A good doctor will not simply make a diagnosis based on measurements. The symptoms and complaints expressed by the patient are at least as important in making a determination as the data provided by diagnostic tools. When the data says one thing and the symptoms continuously say another, it makes sense to question the reliability of the instruments. This would be particularly true if the instruments are furnished by a party with a stake in a favorable diagnosis, say an insurance company on the hook for treatment costs. The same holds true for the U.S. economy. Although our government-supplied data suggests we are experiencing low inflation and modest economic growth, the economy shows symptoms of low growth, rising prices and diminishing purchasing power.
In my latest commentary I discussed how the Big Mac Index (The Economist magazine's 30 year-data set on Big Mac prices) provided strong anecdotal evidence that inflation in the United States is higher than official figures. More information has come in since then that tells me the same thing: that Americans are downsizing their lives as their incomes fail to keep pace with rising prices. These symptoms are at odds with the widespread belief in an accelerating recovery that has resulted in braggadocio in Washington and euphoria on Wall Street.
Earlier this week Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest providers of packaged meat products, announced that although their top line sales revenue increased by almost 2% (roughly in line with U.S. GDP growth), operating margins collapsed by almost 50%, leading to a 43% decline in profit. Consumer shifts away from relatively higher priced/higher margin beef and pork products to lower cost/lower margin chicken products were to blame. Tyson also noted that cost conscious consumers shifted away from higher margin packaged chicken products to fresh meat cuts, thereby sacrificing convenience for cost.
According to government statisticians, the Tyson announcement would reveal modest growth and low inflation. After all, revenue at the company grew and spending on their products had increased modestly. But rising prices were obscured by consumers purchasing lower quality products. Not only are consumers avoiding the beef and pork that they otherwise may have preferred, but they are opting out of the convenience of prepared foods. This behavior is symptomatic of diminished consumer purchasing power. This is known as getting poorer.
The trend corresponds with the steady increase in the share of income that Americans devote to food and energy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data, in 2002 Americans spent about 17.8% of income on food and energy. In the first quarter of 2013 the share had risen by a factor of 20% to 21.3% of income. Increased share of spending on necessities like food and energy is consistent with falling living standards. In the poorest countries almost all of income is devoted to such things.
This week we also learned the seemingly positive news that the March trade deficit narrowed to $38.8 billion. But the reduction didn't come from increased exports (which actually declined), but by the sharpest drop in imports since February 2009. Oil imports declined to a seventeen-year low, in part due to rising domestic production, but also due to a record low in 13 years in gasoline consumption. While some may argue that is a function of greater energy efficiency, I believe it's more likely that usage is down because of high prices and high unemployment. Even more significant is that our trade deficit with China in March dropped by a whopping 23.6%, hitting a three-year low. On a year over year basis, the decline in our deficit with China was 90% attributable to the decline in imports.
In contrast to the declining import figures, the government reported that personal spending rose by .2% in March. If we are buying less stuff from abroad, where are Americans spending the extra money? If the prices are stable, and imports are way down, consumer spending should also be down and savings should be up. But the savings rate in March held steady at a meager 2.7%. The sad truth is that Americans are buying fewer Chinese products because they are spending more money on food, rent, utilities, healthcare, insurance, and other necessities that can't be imported. Again, this is consistent with a falling standard of living, as inflation forces consumers to forgo the things they want in order to buy the things that they need.
It was also announced this week that the big three airlines (United, Delta, and American) will be raising their "change fees" for booked tickets by 33%, from $150 to $200. However, it's unlikely that such a hike will make much of an impact on CPI. According to the CPI, airline fares in the United States increased only .3% from 2011 to 2012. This mild increase came at a time when airlines were rolling out more new fees than most air travelers could have possibly imagined.
But even if the government fully factored in the increase in fees, they would likely ignore the change in behavior that the increase would elicit. With the cost of changing a ticket so dramatically higher than it has been in the past, it is likely that far fewer Americans would be willing to change their travel plans once their tickets have been purchased. So even while the spending increase may be relatively small, the lost convenience is not factored into the equation. A ticket with low price (or no price) change option is a much better product than a ticket with high penalties.
CPI reports that from 2007 to 2012 air travel increased on average 4% per year. But that's only half the story. A new study released by MIT reports that during those five years, U.S. airlines cut the number of domestic flights by 14%,with the cuts falling most heavily on mid-sized regional airports. By 2012, the industry also closed more than 20 smaller airports, began using a higher percentage of larger airplanes, and reported record crowding on remaining flights. In other words, air travel not only became more expensive but less convenient and more crowded.
How much loss in value does this inconvenience and lack of flexibility create? It's hard to say, but we all have experienced it with varying degrees of frustration. But what is sure is that the government isn't interested in such trivialities.
The combination of these symptoms suggests that the extent to which people are being impoverished by accelerating inflation is not reflected in official government measurements. This explains why unemployment remains high even as GDP appears to rise. It is my belief that the unprecedented expansion of the money supply under the current Fed leadership is pushing up prices for stocks, bonds, real estate, and consumer goods. Market indices neatly capture the price increases for all of these categories except for the latter, which has been concealed by an overly adjusted CPI.
If consumer inflation data were reported more accurately, it would be revealed that much of the apparent growth is an illusion. The patient is getting sicker, but the doctors are too distracted to notice.