Unless you have an affinity for bell-bottom pants and Saturday Night Fever, many Americans do not look back at the 1970s with great nostalgia. And yet, a few decades later, the United States could be living through a similar period – at least from an economic perspective. Since announcing his exorbitant infrastructure proposal, the media have championed President Joe Biden as the next FDR. But if the next few years spawn economic stagnation or stagflation, Biden might go down as the next President Jimmy Carter. By Election Day in 2024, the American people will hardly be stayin’ alive.
Warning: Inflation Ahead
IHS Markit recently released its U.S. services purchasing managers’ index (PMI) – the general direction of economic trends in the sector – for March. Overall, it was an incredible report, coming in higher-than-expected at 60.4. Output growth, new business, job creation, and business confidence surged. However, the report turned heads for the accelerating input cost inflation that soared at the highest rate in 12 years, driven by higher prices for transportation, fuel, raw materials, and personal protective equipment (PPE). The rate of charge inflation, also known as stealth inflation that transfers higher production costs to consumers, increased at a historic pace.
It was not only the monthly IHS Markit data. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) non-manufacturing index highlighted comparable data for March. Business activity, new orders, and employment maintained their expansion trends, but pricing pressures escalated last month.
Overall, the readings saw notable price hikes in chemicals, construction materials, energy, industrial metals, and many more critical components for the broader economy. Chris Williamson, the chief business economist at IHS Markit, said in a statement:
“High levels of new business inflows, rising business confidence and an increasing appetite to hire new staff suggest the economy will also see a strong second quarter, especially if the vaccine roll-out continues apace.
“The biggest concern is inflation, with price gauges hitting new survey highs in March as demand often exceeded supply for a wide variety of goods and services.”
Williamson added that companies have been trying to pass down the higher costs to consumers. Producers struggled to keep up with demand amid supply chain disruptions and postponements, and “input cost and selling price inflation [are] running far above anything previously seen in the survey’s history.”
Stagflation or Stagnation? Pick Your Poison
The U.S. economy was in the stagflation doldrums in the 1970s. Inflation was rampant, economic growth was subdued, and joblessness was prevalent, caused by the country having to pay for the guns and butter of the 1960s. If the public possessed a time machine and could pick any era to visit, the ‘70s would not be a desirable period for anyone, not even those with a flair for ponchos and tie-dye T-shirts.
As many states lift coronavirus-induced restrictions, the world’s largest economy is going through pent-up demand. Or, in layman’s terms, the nation is playing a game of catchup that could deliver enormous growth in the short-term. Even so, new Census Bureau data showed that new orders for U.S. manufactured goods (factory orders) contracted by 0.8% in February for the first time since April 2020. This was driven by falling demand for transportation equipment, machinery, primary metals, computers and electronic products, and fabricated metal products.
The monster March jobs report suggests, on the surface, that the economy is in a state of recovery. But was this new job creation or a case of people returning to work on the other side of the COVID-19 lockdowns? Peter Schiff, president and CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, explained on a recent episode of his podcast, The Peter Schiff Show, that eight million Americans are unemployed.
“So, despite the fact that a lot of people returned to their jobs, there’re still a lot of people that aren’t working at all, thanks in large part to the U.S. government, which is providing tremendous financial incentives for people not to return to work.
“This is an economy where jobs that were temporarily put on hold are being restored. People who left their jobs because of the COVID shutdowns are now returning to those jobs.”
All of this is unfolding with the Federal Reserve twiddling its thumbs in the background. While the U.S. central bank has repeatedly assured everyone that it will not tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates or curtailing its ultra-aggressive quantitative easing measures, the financial markets are pricing in a rate hike sooner than many would anticipate. How else would the Eccles Building stop inflation?
Happy Days Are Here Again?
Biden may find it flattering to be compared to FDR, who is typically viewed as one of the greatest presidents of all time, although this declaration crumbles upon the slightest scrutiny. Democrats may want to shriek Happy Days Are Here Again at the top of their lungs with Biden at the helm, but as the post-coronavirus economy fails to return to pre-pandemic levels, inflation soars, and the Republicans potentially regain power, 2024 could be 1980 all over again. History might dictate that Biden was the new Jimmy Carter after all – not The Squire of Hyde Park.
Read more from Andrew Moran.