The Real Party Responsible For Inflation And High Prices

 

by Richard Cameron

 


                        The Real Party Responsible For Inflation And High Prices

 

 

 

Crowds lined up by the hundreds shopping a retail store on Black Friday

 

It’s long since become extremely tiresome and annoying to hear mass media persistently beating the drum of “Americans, in the latest opinion survey, give President Biden low marks on the economy and inflation” or something to that effect.

Although I have a well informed skepticism about the accuracy of the polls that the media coughs up like fur balls in the year before an election, if one takes these surveys at face value (which I will caution you with regards to in an article I have in the draft process), it gives rise to a vigorous counter-argument about who precisely is responsible for the state of the economy. First, I will gloss over the nebulous nature of what actually is meant by the poll respondents who are allegedly disgruntled about “the economy”. It might reasonably be asked, “what do you take issue with specifically? Jobs, income, consumer prices?”

The jobs numbers seem to be running along lines that typically are regarded as indicative of a vibrant economic environment. Income probably is a soft spot, due to the challenges presented by the last item on the list – prices.

The story line is that people’s income is not sufficient to stay ahead of inflation. So – let’s tackle that inflation thing and see where it leads us and to whom the finger of blame should actually be pointing. But first, because this next item is central to the question, we need to unpack a concept that is evergreen when evaluating where price increases on goods and services emanate. I refer to the uncontested economic theorem of supply and demand.

The economic fundamental that is the prime influence on inflation is what is termed the “Law Of Supply And Demand.” It’s deceptively simple because although at a foundational level, it describes how when demand for a good or service increases, along with that increase follows increase in supply – there sometimes are other elements in play. We saw some of this during the pandemic when production of many goods slowed, materials for the manufacture of those items were variously caught in transportation bottlenecks and distribution was impacted creating shortages.

The result of all of these factors was a rise in prices at the wholesale and retail level. Those elements are relatively unusual and most often of a relatively short duration. America is out of the pandemic supply snafus, so prices can no longer be attributed in any substantial measure to shortages and limited availability.

This is where the demand side of Supply and Demand dominates the equation. The financial media that covers consumer behavior that has been observed post pandemic, have variously employed terms like “pent up demand” and “revenge spending” to describe the boomerang effect in activity following the so called “lockdowns” – a ridiculous term in and of itself that I won’t get into here.

 

financial literacy meme explaining "Revenge Spending" as Revenge spending refers to overspending or splurging on wants rather than needs, often fueled by credit cards, as a reaction to pandemic restrictions

 

 

Researchers at the Journal Of Retailing And Consumer Services, cite studies that describe revenge buying as a form of therapeutic consumption, a way for consumers to improve their mood and well-being by self-medicating through shopping and as consumer behavior related to emotion as a way for individuals to relieve depression and restore a sense of normalcy in their lives. Drilling down further, the research indicates that emotions such as depression, anger, fear, and anxiety can lead to revenge buying

Retail therapy and release theory, they say, also suggest that such sudden, uncontrollable external events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, also increase the perception of loss of individual autonomy, thereby stimulating deviant consumption behavior. The term “deviant consumption behavior” if of particular interest and significance. When measured against the gross irresponsibility of a majority of Americans outside of the working class, throwing caution to the wind and accumulating consumer debt at an unprecedented pace, it doesn’t seem too extreme a description.

This all intersects with the narrative of voter discontent about higher prices and inflation and who is to blame and why. Let’s agree that for many things, necessities and luxuries, prices have gone up since the pandemic. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about who is to blame.

Typically, heading into a national election such as is on the horizon next year, the party that is on the outside of one or more of the legislative branch chambers of Congress and the White House, is naturally inclined to believe that a successful tactic is to point the finger at the President, his administration and his party and attempt to sell this notion to the mass electorate. That is what is happening as we speak, with the GOP approaching every subject as it pertains to Joe Biden’s presidency as a Catch 22 framework.

