Jim welcomes back John Williams from Shadow Government Statistics. John believes the real unemployment rate is 22%, not 8.1%, which is why it still feels like a recession. He also calculates the CPI at 6%, not 2.8%, and explains how the government manipulates the rate of inflation. Lastly, John believes the US is still on track for hyperinflation in 2014 as we near the coming fiscal cliff. Listen to the interview.
John received an A.B. in Economics, cum laude, from Dartmouth College in 1971, and was awarded a M.B.A. from Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School of Business Administration in 1972, where he was named an Edward Tuck Scholar. During his career as a consulting economist, John has worked with individuals as well as Fortune 500 companies. Formally known as Walter J. Williams, his friends call him John. For nearly 30 years, John has been a private consulting economist and, out of necessity, had to become a specialist in government economic reporting.
JIM: Joining me on the program today is John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics.
And John, before we get into a real big issue that’s going to hit the economy January 2013, I want to talk about the front page of your website. And you have two graphs that are available publicly and one is the unemployment rate where you have U3, U6 and then SGS, which is your own. Let’s talk about those numbers, what they mean for our listeners and the differences between them. [1:11]
JOHN: Sure. I’ve been a consulting economist for 30 years. What I’ve found over the decades is that the government’s reporting has moved further and further away from common experience, and really, the average guy has got a pretty good sense of what’s going on. If you feel the economy is not as strong as the government is saying or that inflation might be higher than what they’re reporting, you’re most likely right because you’re dealing with the real world.
The numbers use to deal much closer to real world experience.
And with the unemployment number, if you, let’s say, went around the entire country and asked everyone whether he or she was unemployed, you’d get an immediate answer. Most people have a pretty strong opinion as to what’s up, they have a job; they know what’s going on. But if you put all those numbers together, you’d come up with a much higher unemployment rate than the government reports, or at least the headline government number to date. So that’s all due to definition.
In order to be counted in the headline unemployment rate – and keep in mind, the government actually publishes six levels of unemployment. The third level they call U3 is the headline number – you have to obviously be out of work and willing and able to take a job, but you have to have actively looked for work in the last four weeks. There are people who’ve stopped looking for work after a period of time when there are just no jobs to be had, yet they’d take a job if it were available, and they otherwise consider themselves unemployed. They want a job; they are willing and able to work. And again, they’d take it as soon as it was offered. If you haven’t been looking in the last four weeks, the government will count you as a discouraged worker so long as you’ve looked for work in the last year.
If you haven’t actively looked for work in the last year, they don’t count you at all.
Before 1994, anybody who was a discouraged worker, irrespective of the period of time, was counted as a discouraged worker. So that where you have the U3 unemployment rate at, I believe it’s 8.2% in March, the government’s broadest number U6 (which includes what I call the short term discouraged workers, those who have given up looking for work, but not for more than a year) and also includes people who work part-time for economic reasons (they can’t get a full-time job, they want a full-time job but you know, no full-time job is available) that’s running up somewhat over 14%.
And what I do is I add to that my estimate of the longer term discouraged workers – those who have been discouraged more than a year. That puts you up over 22%.
What happens here is the people who are unemployed roll out of the U3 level; they become discouraged because there are no jobs to be had, and so they go into the U6 level.
And after a year, they roll out of the U6 level in terms of going into another world that the government does not count. I still estimate them, so my number is broader than the government’s number. So when you see the unemployment rate dropping, yet the broader measures are rising or staying at near historic levels, you do not have an economic recovery and that’s what we’re showing. [4:26]
JIM: And John, if we go back to the beginning of the year when we were closer to 9% and we’ve seen – or let’s say the fourth quarter of last year and we’ve seen it steadily come down. But it’s been my understanding that the decline in that unemployment rate (the “U3”) that the government reports, a lot of it is discouraged workers that are no longer counted, number one. And number two, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there also a category, let’s say I’m unemployed and I get unemployment benefits for 99 weeks or whatever the timeframe is, once those 99 weeks end, aren’t I technically considered employed? [5:06]
JOHN: No. To be employed you have to have a job. What they call the Household Survey where they count the unemployed, they actually go around and survey 60,000 households or so each month. And they have a survey questionnaire that they use for determining whether people are employed or how many people in the household are unemployed or employed, but they don’t count the receipt of unemployment benefits as a factor in being defined as unemployed. So it’s separate from the jobless claims, and such now the fact that the jobless claims have come down some recently does not mean things are getting better.
