Make Me Smart June 21, 2022 transcript
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Kai Ryssdal: Hey, everybody, it’s Kai Ryssdal. You know on Marketplace and Make Me Smart, we give you the context you need to understand all the big things going on in this economy right now. But your kids have questions about that stuff too. And we have got you covered with our podcast Million Bazillion, answering all the questions your kids have about money and the economy. A new season is out right now. With questions like what’s inflation? What’s cryptocurrency? And how does a credit card work? That’s Million Bazillion from Marketplace. You can find it where ever you get your podcasts.
Kimberly Adams: Hello all, this is Kimberly Adams. Welcome to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.
Kai Ryssdal: I’m Kai Ryssdal. It’s Tuesday, we’re doing a single topic today. And that topic is inflation. Everybody’s talking about it. We’re all living it. Nobody really knows what the what. And so we’re gonna talk about a little bit today because it’s, yeah, I’m just gonna say this. It is the economic issue of the day. How about that? Does that sound fair?
Kimberly Adams: Yeah, totally fair. I mean, as you well know, there are a lot of people in my family who don’t necessarily tune in to a lot of economic news, but even they’re asking me about this. And a lot of you have been writing in with questions. And so we want to get to some of those today, along with our own questions with our guest, Victoria Guida. She’s covered the Fed at Politico. Welcome back to the show.
Victoria Guida: Thanks for having me back on. It’s always a good time.
Kimberly Adams: I’m so glad, we like to have a party. Okay, Victoria, it seems like the Fed, the markets, just about everyone suddenly started getting worried about inflation. Like, there were sort of rumblings of, you know, we need to watch out for inflation leading up to it. But last week, it just kicked into high gear. Why?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, so I mean, inflation, as you all know, has been an issue that’s been percolating for over a year now. We’ve seen heightened inflation. But, you know, I think people were sort of hoping that March and April would mark the peak of inflation. You know, we saw some of the the after effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly the really big spike in oil prices. And so people were sort of hoping that prices wouldn’t rise as rapidly going forward, and that we would start to see inflation sort of steadily come down. So when the Consumer Price Index report on Friday – and this was now a little over a week ago – that basically showed that inflation wasn’t really slowing, including in what they call core inflation, which is excluding food and energy that’s more volatile. So that kind of freaked people out, because it showed that we’re not necessarily through the worst of this. So it wasn’t that people were sort of expecting inflation to end all of a sudden, but you kind of want to see that you’re on a good trend. And, you know, that was sort of the big thing that really freaked people out.
Kai Ryssdal: The other thing that happened that Friday, and Powell talked about this in his press conference, was that they got some data about inflation expectations, perhaps changing. Could you help folks understand why what we think is going to happen with inflation matters so much?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, so that’s exactly right. So the University of Michigan puts out a survey every month that sort of measures consumer sentiment. One of the things they look at is what people expect out of inflation, and basically what that showed is people expect inflation to be higher. And the reason why that matters is because the economy is basically just sort of a word for the combination of everyone’s behavior. And so when people expect inflation, that can sometimes be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people maybe buy stuff now, because they’re worried the prices are gonna go up later. And then maybe businesses raise prices more because they think they can, or they think that they’ll have to, because they’re worried about input costs going up. And so, you know, that was one of the reasons why we saw the Fed do a bigger rate hike than they were originally expecting. It wasn’t just because they wanted to get interest rates up faster. It was also sort of a message to the American public, hey, we’re really serious about getting inflation back down. So, you know, don’t get it into your heads that inflation is going to stay this high forever.
