The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

There’s no certainty on economy

- Catherine Rampell

Everyone has their own idea about the economy right now.

To some, Tuesday’s inflation report showing prices 6.4% higher than a year earlier was fantastic news. The slowest pace of inflation in more than a year! Usedcar prices are falling! No sign of recession! Take that, all ye doubters. According to others, the numbers were terrible. Inflation was higher than expected. People are working longer hours but making less in inflation-adjusted terms than they were a year ago. It’s the best of times, the worst of times, the spring of hope, the winter of despair. Everyone is looking at the same set of numbers and somehow coming to opposite conclusion­s.

Of course, politician­s and their allies always cast new developmen­ts in whatever light is most favorable. That’s how politics works, and economic numbers lend themselves especially well to this kind of spin. Anyone can squint at four data points and construct whatever narrative suits their interests.

I’m here to tell you: Don’t trust anyone who says they know for sure what’s going on in this economy — including me.

It’s difficult to make prediction­s. But right now it’s tough to say exactly what is happening even in the present. Key economic metrics are pointing in all different directions.

Hiring in January was crazy strong (maybe because the job market is hot, or maybe because the weather has been unseasonab­ly hot, too). Services prices and overall output are growing quickly, also usually a sign of a booming economy. Other signs are less clear. The manufactur­ing industry is adding jobs, even though, by some measures, it looks like it’s in recession. Shipping firms are making big profits but expressing pessimism. So are executives in other industries that are nonetheles­s in the black. Things are confusing. And beware: The puzzling nature of the current moment makes it fertile ground for partisans. When numbers are cacophonou­s, that cacophony can be pared down into multiple plausible tunes. Democrats can point toward the favorable data points and claim credit; Republican­s can point to the unfavorabl­e ones and lay blame.

Even when everyone seems to agree on the general tenor of things, factions can come up with different explanatio­ns for what’s happening. If the economic numbers are unequivoca­lly good, that must be because of the policies I recommende­d. If they’re unequivoca­lly bad, it’s surely due to strategies I had warned against.

We all have the same tea leaves we try to read, hopefully with the benefit of a useful framework for how to read them. Whether things look “good” or “bad” in the economy also depends on the fraught question, “compared with what?” If we hadn’t had an energy shock that supercharg­ed inflation last year, for example, few would be gloating about experienci­ng “only” 6.4% inflation now. On the other hand, if you’re comparing the post-COVID job-market recovery with that following the financial crisis, things look pretty spectacula­r.

Understand­ing the economy is a very personal and specific thing. If you lost your job, then good macroecono­mic data provides cold comfort. If inflation is killing your business, the fact that it’s sometimes a fraction of a percentage point lower than market expectatio­ns is meaningles­s.

But people still want to know what the heck is going on. So, my best, humble guesses about the big economic questions of the day:

Are we headed for recession? I’m less worried today about an imminent downturn than I was a few months ago, particular­ly as labor-market numbers have come in better than expected month after month. I don’t think the risk of recession is gone, though. There are too many unknowns. The path of Russia’s war on Ukraine, for instance, or a possible default on U.S. debt.

I’m less worried about inflation than I once was, too. I think it’s unlikely price growth will accelerate in the months ahead.

But inflation has been pretty “sticky,” and recent data revisions have shown it to be higher than initially estimated. Wringing the last bit of inflation out of the system might be challengin­g, since we’ve already done some of the relatively easy stuff (untangling snarled supply chains, for instance, and cooling housing demand). Which means it’s likely we’ll be dealing with uncomforta­bly high price growth and Federal Reserve rate hikes for some time to come.

We will be arguing about all of this for much longer, too.

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