Metaphors used to explain the economy. From Wile E. Coyote to edibles: Recession forecasts are getting weird
Understanding the economy is a complicated task, and even the experts are struggling to answer seemingly simple questions like “Are we on the brink of a recession?” or “Why isn’t inflation falling faster?”
Metaphors used to explain the economy. From Wile E. Coyote to edibles: Recession forecasts are getting weird
Many have resorted to the use of metaphor to convey the current complexity of the economy.
It’s a communications tactic that some Federal Reserve officials have long favored. In the early 1980s, Nancy Teeters, the first woman appointed to the Federal Reserve Board, came up with an apt metaphor to explain why she disagreed with steep rate hikes implemented by then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.
Her colleagues were “pulling the financial fabric of this country so tight that it’s going to rip,” she said. “Once you tear a piece of fabric, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to put it back together again,” she added, before remarking that “none of these guys has ever sewn anything in his life.”
These days, economists and analysts are turning to increasingly outlandish metaphors to help translate their thoughts.
Here are some of the most interesting descriptors used recently and what they mean:
Wile E. Coyote
If you think back to Saturday morning cartoons, you may remember the never-ending, and mostly futile, chase between Wile E. Coyote and his nemesis, Road Runner. That pursuit often ended with Wile E. running off a cliff and into mid-air.
The toons were fun sources of entertainment in our salad years, but former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says they now double as a case study for the Fed and the economy.
“The [Federal Reserve’s] process of bringing down inflation will bring on a recession at some stage, as it almost always has in the past,” Summers told CNN last week.
And for the US economy, it could likely mean a “Wile E. Coyote moment,” Summers said — if we run off the cliff, gravity will eventually win out.
“The economy could hit an air pocket in a few months,” he said.
When describing the state of the economy, Summers doesn’t just rely on Looney Tunes. He also borrows from the medical community.
While describing why the Fed can’t end its rate hike regimen when inflation shows signs of showing, Summers has compared higher interest rates to medicine for a country sick with high inflation. The entire dose must be taken for the treatment to fully work, he says.
“We’ve all had the experience of taking a course of drugs and giving up, stopping the drugs, before the course was exhausted, simply because we felt better. And then, whatever infection we had came back and it was harder to fight the second time,” Summers told Boston’s NPR news station WBUR in February.
For what it’s worth, Before the Bell is also guilty of using this one.
We may be driving in the fog, landing a plane in the fog or even just walking in it.
What’s important in this oft-used scenario is that it’s hard to see and we’re doing something that typically requires clear visibility.
Clients “facing the fog of uncertainty in financial markets, economic growth and geopolitics,” should “avoid unnecessary lane changes,” and “allow extra time to reach your destination,” advised Goldman Sachs analysts earlier this year.
It’s essentially a fancy way of saying that no one really knows what’s going on in this economy. Instead of attempting to find a way out of the chaos, investors should slow down, stay the course and wait for recovery.
Late last year, investment analyst Peter Boockvar used a semi-illicit metaphor to explain why he thought the Fed might be over-tightening the economy into recession. He compared the Fed to an inexperienced consumer of weed gummies, which can take a long time to kick in.
During that waiting period, an eager consumer may think the drugs aren’t working and eat more before the effects of the first dose even set in. They then inevitably find themselves way too stoned and feeling not-so-great.
Boockvar was careful to note that he himself does not indulge in this practice, by the way.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon should receive an honorary degree in meteorology for his recessionary weather predictions.
The Big Bank exec has repeatedly referred to economic recession as a storm gathering on the horizon — occasionally he’ll update the public on how far away and how bad that storm is.
Last summer Dimon spooked markets when he compared a possible upcoming recession to a “hurricane.” In November, he downgraded it to a “storm.”
By January, his forecast was simply “storm clouds,” adding that he probably should never have used the term “hurricane.”
Rick Rieder, BlackRock’s Chief Investment Officer of Global Fixed Income, has likened the economy to a bendable piece of plastic. Much like the economy, he wrote, polyurethane, “displays flexibility and adaptability, but also durability and strength.”
He added that “the material’s ability to be stretched, bent, stressed and flexed without breaking, while in fact returning to its original condition, is what makes it so chemically unique. In recent years the US economy has displayed a remarkable resilience to stresses and an extraordinary ability to adapt to changing conditions.”