Kimberly Adams: At the Federal Reserve, and in academia more broadly, you have some really, really smart economists who thought that things were going to be better by now. Why is it so hard for the Fed – and, you know, lots of other folks – to predict the magnitude to which we would experience inflation and how long it would last?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, well, part of what’s been so strange about this inflationary period is that the story hasn’t exactly been the same the whole time. So we first started to see inflation creep up, starting in April 2021. And the reason for that was because you had these really key sectors, like used cars, where prices were surging because there was a semiconductor shortage. And so the Fed just kind of thought, okay, this is a temporary supply issue that isn’t necessarily indicative of a larger inflation problem in the economy, and we just need to kind of wait for that to get resolved. And you heard a lot of that “this was the whole transitory conversation”, where basically they thought that the supply chain issues were the things that were driving inflation, and those are things that would eventually get worked out. So one is, that didn’t happen, right, like supply chains have slowly gotten better, but there’s still huge problems. That was the big thing. The second was, they seem to really underestimate the extent to which there was going to be a demand side problem of people spending more than usual. And so, this is where it comes into the whole question of, you know, was there too much government aid? I’m not an economist, so I can’t say exactly, but I think it’s fair to say that government aid sort of supported higher levels of spending. And so, while the Fed was sort of seeing all these supply issues, they may be underestimated the extent to which there was also demand side issues. And then the final piece, as I sort of mentioned a second ago, was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which, maybe until early in this year, you wouldn’t necessarily have seen the signs of that coming. And until it happened, it wasn’t totally clear that it was going to happen. And that led to a spike in the price of oil. Oil affects the prices of pretty much everything. It’s how much it costs to transport things. It’s how much it costs to make things, and it’s gas, all of that. And then, it also led to a huge spike in the price of foods. So, I think that we had these sort of… and then COVID, right, like, there are lock downs in China. So you basically had an initial problem, and then you sort of layered on all of these other things going. Each successive quarter of the year, there’s like new things that are happening. So partially, it was a miscalculation on the part of the Fed. And partially, it’s just that things are so uncertain right now, that it was kind of hard to predict everything that actually happened.
Kimberly Adams: Boy, there’s a long list!
Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, there’s a lot that’s been going on, right. Okay, so let’s do a little audience participation. Juan Carlos, do me a favor, hit this question from Chris, would you?
Chris: Hi, this is Chris from North Haven, Connecticut. And hoping you can make me smart about the reaction to the inflation numbers last week. The Fed’s most drastic rate hikes came just recently. So should we expect it to take a little more time for the effects to be realized? Are we jumping to panic prematurely? Thanks.
Kai Ryssdal: Jumping the panic. Strong word. Victoria, what do you think?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, so, I will give a nerdy answer to this question, which is…
Kimberly Adams: Best kind, that’s the best kind of answer.
Victoria Guida: So it’s actually kind of complicated to say how quickly the Fed’s rate hikes are going to affect what they call real economic activity. And part of the reason is that the Fed not only raises interest rates, but it also communicates about how much it expects to raise interest rates in the future. And so one of the things that it did last week, was to not only raise interest rates faster, but also say that they’re ultimately going to end up at a higher place. And the reason why that matters is because markets, you know, stocks, bonds, investors, lenders, really start factoring in the endpoint of where the Feds gonna go once they feel like they have a sense of that. And so it doesn’t just matter what the Fed has already done, it matters what investors think they’re going to do. And so, there’s a saying that people like to quote, I think it’s from Milton Friedman, “Monetary policy acts with long and variable lags.” But that was because the Fed used to operate in a world where it would just raise rates and not tell anybody, and then it was sort of become obvious.
Kai Ryssdal: That’s my favorite part. They used to not tell anybody. I’m like, really, you could do that?
Victoria Guida: It does seem very strange, like reporters had to just sort of look at the market and figure out what was happening and how much they had raised rates by. And we operate in a very different world today. And so, you know, the where I’m going with all of that, is the impact of the Fed’s rate hikes might be felt a lot faster than you would think. But it’s not like inflation is expected to come down immediately to the Feds 2% target. It might take a year or two. So this will be sort of a more gradual process. In terms of jumping to panic, I mean, it’s possible that’s what’s happening, given that we are seeing still significant supply side issues. And it’s unclear how much the Fed actually can do through its tools versus just like, we need to make more stuff and get it to where it’s going faster.
