Brace For Impact

The economy is far more precarious than the surface boom/bubble suggests. A great many households, enterprises, and municipalities are in overloaded boats whose gunwales are just a few inches above the water; the slightest wave will swamp and sink them.

The cost structure of the economy is completely out of whack with what households and enterprises can afford. There are several dynamics in play:

1. Enterprises have already stripped out all the expenses they can: headcount has been cut, quality has been gutted, quantity has been reduced, supply chains have been squeezed, inventory controls trimmed to just-in-time and so on. There are no easy, quick cost reductions available except laying off employees. Every other cost-cutting strategy has been milked dry.

2. Costs are soaring despite the low rate of officially measured inflation. I recently found some notes from 1995--a long time ago, 24 years. The dot-com bubble--the first of this era's three great asset bubbles--was inflating rapidly but official inflation was low, around 2.5% to 3% annually.

A slice of pizza was $1.50, the main dish in a Chinese restaurant was $4.50 and rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the S.F. Bay Area was $650/month. Now the pizza slice is $4.25 plus 9.25% tax, $4.65; the main dish is $11.95 plus 9.25% tax, $13.05, and rents for one-bedroom apartments far exceed $2,000/month in desirable neighborhoods.

Official inflation is $1 in 1995 equals $1.67 today. So a $1.50 slice of pizza in 1995 should cost $2.50 today, the $4.50 main dish should cost $7.50, and the $650 monthly rent should be $1,085. Real-world inflation has outstripped the bogus official rate in sector after sector. So TVs have dropped in price; big deal. How often do you buy a TV?

Costs have tripled in 24 years, but have wages tripled? No. In many cases, they haven't even kept pace with official inflation, much less real-world inflation. How many people earning $40,000 in 1995 are now earning $67,000, the minimum increase needed to match the rise in official inflation? Nobody I know. How many positions paying $40,000 in 1995 are now paying $120,000 for the same job? I think we can safely say none.

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Disclosures: None.

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