Spinning Economic Stories

By Michael Ashton

As economists [1] we do two sorts of things. We do quantitative work, and we tell stories.

One of the problems with economics is that we aren’t particularly regimented about how we convert data into stories and about how we look at stories to decide how to interrogate the data. So what tends to happen is that we have a phenomenon and then we look at what story we like and decide if that’s a reasonable way to explain the data…without asking if there isn’t a more reasonable way to explain the data, or at least another way that’s equally consistent with the data. I’m not saying that everyone does this, just that it’s disturbingly common especially among people being paid to be storytellers and for whom a good story is really important.

So for example, there is a well -known phenomenon that inflation tends to accelerate after the Fed begins raising interest rates.[2] Purporting to explain this phenomenon, here is a popular story that the Fed is just really smart, so they’re ahead of inflation, and when they seeing it moving up just a little bit they can jump on it real quick and get ahead of it and so inflation goes up…but the apparent causality is there because we just knew it was going to go up and acted before the observation of the higher inflation happened. This is basically Keynesian theory combined with “brilliant person” theory.

There is another theory that is consistent with this, of course: monetarism, which explains that increasing interest rates actually causes inflation to move higher, by causing velocity to increase. But, because this isn’t the popular story, this doesn’t get matched up to the data very frequently. In my mind it’s a better theory, because it doesn’t require us to believe that the Fed is super brilliant to make it work. (And, not to get snarky, but the countervailing evidence versus Fed staff economist genius is pretty mountainous). Of course, economists – and the Fed economists in particular – like theories that make them look like geniuses, so they prefer the prior explanation.

But again, as economists we don’t have a good and rigorous way to say that one way is the ‘preferred’ story or to look at other stories that are consistent with our data. We tend to look at what part of the data supports our story – in other words, confirmation bias.

Why this is relevant now is that the Fed is in fact tightening and inflation is in fact heading higher, and the story being pushed by the Fed and some economists is “good thing the Fed is tightening, because it looks like inflation was going up!” The story on the other hand that I have been telling for quite some time (and which I write about in my book) is that it’s partly because the Fed is tightening and interest rates are going up that that inflation is rising, in a feedback loop that is missed in our popular stories. The important part is the next chapter in the story. In the “Fed is getting ahead of it” story, inflation comes down and the Fed is able to stop tightening, achieving a soft landing. In the “rate increase is causing velocity to rise and inflation to rise” story, the Fed keeps chasing the dog which is only running because the Fed is chasing it.

There is another alternative, which really excites the stock market as evidenced by today’s massive – although disturbingly low-volume – rally. That story is that the Fed is going to become more “data dependent” (Chairman Powell suggested something along these lines today), which is great because the Fed has already won on inflation and growth is still okay. So the Fed can stop the autopilot rate hikes. This story unfortunately does require a little suspension of disbelief. For one thing, today’s strong Employment report (Payrolls 370k, including revisions, compared to 184k expectations) is unfortunately a December figure which means it has huge error bars. Moreover, the Unemployment Rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7%, and while a higher Unemployment Rate doesn’t mean the economy is definitely slowing (it could just be that more people are looking for jobs because the job market is so robust – another fun story), it is certainly more consistent with the notion that the economy is slowing at the margin. The fact that the Unemployment Rate went up, while Hourly Earnings rose more than expected and Jobs rose more than expected, should make you suspect that year-end quirkiness might have something to do with the figures. For the decades I’ve watched economic data, I always advise ignoring the January and February Employment Reports since the December/January changes in payroll are so large that the noise swamps the signal. But professional storytellers aren’t really content to say “this doesn’t really mean anything,” even if that’s the quantitative reality. They get paid to spin yarns, so spin yarns they do.

Yeah, about those wages: I’m not really sure why economists were expecting hourly earnings to decelerate this month. All of the anecdotal data, along with other wage measures, are suggesting that wages are rising apace (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker vs AHE). Not really a surprise, even given its compositional challenges, that AHE is also rising.

The thing about all of these stories is that while they can’t change the actual reality, they can change how reality is priced. This is one of the reasons that we get bubbles. The stories are so powerful that trading against them, with a ‘value’ mindset for example, is quixotic. Ultimately, in the long run, the value of the equity market is limited by fundamentals. But in the short run, it is virtually unlimited because of valuation multiples (price as a speculative multiple of fundamental earnings, e.g.) and those valuation multiples are driven by stories. And that’s a big reason that bullish stories are so popular.

But consider this bearish footnote on today’s 3.4% S&P rally: volume in the S&P constituents today was lower than the volume was on December 26! To be fair, the volume yesterday, when the S&P declined 2.5%, was even a bit lower than today’s volume. It’s typical thin and whippy first-week-of-the-year trading. Let’s see what next week brings.

[1] People occasionally ask me why I didn’t go on for my MA or PhD in Economics. I reply that it’s because I learned my Intermediate Microeconomics very well: I stopped going for a higher degree when the marginal costs outweighed the marginal benefits. When you look at it that way, it makes you wonder whether the PhD economists aren’t just the bad students who didn’t absorb that lesson.

[2] It’s referred to as the “price puzzle”; see Martin Eichenbaum, “Interpreting Macroeconomic Time Series Facts: The Effects of Monetary Policy: Comments.” European Economic Review, June 1992. And Michael Hanson, “The ‘Price Puzzle’ Reconsidered,” Journal of Monetary Economics, October 2004.

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