Kimberly Adams: We have another listener question. But I want to first, Victoria, latch on to something you said. You’re saying, you know, the Fed is operating in a very different environment now than we used to, not just in terms of how it communicates interest rate hikes, but in terms of the economy that we’re in. And I wonder if the Fed even has the right tools anymore, and the right playbook to handle this inflation that we have right now in a meaningful way. Because, as you just laid out in your list a little bit ago, the inflation is coming from all sides, but the response is, you know, the same.
Victoria Guida: Yeah, well, so the problem is, it’s really hard to separate out how much of this inflation is from supply, and how much of it is from demand, right. Like how much of it is just we’re spending more than we need to be, and how much of it is just, we’re spending a normal amount, and not enough stuff is being produced quickly enough. And it’s also those things are interrelated, right. So if we demand more stuff, theoretically, people will make more stuff to try and meet what we’re doing. And so you can actually raise the total production in response to demand to a certain point. And so what the Fed worries about is… you know, everyone points to the 1970s as an example of when we last had really intense inflation. And part of that was supply shocks, we had a lot of supply shocks at that time. And so I think part of the worry is that even if a lot of this inflation is being caused by the supply side, that changes what we were talking about earlier, this psychology of the consumer of the business, that they’re going to expect inflation. And so I think what the Fed is trying to do is, you know, combat the demand side of the problem to the extent that they can, and then also sort of counteract a little bit the psychological reaction to some of the supply side inflation. But you really do risk damaging some healthy economic activity and putting a lot of people out of work and all of that if you go farther than the demand side really requires. And so, yes, it’s a really tricky balance, where basically, the Fed wants to bring inflation back down but they’re not necessarily going to know when to stop just by looking at the inflation data, if that makes any sense.
Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. All right. So that’s the Feds toolkit. Talk to me for a second about Congress, and more to the point, President Biden, since he’s the one under most of the political pressure. What tools do they have, if any, to do anything about this?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, so this is the supply side issues that we’ve been talking about, it would be sort of finding ways to improve supply chains, make them more resilient, incentivize production. There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Biden administration should be doing more to get domestic oil companies to produce more, because oil companies, you know, generally have the capacity, but they need the price incentive. Because the worry there is that if they ramp up production, and all of a sudden, prices plummet, they might lose money. And so, there’s a lot of talk about whether the Biden administration could sort of counteract that fear from oil companies, although that could be politically complicated, given climate change and all of that. And then, things like the semiconductor shortage, I mean, there’s, there’s, I guess, longer term fixes that Congress and the executive branch can do. But in the short term, they can’t really do much. And this is why it really falls so much to the Fed to get things headed back in the right direction.
Kimberly Adams: Okay, so all the talk of inflation kind of naturally, and the Feds response to it has kicked off also, all these predictions of whether or not we’re going to end up in a recession, and can the Fed really engineer the soft landing, are we going to end up in a recession? We got a listener question about recessions. And this is from Nick.
Nick: Hi, Make Me Smart. This is Nick from Minneapolis. You all have talked about how consumer spending is driving inflation these days. I remember right after 911 how President Bush talked about the need for Americans to spend more to get the economy going. Could you explain the differences between these two time periods? Thanks.
Kimberly Adams: Right, this idea that, you know, Bush wanted to spend our way out of a recession, but now because we’re apparently spending too much, we might end up in a recession?
