed credibility to appear to exclude all those prices from consideration in the formation of monetary policy…

…The headline measures of inflation were designed to be the best measures of inflation available. It is difficult to get around this fact with simple transformations of the price indexes. The Fed should respect the construction of the price indexes as they are and accept the policy problem it poses. To do otherwise may create the appearance of avoiding responsibility for inflation…”

(Compare and contrast this to Governor Frederic S. Mishkin’s insistence in 2007 that the Federal Reserve should care about headline inflation but focus on controlling core inflation in its public stance on monetary policy.)

I love the recognition that average consumers and businesspeople “know price changes when they see them.” This is Inflation Watch’s reporting philosophy and helps explain my emphasis on reporting the price changes of a broad range of products and services.

Bullard makes some key points to argue that headline inflation can and should be the focus of monetary policy. While I agree with his overall thesis, I do take issue with some of the points (my comments in bold):

  1. Monetary policy can be adjusted to accommodate the extra volatility in headline inflation by, for example, focusing on year-over-year changes.
  2. The relationship between core and headline inflation is unclear and even changes over time, making it more difficult to comprehend the optimal policy response. Me: This was an interesting point since the Federal Reserve’s statements usually imply the Federal Reserve tunes policy for core, not headline, inflation anyway. Currently, Ben Bernanke has all but absolved monetary policy of any impact on commodity prices.
  3. The Federal Reserve cannot directly influence supply and demand dynamics for any particular product in the inflation index, so it is not sufficient to ignore prices that are supposedly out of the Federal Reserve’s control. Me: I understand Bullard’s point, but I also think providing cheap money that traders can easily borrow to bid up the prices of goods and services is a strong and sufficient influence. The Federal Reserve definitely thinks it can directly influence housing demand and prices given its targeted efforts at lowering mortgage rates.
  4. When the price of one good goes up, another goes down as consumers adjust their demand to stay within their budgets. Increasing food and energy prices can thus force other prices down in the core index and further understate true inflation.

Bullard further notes that their is promising research into directing monetary policy at a specific subset of prices that households care most about, but it is too early to use.

Of particular interest to me was Bullard’s identification of a changing world where commodity prices will join the prices of medical care (and education) in outpacing the overall average inflation rate.

“…much of the contemporary worry about commodity prices is that relative price changes may be much more persistent going forward than they have been in the past…

…it is at least a reasonable hypothesis that global demand for energy will outstrip increased supply over the coming decades as the giant economies of Asia, particularly India and China, reach Western levels of real income per capita. If that scenario unfolds, then ignoring energy prices in a price index will systematically understate inflation for many years.”

(See “Preparing for Profits in a Resource-Constrained World” on implications for investing).

Given the limitations and blind spots of core inflation, Bullard makes a convincing case for directly targeting headline inflation with monetary policy. Otherwise, the Federal Reserve remains at risk for maintaining monetary policies that are too loose for too long.


A danger of inflation: The misallocation of resources on the way to sustained price increases (an explanation of the mission of Inflation Watch)

In January of this year, Professor Russ Roberts of George Mason University invited fellow economics professor Don Boudreaux to address “Monetary Misunderstandings” on the weekly podcast “EconTalk.” From the synopsis:

“Don Boudreaux of George Mason University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts on some of the common misunderstandings people have about prices, money, inflation and deflation. They discuss what is harmful about inflation and deflation, the importance of expectations and the implications for interest rates and financial institutions.”

I was most interested in the discussion about the definition of inflation because I understand the importance of maintaining technical and economic clarity on this topic for “Inflation Watch.”

Boudreaux first deferred to Milton Friedman’s famous empirical proclamation “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” and lamented that the economics profession no longer defines inflation as an increase in the money supply. Now, inflation represents a sustained increase in the average price level in the economy. Inflation is not simply any increase in price; Boudreaux complained that this definition is a common misconception of non-economists. However, he acknowledged that he personally thinks inflation’s largest threat is the process by which price increases become sustained. This process features uneven injections of money into the economy, causing specific and identifiable distortions in the economy that lead to a misallocation of resources. (Roberts somewhat disagreed as he expressed much greater fear of hyperinflation).

