The Retired Investor: Inflation Versus Wages
American workers are making more dollars per hour than they did before the pandemic. That's the good news. The bad news is that inflation is wiping away most of those gains and the rate of wage growth is slowing.
Most Americans look at their paychecks today and feel pretty good. However, they realize that after spending on essentials such as food, fuel, education, and health, they realize that their wages are not keeping up with the cost of living.
"Real wages on average are falling, not rising," says San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly, summing up the present state of wage growth.
To be sure, there was a one-time surge in salaries back in 2021, which spilled over into the early months of this year, but since then, wage growth has been slowing.
Real average hourly wages in the U.S. in the private sector rose at a 3.9 percent rate in the three months ended in October, which is down from a high of 6.3 percent at the end of 2021 and fell further to 5.9 percent as recently as the three months ended in July.
In general, the rate of change in wages has been falling for well over a year, while inflation at 7.8 percent remains close to its highest rate in decades. In dollars and cents terms, let's say you are an average worker making $30.06, which was the average wage back in March of 2021. Fast forward to August of this year and now you are making $32.36. Not bad, huh?
Now let's throw in the inflation rate during that period, which had risen by 11.81 percent. Let's say it costs you $5,000 per month to pay all your bills, after inflation that monthly nut had now climbed to $5,591.
Over the past year, the Federal Reserve Bank has been doing its best to battle inflation back down to the 2 percent range, but they caution that this is a process that will take time. This week in a speech at the Economic Club of New York, John Williams, the New York Fed president, sees inflation falling to 5.0-5.5 percent by late 2023 as more interest rate hikes restore balance to the economy. How does raising interest rates to reduce inflation and restore economic balance?
For one thing, it reduces demand in the economy by reducing discretionary spending, which is an economic buzzword for making it harder to make ends meet if you are a typical worker. Higher interest rates spill over into borrowing rates, which make buying a home, or an automobile, or paying down your credit card more expensive to consumers. So, the tools that the Fed is using to reduce inflation are hurting the labor force, while wages are not keeping up with inflated expenses.
One way out of this dilemma for many workers is to job jump. After all, jobs are plentiful right now, so if you don't like the one you have, just get another one. As an added incentive, in this tight labor market, switching jobs frequently comes with another bump up in pay or at least a signing bonus. Some workers I know personally have moved positions two or three times in the last two to three years while upping their total compensation on every move.
However, those days may be coming to an end. Fed President Williams, while admitting that the job market remains remarkedly tight, expects the U.S. unemployment rate to rise from 3.7 percent today to 4.5 percent-5 percent by the end of next year. If so, job hopping to keep ahead of inflation might not be as easy to pull off.
If it makes any difference, you are not alone. European workers are experiencing a similar gap between wages and inflation even though they are represented by far more unions than here in the U.S.
The Retired Investor: Time to Rebuild the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?
The nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SRP) has been reduced by more than 25 percent over the last year. That is the lowest level in 40 years. Oil had dropped below $80 a barrel mark this week, causing some critics to argue that it might be time to start building the SRP back up. I disagree.
My reasoning centers on a handful of geopolitical events that could send oil prices soaring in the first week of December. To understand how important the SRP might be in that case, one needs to know more about the Biden administration's use of the SRP since 2021.
A year ago this month, on Nov. 23, 2021, President Joe Biden announced the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in response to the Ukraine/Russian conflict, which caused o and gas prices to explode higher. The president's stated goal was to lower oil and gas prices while addressing the lack of energy supply worldwide.
Since then, Biden's activist intervention in global oil markets has succeeded in reducing U.S. gas prices at the pump, as well as contributing to the decline in oil prices to their lowest level in more than a year. So far, 160 million barrels of oil have been released with another 10 million barrels scheduled to be drained this month. Some say that is more than enough. Maybe, maybe not.
To gain some perspective, let's look at the history of the SRP. It was first created by Congress back in 1975 in response to the 1973 oil crisis. For those who are curious, the nation's emergency crude oil is stored in underground salt caverns at four major storage facilities on the Gulf Coast, two sites in Texas, and two sites in Louisiana.
The purpose of the SRP was to manage market disruptions such as a war in the Middle East, an oil embargo, or a natural catastrophe. Our energy stockpile has been used by several presidents, most notably during the Iraq/Kuwait War in 1990-1991, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2011 Arab Spring energy disruptions. The Ukraine War and the subsequent sanctions on Russian-produced oil certainly fit the bill for use of the SRP and thus the release of oil from the U.S. emergency energy storage.