Victoria Guida: Yeah, so I mean, I think that the difference is the fundamental nature of why we had a recession. So when you think about a typical recession, there are economic factors that cause the recession to happen. So let’s think about, for example, like the 2008 financial crisis, right? Like, that was a financial crisis that led to a housing crash, which then, of course, led to a general depletion of economic activity, because all of a sudden, people have lost a bunch of wealth, people have lost their jobs. And so there was suddenly a massive hole in spending that the government sort of had to fill. This is the classic idea of how to respond to recessions, the government fills the hole of spending to get the economy churning again, so that companies will rehire people that have lost their jobs, and you sort of jumpstart the economy, so that it can start to run on its own again. But in COVID, we had a completely different situation where we had a recession, basically because we shut everything down in order to stop a health crisis. So what was wrong actually had really nothing to do with the economy. And so, you know, part of the reason why there was so much spending early in COVID, was basically because there was suddenly all of this economic activity that wasn’t happening on purpose. And so the government was, for example, paying people who were out of work, because in some cases, we didn’t want them to be working, right. Like we wanted people to stay home and not spread the virus until we could get a vaccine. And so it was sort of like we were cryo freezing the economy and then spending our way so that nothing would completely fall apart in the meantime. And then, when the economy reopened, it was really unclear the extent to which you needed to spend to sort of get back to that sort of, you know, jumpstarting again, and to the extent to which the economy would sort of do that itself. And so, I don’t know that I can. I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer yet. I think that maybe with a few years of hindsight, we’ll be able to say whether the response was accurate. But I think that we still had a lot of these healthy, non-recessionary factors that were going on, so that spending into it didn’t really have the effect that you would normally expect from a recession.
Kimberly Adams: Victoria Guida, she covers the Fed at Politico. Thank you very, very much. You’ve answered a bunch of my questions. But of course, now I have a million more, which means we’ll just have to have you back, sooner rather than later.
Kai Ryssdal: Victoria. Thanks so much.
Victoria Guida: Sounds great. Thank you so much.
Kai Ryssdal: Inflation in 20 minutes with Victoria Guida.
Kimberly Adams: Yeah.
Kai Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny, it gets wonky in a hurry, right. And, really, it’s tough to understand a lot of the levers and the actions and reactions and all that stuff. But it’s so important, because this is literally the thing driving the economy right now. And it’s gonna drive it for a little while yet to come. So I think we all need to understand it, which is why we talked to Victoria.
Kimberly Adams: And what she said at the end there, I think is particularly relevant, is that we’re really not going to know how well the Fed navigated this until you look back on it after the stuff is already done.
Kai Ryssdal: Absolutely.
Kimberly Adams: Anyway, let us know… what were you gonna say Kai?
Kai Ryssdal: No, I think you’re exactly right. That’s the key point of what she said.
Kimberly Adams: Yeah. All right. So let us know what you think. How are you seeing inflation in your life? Hopefully, you’re in a position where you can manage it. Our number is 508-827-6278, also known as 508-U-B-SMART. You can also send us a voice memo, email@example.com And we’ll be right back.
Kai Ryssdal: News, let’s do it. You go first.
Kimberly Adams: Well, yours is about recession, so you should.
Kai Ryssdal: That’s true. That’s true. So one of the things that a lot of Fed watchers have picked up on in Jay Powell’s public pronouncements and others on the board of governors and the regional bank presidents, is that they’re really interested in protecting the unemployment rate, that is to say, not driving the unemployment rate up too much, while at the same time alleviating some of the wage pressures, if that makes any sense. Because there’s so many job openings. Bloomberg has a piece today, it’s reported. It’s not based on any official data source or a company survey, but they have done some calling around. And they are finding out that the pace of job openings – and remember we talked about this on marketplace a zillion times, right? – it’s this statistic that comes out called “jolts job openings” and labor turnover survey. The number of job openings in this economy has slowed in the last number of weeks, as companies brace themselves for a possible economic slowdown. And that’s one of the things Raphael Bostic says a lot. He’s the president of the Atlanta Fed. He says, look, we can protect the unemployment rate by bringing down the number of open jobs in this economy. That way, we just won’t necessarily be hurt, people won’t lose their jobs. But we will alleviate some of the pressure on the job market that is caused by so many job openings. And Bloomberg is reporting that today. And that’s that’s a big indicator, I think.
Kimberly Adams: You said it’s not going to hurt wages. I don’t understand that.