Aiding the effort are all manner of public opinion surveys and polling that not only looks to frame the discontent, but to fan it. Never in any of these surveys, does the polling entity ask an individual if they believe they play any role in any category of problem and certainly not with regard to the sticker shock of goods and services. It would be interesting if they did.

Over time, nevertheless, Americans have been conditioned to look for culprits outside of themselves for perceived ills of the economy and society. This feeds into such undistilled measurements as the Presidential Approval Rating and its sidekick, the Right Track / Wrong Track indicator. People generally gravitate toward the instinct to assign responsibility for unfavorable conditions to other institutions, people and entities outside themselves.

Self reflection and introspection are to be avoided and journalism takes pains to refrain from suggesting that sometimes their readers, viewers or listeners may be playing a role, perhaps a leading role in societal problems. That is not an inhibiting factor on this platform. If we may, let us introduce the players that have leading roles in the inflationary cycle that most everyone will agree on.

First is businesses. The perception is that the larger the corporation, the more control they have of the market for goods and services, the more opportunistic they will be in exploiting a trend of higher prices. There is an argument to be made there and there are examples that can be shown. However, we will see that much of what accounts for American spending habits, demonstrate that the American consumer is a willing target of the price gouging and in fact, perpetuate it by not adoption self discipline and restraint.

It is the second category that is the third rail of journalism that most of the media fear to touch. And in the U.S., it is the American consumer. This is where the most culpable culprit in inflation lives – American households. There I said it. People can offload their responsibility for the problem on the man who sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office all they like, but neither the blame, nor the solution, lies with him. The mirror on the wall reveals the perp –  him,  her or themselves. Why is this, you ask? Let’s get down to the brass tacks, shall we?

Once you begin to tune your frequency in to our off the rails consumerism, the evidence rears its ugly head everywhere.  And this is not merely a post-pandemic phenomenon – it really has been gathering steam for a century or more. Media outlets dispassionately detail the public facing sectors of the economy that are remarkable in the portrait they paint, but decline to connect the dots. I will not refrain from doing so.

The entertainment industrial complex is one component, but tells a larger story. And as to the story, it is not uncommon to hear someone talk about how, for example, they have followed Taylor Swift or Beyonce around the country, attending each concert, while also of course, racking up travel expenses – airline fares, Uber rides, hotel accommodations and restaurants.  It’s great in the sense that it pours a lot of money into those destinations, but it also stokes inflation.

Las Vegas, during and after the pandemic, I scarcely need to outline. It illustrates the mentality I am pointing to, without my needing to illuminate it further. But the proliferation of wagering and self gratification has escaped the boundaries of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Tribal Gaming Casinos dot the landscape. Sports betting has now arrived online, where it previously was restricted to the physical domain and the volume has increased dramatically.

Sports Pro Media reports that 38 states and Washington DC have legalized some form of sports betting, with more expected to follow. Business so far has been good. According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), sportsbook revenue in the US hit US $7.5 billion in 2022, up 75 per cent on 2021.  If Americans are really hopping mad about inflation, you would never guess it by observing their behavior.

One indicator of this disconnect among a myriad of same, is the continued mobility of Americans in a period during which the media reports that they are losing their mud over inflation. Consider the holiday season here. 

Axios reported that the TSA released statistics for domestic flight activity during the Thanksgiving week, indicates that it broke daily passenger records during Thanksgiving weekend. Sunday was the busiest day in history for U.S. airports. The big picture: The Transportation Security Administration screened just over 2.9 million passengers at the end of the holiday weekend, marking an agency record.

An agency record. Ordinary logic would suggest some pulling in of horns when flights and accomodations and all the other costs of travel have ratcheted up substantially since 2020. But no – and more than that, how about all the cross country travel?