Criticism of President Biden's move to employ the SRP as an energy weapon has been harsh and varied. Some Republicans have called his decision reckless because it endangers our energy security at a time when there is so much global conflict and uncertainty. Others accuse him of a blatantly political move.
They say his use of the SRP before the midterm elections was simply a ploy to win over voters. If so, it worked. Gasoline prices dropped from more than $5 a gallon to $3.80 a gallon today. Voters may have also been swayed by the decline in pump prices since the GOP failed to score the "red wave" they were expecting.
But to be fair, several presidents besides Biden have released oil from our stockpile during political campaigns. Bill Clinton, for example, did so just before the 2000 presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
However, this is the first time a president went on the record in admitting that he was using our petroleum reserves to reduce prices, rather than to bolster supplies. Most economists would laugh at that distinction, since ordinarily if you increase the supply of something, its price will decline over time.
To me, the Biden administration's activist interference in the global oil markets may just be the beginning. Until recently, the global price of oil has been in the hands of a few volatile foreign governments and OPEC. But a lot has changed in the American oil patch since the 1970s. The U.S. is now one of the leading producers of oil and gas and a major energy exporter. Pricing power comes with that kind of production.
The willingness of the U.S. government to enter the fray and become a price setter instead of a taker via the SRP could become a geopolitical tool and an answer to the OPEC+ Cartel's domination and control of energy prices and supply. The bottom line: by focusing on price, President Biden may be putting the price-fixing cartel of OPEC+, and Russia on notice that there is a new boy on the block.
I also believe that the administration's announced intention to start rebuilding the SRP somewhere between $67-$72 a barrel of oil is an attempt at establishing a floor of price support for oil. That may be comforting news to U.S. energy companies. If the oil majors and shale producers believe that the U.S. government is willing to backstop their business at a certain oil price, would that give them added confidence and an incentive to increase U.S. energy supplies? I think so, but now is not the time to start building back our oil reserves.
On Dec. 5, 2022, the Group of Seven (G7) and the European Union (EU) are planning to embargo Russian oil. In addition, a G7 plan, intended as an add-on to the EU embargo, would allow shipping services providers to help export Russian oil, but only at enforced lower prices. An embargo like that could take as much as 2.4 million barrels per day of Russian oil off the market. That could increase oil prices dramatically. There is also an added risk that Russia retaliates and cuts off energy supplies to Europe in response.
Oil analysts worry that these plans could backfire, at a time when seasonal energy demand is at its highest. OPEC is worried as well. They are rumored (officially denied) to be debating a 500,000 barrel per day increase in production just in case.
If the worse happens and oil prices skyrocket higher into the first quarter of 2023, what will be the U.S. response? Will the president stand fast, or will he be forced to order another 90-100 million barrels, of oil, or more to be drained from the SRP? I am betting he would be forced to release more barrels because the alternative could be $120 barrel oil in the months ahead.
The Retired Investor: U.S. Veterans Gaining Jobs
The unemployment rate for veterans in the U.S. is 2.5 percent. That is a level that is 1.2 percentage points lower than the national unemployment rate. Much of this declining jobless trend can be attributed to the success of hiring, training, and education programs of businesses and the government.
Today, veterans account for 7 percent of the civilian population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so that's good news for the overall economy. Granted, the tight labor market and demand for workers after the COVID-19 pandemic, have helped everyone seeking a job find one.
In the case of veterans, they have had some extra help from the U.S. military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and various veterans' service organizations in preparing them to re-enter the U.S. labor force. In addition, American companies have launched initiatives of their own that have successfully hired hundreds of thousands of vets as well.
It wasn't always this way.
Much of the impetus for this combined effort was triggered by the Great Recession and the dearth of jobs that were available to returning service members who were damaged and stressed out by their service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Credit goes to President Barack Obama who established several service initiatives supported by a bipartisan Congress.
Today, among businesses, veterans are seen as an exceptional class of Americans. Thanks to government programs that provide tax breaks, salary subsidies, and regulatory benefits the risk of hiring vets has been diminished substantially.