Kai Ryssdal: Well, look, one of the things that’s been happening in this economy is that workers are empowered by the number of job openings that are around. And workers, as we know, have done really well on wages, but they are not keeping up with inflation, especially at the lower end. So what’s gonna happen now is that by reducing somewhat, not entirely, but reducing somewhat the the number of job openings, the overall wage pressure, right, because what we’re interested in here is, even though the economy is made up of people out there peopling, as I heard somebody say the other day, right, but it’s the overall, it’s the macro effect that we’re interested in. So individually, workers will still have some power, because there’s going to be more than one job opening for each unemployed person. Macro economically, that’s going to take some of the sting out. That’s what’s gonna happen.
Kimberly Adams: I guess I was confused, because like, if there are fewer job openings, that I would think gives workers less leverage to negotiate for higher wages for the jobs that they do take.
Kai Ryssdal: Say that again? I’m not sure I understood.
Kimberly Adams: If there are fewer open jobs, because, you know, recession, that headline, recession fearing bosses quietly abandoned open jobs, then workers who are on the market, no longer have as many people competing for their labor. And I think that that would lower their ability to negotiate higher wages.
Kai Ryssdal: I think yeah, I think individually, workers will still maintain some power – not as much as they have, right? All you have to do is look at the, you know, if you’ve got two job openings for every worker versus 1.5 job openings for every worker, those individual workers have less oomph, but it takes some of the sting out, big picture wise, on the wage pressure that is helping drive some of inflation. Some, not all.
Kimberly Adams: I see. So it helps inflation on the other side, because since rising wages for workers also pushes up inflation because it’s company costs. Okay, I got it. I gotcha. Cool. Okay, I have two, but I’m gonna hit one of them really quick, because it’s just wild.
Kai Ryssdal: It’s just crazy.
Kimberly Adams: so in my beloved home state of Missouri, there is a candidate. I’m trying to remember, it’s the former governor, Eric Greitens. He’s running for Senate. And he put out this web ad that, you know, I was torn about whether to talk about this because you don’t want to draw more attention to it because it’s so awful. But on the other hand, you can’t not talk about it. So basically he put out a web ad on Monday, literally encouraging people to hunt down Republicans who are insufficiently conservative. I’m reading here from St. Louis public radio story. And I’ve watched the video, the Facebook has taken it down because it violates the policies. Twitter is leaving it up because they think it’s like, you know, I guess somehow part of the public debate. But in this video, he basically, and I’m sure he he’s claiming that it’s a joke, but he’s walking down a sidewalk with people in military uniform, saying that they’re going Rhino hunting – “Rhino” is for Republicans in name only. And it is just the most violence-glorifying thing you’ve ever seen. And lots and lots of people are responding in his… in the GOP as well as, you know, everyone just saying this is horrible. It’s despicable. It’s violent. Somebody was saying that they’ve contacted the Missouri Highway Patrol. And it really says something that we’re in an environment where people feel like they can put these out.
Kai Ryssdal: The only thing I would add to that, which is an excellent summary of the case, is that you have to know a little bit of Greitens his history, right? He’s a former Navy SEAL, elected governor of Missouri. While he was governor, he was accused of – credibly, by the way – entrapping a woman in a basement, tying her up, taking pictures of her, and then threatening to blackmail her. He’s also been accused of spousal abuse. So there’s a lot going on.
Kimberly Adams: And child abuse.
Kai Ryssdal: And child abuse. There’s a lot going on with Greitens.
Kimberly Adams: Yeah, and this is the candidate for Senate, one of them. Anyway, wild story. The other one very quickly, cuz I know we gotta get to the mailbag, is there’s a really great New York Times video journalism project, about surveillance in China, and just how far the tech has evolved, and just the scale of the surveillance state in China. And it’s interesting, and important, not just because of what it means for the Chinese people, particularly those in the country who are being oppressed if they’re ethnic minorities or something. But also a reminder that if this tech exists in one place, it’s available in other places, including here in the United States. And we have to be on our guard for this kind of stuff. Yeah, so that’s me.