AAA projected that 55.4 million travelers would head 50 miles or more from home over the Thanksgiving holiday travel period*. This year’s Thanksgiving forecast is an increase of 2.3% over last year and marks the third-highest Thanksgiving forecast since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000. The top two years were 2005 and 2019, respectively.  Bookings of cruise vacations also were robust.

Considerably more people are crowding into movie theaters. 2023 is set to be the biggest grossing year for box office receipts in 4 years. So far, movie goers have spent $8,150,867,048 – an increase of 64.4% over all of 2022. Average cost of a movie ticket is reported to be $10.53 – not that much of a shock, but the entire experience goes much beyond just the price of admission.

Movie theaters pull in 40% of their revenue from their food and beverage concessions. So, on the average – a medium size popcorn box or cup is $8.14 and the medium soda, $6.20.And the products being consumed at the movie house goes way beyond the basic popcorn and drink fare of yesteryear. “The American consumer now is really demanding more than just a popcorn and a drink or nachos or candy,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners and senior advisor at Marcus Theatres. “They’re really looking for experiences that they’re having for meals associated with watching the films. The expansion … on the food and beverage is absolutely a must.”

 

photo image of movie goers in Phoenix, AZ consuming meals served at their theater seats

 

Then there’s sports. Take Major League Baseball, whose season ended earlier this fall. 2023 is a banner year according to Sportico.com who report that, MLB attendance has fully rebounded from the pandemic, and then some. An average of 29,114 fans attended league games in 2023, up 9.6% from last year and the highest number since 29,923 people went to the average contest in 2017.

Major League Soccer? – up 5.3%.  In auto racing, Forbes revealed that The Indianapolis 500 in May beat out the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, NHL Stanley Cup Finals and the NCAA college football championship for the title of most-attended sports event so far in 2023, with a whopping 230,000 tickets sold to the major auto race. Horse racing was strongly attended, as More than 150,000 packed Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in May.

Now to concerts. Taylor Swift’s “The Eras” tour, it is estimated, will bring in as much as a billion dollars by the end of its run. Surveys indicate that 65% of Americans would like to attend a concert or live show this summer or fall, and they’re willing to shell out a maximum of $728, if needed.  The U.S. Travel Association outlines that Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour went to 20 U.S. cities, and the concertgoers far outpaced typical spending patterns. Swift fans––“Swifties”––averaged $1,300 of spending in local economies on travel, hotel stays, food, as well as merchandise and costumes. 

Further, A well-cited study by Question Pro, calculates that Swifties have already directly spent around $5 billion in destinations around the country. U.S. Travel has confirmed that––though referred to as economic impact––this is a lowball figure, which carefully adds up direct spending by fans. They state, “we believe that the total economic impact likely exceeded $10 billion. The total economic impact includes indirect spending as well as spending by others who came to join the action around the events but did not actually attend the shows.”

What else: With 53 U.S. concerts so far, Taylor Swift’s shows may have produced the strongest economic impact for a concert tour. But when it comes to average spending per show, Question Pro shared that concertgoers of another tour, Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour, have even exceeded Swifties’ spending by $300, with an average spending that exceeded $1,800! These fans also have produced an economic impact in the billions of dollars.

Most successful music tours in North America in 2022, based on gross revenue

 

Statista-Concert-Tours-Revenue-2022 chart showing the largest grossing and attended concert tours in 2022 in North America

 

 

Approaching the Christmas holiday, Americans are expected to be traveling at record rates.  M​ore than 115 million people in the U.S. are expected to travel at least 50 miles during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, according to the annual prediction from AAA. That’s the second highest number since AAA started making projections 23 years ago.  The nation’s airports are also gearing up for the busiest season on record. 

We’re mostly talking about experiences so far, but the other side of this spending binge is material goods.  U.S. shoppers pounced on deep online discounts on Cyber Monday to spend a record $12.4 billion on online purchases — up 9.6% from last year, Axios’ Hope King writes from Adobe Analytics data. They also outline the following:

  • Online spending during the five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday was up 7.8% year over year, totaling $38 billion.