Bill Fleckenstein first taught me this notion that increases in the money supply distort specific areas of the economy. Such distortions can morph into bubbles, inflation’s ultimate misallocation of resource (capital). Bubbles can occur without ever tipping the economy into an inflationary cycle via official government statistics. So, it is very easy, for example, for the Federal Reserve to do nothing about soaring prices in an important sector of the economy and instead simply plan for the ultimate clean-up of the bubble’s aftermath. In recent history, the disastrous wakes of bubbles have forced the Federal Reserve to resort to easy money policies that invariably help fuel the next bubble. (Fleckenstein famously reviews this process and a lot more in “Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.”)

Through Inflation Watch, I identify news of price increases not because any one price hike defines inflation; as noted above, this approach is technically incorrect. Instead, these stories offer clues that potentially can uncover the misallocations of capital that flag inflationary forces may be developing. I am trying to piece together a mosaic of economic activity that may provide early indicators of inflation well ahead of the moment that government statistics show it or the moment the Federal Reserve officially announces an inflationary process is underway.

The general context is important. We are currently experiencing an extended period of easy money policies in most of the globe’s developed economies. Presumably, this money must go “somewhere” at some point in time. Financial markets are the perfect conduit for easy money; investors and speculators alike will flock to those parts of the economy that promise some protection against the devaluation of currency and/or profits from inflationary pressures. (Boudreax and Roberts never directly addressed the enabling influence of financial markets for transmitting inflationary pressures). I have argued in previous posts that the most favorable hosts for easy money are where demand is particularly robust and supply may be constrained or stressed. Today, commodities represent a perfect storm for global easy money policies. So, many of the recent stories in Inflation Watch have focused on commodities and industries dependent on consuming commodities.

The Federal Reserve’s current bias toward inflation shows because the Fed has demonstrated relatively quick action to thwart the perceived threat of deflation. The specter of the Great Depression always looms large. Recall that after the dot-com bubble burst, Greenspan cited the threat of deflation as a prime reason for aggressively loosening monetary policy. The crash of the housing bubble of course generated an even more aggressive policy of monetary easing given housing’s importance to the overall economy and consumer spending. The Federal Reserve’s recent success in averting deflation certainly adds confidence in applying easy money policies, much to the likely chagrin of devout deflationists. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve has also made it clear that it will not act against inflation until price increases (or the expectation of price increases) reach sustained levels over time.

For example, last week, Bloomberg quoted Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans in “Fed’s Evans Says ‘Slow Progress’ in Economy Justifies Maintaining Stimulus“:

“Inflation is a continuing increase in the price level over time: A one-off increase in the price level is not inflation…Price increases have to be sustained.”

I duly noted that at no time does someone from the Federal Reserve insist that deflation is a continuing decrease in the price level over time!

Evans goes on to express his comfort with the current levels of inflation by citing empirical research showing no correlation between higher oil prices and inflation. Even a casual examination of the current record of price increases demonstrates that oil’s price rise is just one small part of the general increase in prices percolating in the economy, especially where demand is strong and supply is compromised. Regardless, the conclusion of this research is intuitive given the numerous supply-related fluctuations in oil that have occurred with and without Fed monetary action. As we saw above, it is not likely that the increase in prices in any one part of the economy will produce the sustained increase in price levels required to signal inflation’s arrival. Without an increase in the money supply, increases in oil prices steal money from some other products in the consumer’s basket of goods. The net impact on official inflation statistics may be close to zero and “core” inflation, subtracting energy and food, could even decrease! But if increases in the money supply happen to coincide with a strengthening oil market, I contend we better look out.