What you have to keep in mind is that we have been in the most severe and most protracted economic downturn seen since the Great Depression. And this has been – the economy began to collapse in, certainly by the end of 2007 – and I mean collapse; we had a sharp decline in economic activity. And right now we are seeing nothing but stagnation or bottom bouncing at a low level of activity. So what might have been historic norms, when you were looking at much smaller recessions, don’t apply here. You have people who have been laid off, businesses that have cut to the bone wherever they can and the fact that you don’t have quite as many layoffs as you had doesn’t mean things are getting better. It just means that you have fewer people to lay off.
There are two sides to that: the one side is the jobless claims; the other side is the hiring. There are no good measures of that, but the Conference Board puts out a help-wanted index. It used to be with newspapers which were a – that was a very reliable, good indicator over time. The internet has taken over in that area and now they have what they call an online help-wanted advertising. It’s not as good a quality; it doesn’t have a history that the newspapers did. The most recent numbers, even though they are up overall, the number I would look at there is the new ads for advertising for hiring people. That actually declined in the last month and that’s not a good indicator. Everything we’re looking at here suggests we’re not seeing an economic recovery and that’s tied largely to inflation. The inflation has created an illusion here with some of the statistics. [7:26]
JIM: John, do you think this is one of the reasons when they keep doing survey after survey – and I think they just did one recently where over 80% of the country still feel we’re in a depression – is these numbers that you’re reporting, which are over 20%, are probably more reflective of what’s actually going on in the economy? [7:47]
JOHN: I believe so. Again, the average person has a pretty good sense of what’s going on. And if they look globally and they know things are not doing well, they will tend to extrapolate that into a national level. They hear the government’s numbers, but they tend to disbelieve them and there’s good reason for that. The government’s numbers don’t reflect what’s going on. It’s a matter of how they define it. They put in happy definitions that tend to give them a better economic result with lower inflation rates. [8:16]
JIM: Let’s go on to the second graph that you have on the front of your website which is the alternative inflation rate, and they are both tracking from what the government reports, which is CPI-U, and then you have your measure. And your measure is probably closer to around 6% right now. It has been coming down so that might line up with Bernanke’s comment that the inflation pressures have gotten a little better, but they’re still at 6%. When you consider that people are getting 2% on a 10-year Treasury note, when the real inflation rate is 6%!
So let’s talk about the difference between your numbers and let’s say the numbers that are reported every month by the government. [8:57]
JOHN: Sure. With the CPI, the Consumer Price Index the government’s broad measure of inflation, there you have something that is much more egregious, and really, sinister as far as I’m concerned in terms of what the government has done. You have to go back to the days of Mr. Greenspan in the early nineties, and Michael Boskin, who’s then the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. They were beginning to protest that the Consumer Price Index overstated inflation. And oh, well, maybe we could correct that and get a lower inflation rate. That would help us reduce the deficit because it would reduce the cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and such. Well, that’s something you’re seeing politicians playing with academic economists; in theory, it should have no relationship to the way people look at things. Again, it’s a matter of definition.
The average person when he thinks of inflation, at least what he thinks the government is reporting, he assumes that it reflects out-of-pocket expenditures and it reflects the inflation that you’d need to match if you wanted to maintain a constant standard of living if you were using the inflation measure to target your wage or salary or if your wages or salary are automatically adjusted by that or your pension or Social Security payments are adjusted by that. Or, if you are using that to set a downside limit to your investment target, you certainly want to beat inflation when you’re investing your funds. That’s not going to help you much if you can’t stay ahead of inflation.
So if the government is giving you too low of an inflation rate – which they are, and I’ll explain why – you’re really being cheated on a number of fronts and the government is not being honest putting that forward because they are using it to cut entitlement payments. (They’re trying to advance that further in terms of forthcoming budget deficit cuts with an even worse consumer price measure in terms of its significance.)
But what’s happened here? Go back in time to when this was used first in the cost of living adjustments in the auto union contracts. What they measured is what they called a fixed basket of goods. They’d take for example, let’s say they’d measure the price of a pound of beef or a gallon of gas or a loaf of bread, they’d price them out in current prices, and the next year they’d price out that same basket of goods. And whatever the change was in the cost of that basket of goods, that’s effectively how much your income had to go up in order to maintain a constant standard of living.