  • The new numbers come days after Americans set a new Black Friday online spending record, shelling out $9.8 billion — a 7.5% jump from last year.

  • The National Retail Federation separately reported that a record 200 million people shopped online and in person during the period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday.

 

The Christmas countdown is on and consumers have increased gift budgets in the final weeks of the holiday shopping season, Axios’ Kelly Tyko writes from a new Gallup survey

  • Why it matters: Despite falling consumer sentiment, Americans plan to spend an average of $975 on gifts — a $52 increase from what consumers thought in October, the survey found.

        The holiday spending estimate is also up $100 from last year, the survey of 1,009 U.S. adults shows.

  • Consumers’ estimates normally decline — not increase — as the season progresses, Gallup notes.

        Zoom in: The expected December spending spree follows a record-breaking Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

  • Households with children plan to spend $1,306, compared with $835 among those in households without children.

 

Consumers continue to spend, but some economists are starting to question how long they can keep it up.  The writer Sonja Anderson reflects on the Amazon addiction that has consumers throwing caution to the wind and money along with it.  She cites the fact that over 2.4 million packages are delivered in New York City every single weekday:

“If those packages were people, they’d be metropolitan Austin, Texas. If they were stone blocks, they’d top the Great Pyramid of Giza. Even if each of those packages were as thin as the Postal Service’s smallest priority shipping box — an inch and three-quarters thick — when stacked like books, the daily pile would be as tall as 241 Empire State Buildings, one atop the other.”

But it’s not always just the large ticket expenditures that add up. It’s also the seemingly insignificant ones, like the daily Starbucks coffee at $3.75 plus tax or more. The low end offering, if purchased every weekday, that’s close to $1,000 dollars a year.  That sounds insignificant perhaps, but if your employer offered to raise your annual pay by a grand, would you shrug your shoulders and reply, “that’s OK, I’m fine, but thank you for the offer.”?  It only seems different, because in this case, the employee themself is eroding their own earnings by $3 to $7 per day.

 

patrons at a Starbucks coffee store taking a selfie of their group

 

 

We really could continue on with the litany of every facet of excess and look into such as dining out with greater frequency than home prepared meals, the needless replacement of one’s mobile phone merely because Samsung or Apple has just released a new nothingburger version of what you already are using, new televisions replacing perfectly serviceable and functional existing ones, gym memberships seldom used, Botox treatments, “cool sculpting”, tattoos, body piercings, enormous Smoker / BBQs, streaming subscriptions and so much more that highlights the collective insanity – but the picture is clear enough. What we will examine, is the price tag – household debt.

 

Statista chart / graph, showing uptick of household debt in America that in 2023 is now (Third Quarter) well over 17 Trillion dollars.

 

Americans now owe $1.08 trillion on their credit cards, according to a new report on household debt from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.   Credit card balances spiked by $154 billion year over year, notching the largest increase since 1999, the New York Fed found.  

“Credit card balances experienced a large jump in the third quarter, consistent with strong consumer spending and real GDP growth,” said Donghoon Lee, the New York Fed’s economic research advisor.  Credit card delinquency rates also rose across the board, according to the New York Fed, but especially among millennials, or borrowers between the ages of 30 and 39, who are already burdened by high levels of student loan debt. 

Cardholders are  now carrying debt from month to month or falling behind on payments, and a greater percentage of balances are going more than 180 days delinquent, according to a separate report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Nearly one-tenth of credit card users find themselves in “persistent debt” where they are charged more in interest and fees each year than they pay toward the principal — a pattern that is increasingly difficult to break, the consumer watchdog said.

“It’s a big deal,” said Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate. “Your credit card is probably your highest cost debt by a wide margin.”   Now, “consumers are maintaining and supporting their lifestyles using credit card debt,” said Howard Dvorkin, a certified public accountant and the chairman of Debt.com.