The bias of the Federal Reserve toward inflation is also rooted in the concept that “a little inflation” is good for the economy because it encourages spending. Specifically, inflation encourages consumers to buy today to avoid paying higher costs tomorrow. In a deflationary environment, consumers just wait and wait and wait. Boudreaux and Roberts sharply criticize this theory and cite examples demonstrating the fallacy of such thinking. For example, with even a little inflation, why don’t sellers just wait until tomorrow to sell since they can make higher profits? Why do consumers buy computers and many other electronic goods knowing full well that prices will be lower tomorrow (not to mention these goods will be of higher quality)? Why was America’s post-Civil War economy so strong for almost 30 years despite persistent deflation? Clearly, buyers and sellers are motivated not just by relative prices, but also the relative value (or utility) gained from consumption and/or alternative investments.

I have covered the core concepts reviewed by Boudreaux and Roberts related to the philosophy and approach of “Inflation Watch.” If you want more detail, I highly recommend listening to the podcast, reviewing the transcript, and/or perusing some of the references provided by EconTalk. Hopefully, you have also gained a better understanding of Inflation Watch’s mission: “Watching for inflation here, there and everywhere.”


Fleckenstein declares deflation “dead”

I am two months late on this one.

In February, Bill Fleckenstein refuted the notion that inflation is a net positive in “No such thing as good inflation.” He starts by noting how higher prices in commodities are driving inflation expectations upward:

“As unprecedented amounts of liquidity from the Federal Reserve have worked their way through the financial system and into the real world, I believe inflation psychology has changed. People have seen larger price increases in commodities and are resigned to accept them, which will set the stage for additional rounds of price hikes.

Once that psychological shift becomes entrenched, it will be extremely hard to reverse, despite Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s stated certainty that he can keep prices under control…”

Fleckenstein goes on to insist that as long as the Federal Reserve is allowed to play free and loose with the dollar, deflation will not happen in America:

“I would like to officially declare the topic of deflation dead. As I have long maintained, we may actually experience deflation if the bond market rebels and takes the printing press away from the Fed. However, in the absence of that, it should be clear by now that deflation is not going to visit the shores of America.”

I made a related point back in October, 2008. Back then I thought we would see elevated inflation levels no later than 2010. Regardless, Fleckenstein provides to a great reminder that inflation is, and has always been, the threat once the Federal Reserve started throwing freshly printed bills at our economic calamities.


Shadow Government Statistics reports a 9.6% inflation rate using pre-1980 methods

CNBC provides a revealing summary of the latest newsletter from Shadow Government Statistics (SGS). According to SGS, inflation is running at a 9.6% clip using BLS methods in place before 1980 that did not use hedonic adjustments to try to account for the change in quality of products. Rolling back just 22 years gives a 5.5% inflation rate.

See “Inflation Actually Near 10% Using Older Measure” for more details.


Beware of bargain prices wrapped in smaller packages

The NY Times printed a mostly anecdotal article about companies hiding price increases in smaller packages in “Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Smaller Bags” (reprinted by CNBC). The article chronicles one shopper’s slow awakening to the shrinking packages all around her as she tries to stretch the family budget to keep the same food on the table. Examples of shrinking products include a can of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna, Doritos, Tostitos, Fritos, “fresh stack” packages of Nabisco Premium saltines and Honey Maid graham crackers, Procter & Gamble “Future Friendly” products, and the unwrapped Reese’s Minis.

We have printed similar stories of companies using shrunken packages as a method for passing on stealth price increases (see category “Disguised Inflation“):

  1. November 28, 2009: “Food packages are shrinking, but prices remain the same
  2. January 25, 2010: “Stealth inflation
  3. November 11, 2010: “Inflation hidden in higher unit costs

Inflation hidden in higher unit costs

Thanks to Tim Ianoco for posting a link to this article from Fortune: “Why your toilet paper is shrinking“.

In this short post, Fortune provides a detailed diagram showing how companies have held product prices steady but have shrunk toilet paper rolls to cover the higher costs of pulp and shipping. In other words, the per unit cost (square inch of toilet paper) has increased, but this increase is not reflected in the final price, but in the lower amount of product provided at that price. This is a common tactic to disguise the inflated price of a good to maintain the appearance of price competitiveness. Just one more way in which an apparently benign pricing environment is actually sitting on top of roiling pricing pressures.