Do people need to lose jobs to bring down inflation?
Last week Senator Elizabeth Warren grilled Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell about American job losses being potential casualties of the central bank’s battle against high inflation.
Warren, a frequent critic of the Fed’s leader, noted that an additional 2 million people would have to lose their jobs if the unemployment rate rises from its current 3.6% rate to reach the Fed’s projections of 4.6% by the end of the year.
“If you could speak directly to the two million hardworking people who have decent jobs today, who you’re planning to get fired over the next year, what would you say to them?” Warren asked.
Powell argued that all Americans, not just two million, are suffering under high inflation.
“Will working people be better off if we just walk away from our jobs and inflation remains 5% or 6%?” Powell replied.
Warren cautioned Powell that he was “gambling with people’s lives.”
The discussion was part of a larger cost-benefit conversation that keeps popping up around the jobs market: Which is worse — widespread job loss or elevated inflation?
CNN spoke with two top economic analysts with different perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of the debate.
Below is our interview with Johns Hopkins economist Laurence Ball.
Yesterday we published our interview with Roosevelt Institute director Michael Konczal, you can read that here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before the Bell: Is it necessary to increase the unemployment rate to successfully fight inflation?
Laurence Ball: There’s a trade off between inflation and unemployment. When the economy is very strong and unemployment is pushed down, inflation tends to be higher. Right now there are almost two job openings per unemployed worker, the supply of workers looking for jobs and the demand for firms to hire is out of whack. That’s leading to faster wage increases, which sounds good except that gets passed through to faster price increases and more inflation. So somehow the labor market has to be brought back towards a normal balance of workers and jobs and that means slowing down the economy, and that probably means raising unemployment.
Can you explain the cost-benefit analysis of two million jobs lost to get down to 2% inflation?
If we assume we have to get inflation down to 2%, then it’s just an unhappy fact of life that that’s going to require higher unemployment. But a lot of people, including me, think that if the Fed gets it down to 4% or 3%, that’s the time to declare victory or say, ‘close enough for government work.’
It gets more and more expensive in terms of how much unemployment it costs to go from 3% to 2% inflation. Those last few points will have disproportionately large costs, and it’s very dubious if that’s really worth it.
Now, the Fed has the political problem that they’ve been insisting on a 2% target rate for years. If they say right at this moment that 3% or 4% is okay that would be seen as surrendering or moving the goalposts. I think a likely outcome is that inflation gets down to 3% or 4% and the Fed continues to say their target is a 2% inflation rate but never does what has to be done to get it there.
If you examine Fed history you see that 5% appears to be a magic number. When inflation is above 5% it becomes this big political issue. When it goes below 5% it disappears from the headlines.
What do you think is important for our readers to know about this back-and-forth between Powell and Warren?
Behind all of this, in a market economy there’s sort of a basic glitch. We have this thing called unemployment, we sort of chronically have not enough jobs for everybody and that’s a big problem. The problem can be reduced somewhat in the short run if you get the economy going very fast. But then that leads to inflation. Accepting that unemployment has to go back up is just recognizing that there’s this glitch in the market economy or capitalism. It’s not clear how we can get around that.
US regulators say SVB customers will be made whole
CNN Business’ David Goldman reports:
In an extraordinary action to restore confidence in America’s banking system, the Biden administration on Sunday guaranteed that customers of the failed Silicon Valley Bank will have access to all their money starting Monday.
In a related action, the government shut down Signature Bank, a regional bank that was teetering on the brink of collapse in recent days. Signature’s customers will receive a similar deal, ensuring that even uninsured deposits will be returned to them Monday.
SVB collapse: live updates
In a joint statement Sunday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg said the FDIC will make SVB and Signature’s customers whole. By guaranteeing all deposits — even the uninsured money that customers kept with the failed banks — the government aimed to prevent more bank runs and to help companies that deposited large sums with the banks to continue to make payroll and fund their operations.
The Fed will also make additional funding available for eligible financial institutions to prevent runs on similar banks in the future.
Wall Street investors were relieved that the government intervened as stock futures rebounded on Sunday evening, although the rally is fading Monday morning. Markets had tumbled more than 3% Thursday and Friday as investors feared more bank failures and systemic risk for the tech sector.
A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here. You can listen to an audio version of the newsletter by clicking the same link.