According to consumer finance expert and reporter Erica Sandberg though, if you’re doing it because you maxed out your limits from overspending, this is a indicator your problem is worse than you thought. “Even if you’re meeting all of your expenses and have avoided debt, you may not have any cash tucked away because you’re spending the excess.  If so, it’s time you shopped for a savings account, not another pair of shoes. Unexpected costs always come up, and when they do, you’ll be glad you have the money”, Sandburg told Insider.

 

U.S. Bureau Of Economic Analysis Data in linear graph form, showing the decline in the personal savings rate among Americans from 2018 through Fall of 2023
U.S. Bureau Of Economic Analysis Data in linear graph form, showing the decline in the personal savings rate among Americans from 2018 through Fall of 2023

 

And that brings us to a sobering reality that underlines how Americans are sabotaging their own futures, while blaming politicians, including the president.  While people are spending as if the ride will never end, they are not saving. Economists looking at the stats on personal consumption, are labeling the behavior, “unsustainable.”

A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that the extra cash households accumulated during the pandemic has likely declined from a peak of $2.1 trillion to $430 billion.  The personal savings rate, which refers to the share of disposable income that households save, dipped to 3.4% in September from 4% in August, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.    Amidst the backdrop of no apparent slowdown of consumerism and debt accumulation, CNBC outlines the reality disconnect that prevails. 

 

“Nearly half, or 49%, of adults have less savings or no savings compared with a year ago, according to a Bankrate survey.  More than one-third also now have more credit card debt than cash reserves, which is the highest on record, and 57% of adults said they could not afford a $1,000 emergency expense, another Bankrate survey found.”

 

Consumer spending, on the other hand, rose 0.7% in September, a sharp increase that beat Wall Street expectations.  “The recent uptick in purchases may not be sustainable,” said Kayla Bruun, senior economist at market and industry intelligence firm Morning Consult. “Households may need to either pull back on spending or rely more on debt going forward”, Bruun said in a statement.  But will they? There’s no indication of that as of yet.

“The main reason why we think this pace of spending is not sustainable is because we look at the underlying drivers of spending. They are not the most reliable and sustainable sources of spending,” said EY’s chief economist Gregory Daco. “When you have households that are dipping into their savings, that’s not an encouraging sign,” he told MarketWatch. 

Real income growth is the key to healthy consumer spending growth, Daco said, but it’s declining now. Real personal disposable income, the amount after taxes and adjusted for inflation, fell for the third consecutive month after a year of growth, according to government data.  “You don’t spend forever on your savings. You don’t spend forever on your wealth. You spend in a consistent manner on your income,” Daco continued. 

So, what’s the bottom line here with all of the statistics and data on American consumerism as versus their purported discontent with the economy? Thank you for asking. The polling seems incoherent in this light.

If people are angry as hornets about the costs of you name it going up and staying up, it would seem logical that self same people would put the brakes on their spending. That’s because, as we learned with reference to the immutable law of supply and demand – when demand increases, producers, retailers and service providers hike their prices. The occasional exceptions serve only to prove the rule.

Consumers are not pulling in their horns. There is no evidence to be seen to indicate that and plenty that we have cited from all aspects of the consumer marketplace to demonstrate the very opposite. But I would ask this seemingly obvious question to any of the angry spendthrifts. Does President Biden have the authority to order manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and retail outlets to lower prices to the consumer? We know the answer to that, at least according to our system of laws.

Second question – did President Biden give a speech during his entire term in office to date, urging Americans to go out “revenge spending” or to rack up unsustainable personal debt? I haven’t come across any.

Third question -what role have Americans played in the ramping up to lamentable inflation stats? If they were honest with themselves, they might see the leading perpetrator in the mirror. If Americans invite Donald Trump back to the White House for a second term, merely because in reality they are angry at their own behavior, who will their decision hurt the most. The answer is everyone, including themselves.

Stop the insanity.

 


 

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