We Should Just Accept We’re Going to Have a Blah Economy

This economy can’t go on forever. GDP may still be growing, but it’s at an anemic rate. And other indicators are piling up that suggest a recession is imminent: The yield curve is inverting, hiring and house price growth is slowing and Philadelphia may win the World Series.

If you follow financial commentary, it sounds like we’re about to hit the inflection point — that moment when the economy turns and we enter a recession; the stock market crashes, inflation deflates, people lose jobs and housing prices tank. But if there has been one thing consistently true over the past two years, it is that what everyone consistently predicted has turned out to be wrong. That’s because we’re in uncharted territory. We have never before turned the economy off, then turned it back on again as we did in the pandemic.

Take high inflation, a phenomenon that the American economy hasn’t experienced in almost 40 years. A chart by chief economist Torsten Slok at Apollo Global Management Inc. demonstrated that everyone has been consistently wrong about inflation and is still getting it wrong. It seems that every month the consensus forecast predicts that this is the month the inflection point arrives and next month inflation will start its quick drop to normal levels. But each month inflation goes higher or stays the same.

To be fair, the Ukraine war was unexpected and made inflation worse. But the baseless optimism continues month after month, even though inflation can take years to get under control. Why is everyone so wrong and not learning from their mistakes? It may just be that it’s been so long since we’ve experienced inflation that people just don’t know what to expect and assume the familiar “normal” will return soon. The Federal Reserve may also be hoping that if they say inflation will fall next month, the market will believe it and then it will actually happen.

Or it may just be that our old models and data don’t fit the current environment and they keep telling us the wrong thing. Inflation today is being caused by many factors, many of which we’ve never dealt with before: pent up demand from the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, exceptionally accommodative monetary policy and a lot of government stimulus. This is not your grandmother’s inflation. That doesn’t mean monetary policy won’t work to rein it in, but it may take more time and higher rates than any model is predicting.