The gains in employment rates are good news for vets. Some readers might ask why these ex-members of an extremely capable fighting machine need all this extra help. This bleak batch of statistics concerning our nation's heroes might give you a few reasons:
Since 9/11, four times as many U.S. service members have died by their hands as have died in combat. Of all adults who are experiencing homelessness, 13 percent are veterans, and PTSD impacts 15 out of every 100 veterans daily.
I can commiserate. Back in the day, my job search suffered after my return from Vietnam. Part of that difficulty derived from the blowback I received from employers who equated my service with an unpopular, controversial war. I also know what it means to suffer from PTSD.
I count myself lucky because I benefited from the help I received from the psychology department of a local university I attended on the GI Bill. Still, many years later, while paddling up the Amazon River on vacation with my teenage daughter, I suffered constant flashbacks and nightmares in those jungles and afterward for days.
In any case, I can attest that many vets may feel isolated once they separate from their band of brothers. It is even worse for female veterans, who relied on sisterhood to navigate a male-dominated military. More than 70 percent of a national survey of 4,700 women veterans admitted adjusting to civilian life was difficult.
For many vets, it may take years to find a new identity, employment, and a new purpose in life. Employers say that vets do bring specific skills like leadership ability, and a strong sense of mission to the job. Companies eager to hire may sometimes be disappointed, however, because a job fit that seemed ideal on paper doesn't work out that way once the vet is hired.
A mistake many vets have made is accepting a job similar to what they did in the service, only to trigger unexpected reactions. A military convoy truck driver, for example, may discover that his new FedEx job simply aggravates negative feelings from his combat experience. It is one reason why more than 50 percent of vets returning to the workforce quit and find a second job within a year.
Fortunately, both government and businesses are now aware of the unique pitfalls vets face and have developed all sorts of successful re-training programs that exist within companies, in various governmental organizations, and the non-profit sector.
At my old alma mater, Forbes Magazine, a list of America's "Best Employers for Veterans," is now in its third year of publication. Forbes partnered with a market research company, Statista, to survey 7,000 U.S. veterans working for American-based companies employing 1,000 people or more. Two hundred companies received the highest score with aerospace and defense companies claiming the top three spots.
Government services occupied 24 spots in the list with NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Commerce leading the public sector pack. One reason the government is so heavily represented may be that veterans are given preference over other applicants for almost all federal government jobs.
All in all, veterans today have an enormous number of avenues available to them and, for the most part, most ex-military service members are willing and able to take advantage of them. That doesn't mean they won't need our help in the future. If a country is willing to go to war, in my opinion, the greater the obligation to care for those who fought.
The Retired Investor: Inflation Hits COVID Dog Owners
More than 23 million Americans purchased or adopted pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, these new pet owners are discovering that the costs of caring for these pets are climbing higher and higher as inflation takes its toll.
The annual inflation rate over 12 months ending in June 2022 was 9.1 percent. We all know what this has done to food prices, rents, energy, etc. One subset of the population that has been especially hard hit by rising inflation is pet owners, according to a recent study by Veterinarians.org. Their Special Reports Team surveyed 1,000 U.S. pet owners to find out how they were coping with inflation. The results are not encouraging.
Half of those surveyed are trading down to cheaper pet food, whiles 41 percent switched to cheaper treats. More than half (55 percent) canceled their food subscriptions to purveyors like Chewy and Amazon.
At the same time, with the number of COVID-19 cases declining, more and more workers are being asked to return to the office. As a result, many pet owners are waking up to the need to place their pets in doggy day care. Beyond the emotional wrenching, this may cause for both owner and pet, there is the problem of finding a place to care for him or her. Doggy day cares and boarding kennels have waiting lists that in many cases are months long. What is worse, many of these new owners have failed to socialize their dogs, making boarding them nearly impossible.
And while pet owners may feel relieved if they were able to nail down one or more services for their pet, the cost of doing so is fast becoming untenable for many pet owners. Rising costs have reduced day care and boarding visits by between 20-24 percent.
Veterinarians' services are just as much in demand as a day care with waiting times for appointments measured in weeks, if not months. Many vets are not taking on new pet owner clients. There has been a 28 percent decline in vet visits, according to the survey. What is worse, 46 percent of owners have had to forego or delay veterinary procedures, or treatments, and a further 33 percent have had to cancel their pet's prescription medications.