Now, getting back to Messrs. Boskin and Greenspan, if you ask Mr. Greenspan: What do you mean the CPI overstates inflation? His response was, well, let’s say the price of steak goes up, people are going to buy more hamburger and they buy more hamburger, their cost of living is going to go down. So really the CPI is overstated.
And Boskin would use the same example, only he would use people buying chicken instead of steak. Well, depending on how you define cost of living, if you use their definition, that is a cost of living but it’s not the cost of living of maintaining a constant standard of living. The government redefined it to make it maintaining a constant level of satisfaction, where you’d get to trade off dollars against your level of satisfaction. So if steak becomes too expensive and you don’t have the money to pay for it, you’re going to be satisfied buying hamburger instead of starving. That’s not what the average guy’s looking at or expecting here.
The other thing they did is they introduced hedonic adjustments, which are quality adjustments. Quality adjustments are legitimate. Let’s say the surveyors for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who go out each month and measure prices at all sorts of different locations, all sorts of different goods, let’s say the price of an 8 ounce candy bar; and the next month they go to price it and the package is the same but it’s a 6 ounce candy bar. They will pick that up; they look for it and they will mathematically adjust for that, so that you’ll actually see inflation because you’re getting less candy bar for the money.
They then look at what they started introducing in the 1980s with these hedonic adjustments that would make quality adjustments to goods. They would have econometric models that would estimate quality improvements that you could not directly measure. And if you can’t directly measure it, the guy who’s spending his money isn’t looking at that as an out-of-pocket expense.
An old example was when the government mandated change in gasoline prices; they mandated a reformulation of gasoline to help the quality of air that came out of exhaust pipes. The effect was that it added 10 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline; that was a big percentage back in those days. They didn’t count that in the CPI because it was not a quality improvement that the average person would look at or quantify in their out-of-pocket expense measure. The guy pumping his car full of gas is moaning and groaning that he’s paying an extra 10 cents per gallon, he isn’t thinking “I’m spending 10 cents a gallon here to make the air better.” [14:26]
But getting into a little more nebulous area, they have hedonic adjustments for all sorts of things, including college textbooks. Now, one of the factors that goes into how the computer model will quality adjust the books is whether the books have color pictures in them. This is textbooks. Now, the average student, unless he’s an art student, most likely does not care much whether he’s got black or white or color photographs in the textbook. His concern is how much am I out of pocket for my textbooks this semester. And the cost of the increased books gets mathematically shifted to reflect these nebulous measures.
The effect is – and there’s been some press on this recently. The government puts out the headline numbers, the Consumer Price Index All Urban Consumers, that’s the CPI-U. They also have the CPI-W which is for wage earners; it’s more of a blue-collar measure. It’s one that they use for adjusting Social Security payments et cetera. It tracks very closely to the CPI-U. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics said, oh my goodness, in that we have such a perfect measure now with all these adjustments – and this is really a Rube Goldberg index because they’ve done things to this that really make no sense. They’ve just tried to bring down the reported level of inflation as much as they could. They said, oh, if only we could take these back in time and restate history. Well, they did. They created another index called the CPI-URS (for “research study”). And so they take that back in time and they say, well, we’ve compared those two going back in time and the average difference per year is only half a percent.
Well, that’s accurate to a certain extent. What that half a percent reflects in a period of time before 2000 when the bigger changes were made, that’s the incremental reduction each year, roughly, as a result of all these methodological changes. The problem is if you’re looking at it going back in time, you can say that’s half a percent a year, but coming forward in time it’s cumulative. And coming forward in time, starting back in 1980 you see a difference of roughly 5 percentage points; in other words, 2 percentage points on top of that in areas that the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t consider methodological.
But the effect is order of magnitude 7 percentage points that they’re now understating the inflation if you base on the 1980 methodology. If you base it on the 1990 methodology, it’s around 3%, which gets you up into the 6-plus percent range right now. So what I do with my estimates is I estimate what the current inflation would be if these changes had not been made using what the government’s published as the effects of the change. I have an additive system. I add back in the amount the government has said it’s taken out. So that with inflation somewhere – you can argue certain elements of it, but you know, running somewhere between 6 and 10 percent right now, nobody is staying ahead of inflation with anything that’s available in the domestic financial markets that’s reasonably safe, except for something like gold. I mean, over time, gold picks up the actual inflation.