Kai Ryssdal: For sure. For sure. Mailbag. Let us do that.
Kimberly Adams: Okay, last week, we asked you if you are watching the January 6 committee hearings, which I know both Kai and I are going to be doing as soon as we stop recording. And a couple of you called in with your thoughts.
Debbie: Hi, this is Debbie from New Hampshire. I have family members who work on Capitol Hill, one of whom was directly impacted by the insurrection on the 6th. I can assure you it was no minor event. I remember vividly my phone blowing up that day, asking if this family member was safe. Many of the people that work on the Hill that you don’t see, who are behind the scenes, are young people in their 20s and 30s. They don’t get well compensated for what they do. In fact, they’re working on Capitol Hill because they believe in public service and the government. I believe that it’s very important that we find out the truth about what happened on January 6. And thanks as always, for making me smarter.
Kai Ryssdal: I’m sure Kimberly you know some people in DC who were there that day, right?
Kimberly Adams: So many people. And then whenever I’m going up to the hill for reporting, yI always ask the Congressional aides like how they’re holding up and they’re telling me they’ve got some mental health care that, you know, that the staff is being provided. But also, years ago, I did a story about the people who work turning over the offices and do the carpets… the furniture people. I loved that story. And I love those guys, it was all guys. They’re in the basement of these office buildings on the Hill. And one thing that folks may not realize, but this happened, just as they were in the process of refreshing and turning over all the offices for new members of Congress. So these folks had just finished. I mean, this sounds minor, but they put so much care into maintaining these antiques in this historical building and, and like re-stuffing chairs. And they had just finished getting all these offices and things ready for Congress to come back and then just to see it trashed. That was just like another… and I called to check on them the next day and they were all traumatized. Anyway.
Kai Ryssdal: All right, change gears here. We had a conversation last week about metric system. And here is what Deborah in Maryland had to say about a way to remember Celsius temperatures, if you have spent your life as most of us have, trying to understand Fahrenheit.
Deborah: Celsius for temperature 30 is hot, 20 is nice, 10 is chilly, 0 is ice. I just thought I’d share. Guys, you make me smart. Thank you! Bye.
Kai Ryssdal: Simple rules of thumb are the best.
Kimberly Adams: That’s helpful. 30 is hot. 20 is nice. 10 is chilly. 0 is ice. Got it! That’s a good one. All right. Before we go, we’re going to leave you with this week’s answer to the make me smart question, which is, what is something you thought you knew, but later found out you’re wrong about? This answer today comes from Alexander Howard, Director of the Digital for Democracy Project and a recent guest on Marketplace Tech.
Alexander Howard: I thought that when we as Americans were confronted with an existential threat to our democracy, that that would lead us to be united against a shared enemy, and the enemy wouldn’t be one another. The hardest thing for me has been seeing that our shared commitment to democracy is a lot more fragile than I think I wanted it to be. And I’m hopeful that there will be people across the different institutions, frankly, that the young folks of the world who want better for their children than what we’ve been given. But I’m not certain anymore that that’s going to happen in anytime soon. It certainly won’t unless we make some significant adjustments to how every major institution is engaging and informing educating Americans.
Kai Ryssdal: Amen. Yep, yep. Yep. We’re just gonna let that one sit there. Send us your answers, via voice memo to our email and firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a message 508-827-6278. You can send us your answers, your questions, your comments, whatever you like. 508-U-B-SMART is an easy way to remember that.
Kimberly Adams: All the memorization… Make Me Smart as directed and produced by Marissa Cabrera. Olivia Zhao is our intern Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter.
Kai Ryssdal: Juan Carlos Torrado was on the other side of the soundproof glass today, Charlton Thorp is going to come in at some point today, I guess, and mix it down. I don’t know maybe. Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez compose our theme music. The senior producer is Bridget Bodnar. Donna Tam is the Director of On Demand. And Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neil Scarborough. Now Charlton works hard all the time, he just does it very quietly.
Kimberly Adams: Very quietly, never even know he’s there.