Sadly, almost one quarter (24 percent) of pet owners are considering rehoming their pets or rehoming them to shelters, or rescue as a result of inflation. My wife and I have personal experience in this area. As many readers are aware, we lost Titus, our 13.5-year-old chocolate Lab, in April 2022. A few months ago, we were contacted by a young guy in the area, who could no longer afford to keep his 2-year-old standard poodle, which he purchased in 2020. He asked for our assistance in placing his pet in a good home.
True confessions force me to admit that a poodle did not fit our image of the type of dog we wanted to hike, swim, or run with, but we promised to do what we could to place him. In the end, none of that mattered. We fell in love with this curly, mop-haired, COVD cast-off. The first thing we did was purchase pet insurance, followed by selecting a great trainer and teaching him to swim and retrieve.
And while this dog hopefully will live a happy-ever-after existence, many more will not. More than 22 percent of pet owners have already applied to special services in their state for help in paying for pet-related costs. The majority of those surveyed believe that a food pantry for pets would help them navigate through this inflationary period.
Unfortunately, we could say the same thing for many Americans well who are having to decide on whether to put food on the table or fuel up to make the commute to work.
The Retired Investor: Economics of Daylight Savings Time
On Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, Americans turn their clocks back to Standard Time. Earlier in the year, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a bill that would have made Daylight Savings Time (DST) permanent as of Nov. 20, 2023. What happened?
The U.S. House of Representatives has failed to act on the measure. In order to become law, the measure would need to pass the House and be signed into law by the president. Fundamental disagreements over the language of the Senate bill, called the Sunshine Protection Act, ultimately focused on which was the proper time to make permanent -- Daylight Savings or Standard Time.
Recent public opinion polls say most Americans would like to see DST made permanent. You might ask why and when did the present system develop, and what is the economic impact of changing it?
Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea in 1784, but it was Europe, specifically Germany, that first implemented the change back in 1916. In America, DST has had a checkered past, beginning with President Wilson, who first made it a law in 1918. It was repealed seven months later, reinstated in 1942 by FDR, and made official by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, who made the start and end dates of DST uniform across the country.
Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas do not recognize DST. Only 70 countries worldwide observe it, but those that do, are strict about it. For example, on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2022, clocks in most of Europe were set back an hour as DST ends.
In passing the Sunshine Protection Act, legislators in the U.S. Senate justified the permanent switch to DST by arguing that it could boost consumer spending, while reducing energy consumption by adding an extra hour of daylight at the end of the workday.
Historically, not everyone in the U.S. liked the concept of daylight savings. Farmers lobbied against the concept because it would give them one less hour of sunlight to send their crops to market. They also claimed the cows didn't like it because milking is done on a schedule and DST disrupts that.
As for energy savings, at one point the U.S. implemented DST year-round (from January 1974 through April 1975) to combat the energy crisis back then. Once again in 2005, Congress extended DST by a month to also keep energy costs down. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the fraction of savings on one's electric and gas bills from DST was more than offset by higher energy usage in other areas.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long been a supporter of DST. The Chamber contends that consumer spending increases during DST. Retail sales jump due to more people shopping after work. Energy usage increases as well. More air conditioning and fan usage, and additional driving occur as consumers take advantage of extra daylight to care run errands. That explains the minimal gains in energy savings overall.
Two of their members, the golf, and the barbecue industry, have put numbers to their arguments. Golfers take advantage of the extended hour of play to the tune of $200-$400 million annually, according to the Chamber of Commerce, while profits to BBQ-related companies increase by more than $150 million per month. Restaurants, hotels and those businesses in tourism areas are also in favor of DST because they say visitors stay out later.
On the negative side, William F. Shugart II, an economist at Utah State University, states that the changing of clocks itself can cost the country $1.7 billion in lost opportunity costs. He argues people could be doing something more productive. In addition, the Air Transport Association, as far back as 2007, believed the airline industry suffers more than $147 million in snarled time schedules worldwide as a result of the clock change.
Beyond the economics, which seems to have as many pros as it does cons, the social impacts are just as confusing. Longer daylight promotes safety for children playing outside, joggers, and dog walkers, and increases visibility causing fewer auto accidents.
Countering the pros, are arguments that moving clocks forward provides less sunlight in the morning when most children are going to school. Since most robberies are committed at night, however, extra daylight may cut down on crime.
In any case, do not expect Congress to move on legislation to make one or the other time change permanent this year. Depending on the outcome of the mid-term elections, something might change in 2023, but given the partisanship in Congress, I wouldn't hold your breath.