In fact, if you go back to 1933 when Roosevelt abandoned the gold standard, since then the purchasing power of the dollar has dropped about 98 percent. That’s been fully covered by gold. And gold has actually covered more than the drop in the purchasing power based on the CPI-U if you look at my estimated adjusted work and try it out on the markets. [18:31]
JIM: John, a final question if I may. Come January 1st of next year, they’re calling it a “fiscal cliff.” We have the 1.2 trillion dollars of budget cuts that was agreed to last August when we had the debt-ceiling debate. And then on top of that we have the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, you have the repeal unless extended of the Social Security tax cuts; you have a 1.2% tax increase coming from the phasing out of itemized deductions for people in the certain income group; you have a 0.9% additional Medicare. So if you’re making 250, you could find yourself in a 45 percent tax bracket. Then you have the 3.8 percent additional tax on investment income capital from interest, dividends, pensions to annuity payments and real estate.
With the economy growing anemically at best, even if you want to take the government’s numbers at face value, at 2.2 percent, and given the fact that we’re in an election year where there’s no stomach in Congress to do any budget cutting, I mean, heck, the president can’t even get his own budget voted on by his own party. We haven’t had a budget in this country for over three years. What’s going to happen? I mean these guys have got to know, you cannot raise taxes 45 percent and cut 1.2 trillion from the budget and you think you’re going to have a booming economy. [20:05]
JOHN: Well, no chance of a booming economy. The deficit reduction is a fraud and the higher taxes will hammer the economy deeper in the ground. What can I tell you? Right now, disposable income, which is basically take home pay (after tax), adjusted for the government’s inflation is not growing. You can’t have any growth in the economy unless you’ve got real growth in income. The only way that consumption can grow faster than income is when you have debt expansion, and you don’t have either because of the debt crisis and the ongoing solvency issues of the banking system.
So you take a system that at best is showing flat disposable income, take the gimmicks out of it and you’re probably dropping 5 to 10 percent per year with disposable income after inflation adjustments. The taxes just make that worse. And again, that will severely hurt economic activity. In terms of the budget deficit, these guys are fraudsters. What can I tell you? You have a circumstance here where their budget deficit that they’re cutting is spaced out over 10 years; most of it is cutting the pace of increase in the deficit. They’re not really cutting the deficit per se.
All the budget projections are based on presumptions of 2 to 3 percent growth in the economy. We’re not going to have that. We don’t have that now. And with the weaker economy, you’ll end up with a much bigger budget deficit.
If you put in realistic projections of economic growth, that would more than offset this purported declines in the deficit. The deficit circumstance – they’re not doing anything serious here. Nothing is going on that will address the government’s long term solvency issues without a major change in political Washington. That may happen with the election, but it’s certainly not in place at the moment.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m getting upset here, but I really am upset with these guys. Where we are is a place we never should have gotten to, and the people in Washington know that and they’ve know where we’ve been going a long time; they’ve been playing politics with it. [22:19]
JIM: I’ve always marveled, John, when you look at Washington, they count a budget cut – let’s say I’m going to increase spending by 8 percent but I’m going to scale it back to 4 percent increase. They call that a budget cut. I mean look at the way the president has gone after Paul Ryan who’s not going to cut education spending. But if you listen to the president, we’re going to throw students out of the universities. I mean do you think they think we’re really stupid? [22:49]
JOHN: Yes. Absolutely. They’ve thought that for a long time. And to a certain extent it’s proven to be accurate with some of the voters. This is going to be a very interesting election year because the voting populace is not too happy with what’s happening with the economy; the average guy is feeling some financial pain and that usually leads to a change. But you need a real change here. You need someone in Washington actually addressing the problems and I just don’t see that happening, which leads to further disaster down the road – and not too far down the road. [23:47]
JIM: Yeah. I would say just looking at the numbers and the way that they’re growing that inflation scenario, I think, correct me, isn’t it still 2014? [23:35]
JOHN: 2014 I believe we will be in a hyperinflation. Yes. [23:38]
JOHN: All right. Well, listen, John, as always, I want to thank you for joining us on the program. And if you’re listening to this and you really want to understand why maybe what you hear on television doesn’t line up with what you see in reality, I highly recommend you go to John’s website – even better, get his newsletter – because John breaks out all these numbers and you get the real facts.
The website is called www.shadowstats.com. That’s all one word. And we’ve been speaking with its proprietor John Williams.
John, thanks for coming on the program. [24:09]
JOHN: Thanks so much for having me, Jim. [24:11]
Reprinted with permission from Financial Sense.