But less than a week into the new year, as the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill horror show (for which Trump deserves a lot of blame) struck, any hope of national unity began to disappear, and is now vanishing more rapidly than ever.
By all objective standards, the economy is doing great. But worries about sharply rising prices for gasoline, used cars and essentials such as groceries; the supply chain disruptions and the disappearance of familiar items from stores; and the spectacle of public figures tearing at each others’ throats are spreading fear and anger throughout the land.
There are days when you have to wonder if our nation’s unifying national motto — “E pluribus unum,” which is Latin for “out of many, one” — is going to be replaced by, “It’s not my fault, I’m a victim.”
We’re seeing all this discord even as unemployment is way down from where it was last year and home values and stock prices are both up sharply, greatly increasing our national wealth.
But economic inequality, which was already serious before this year started, has clearly gotten worse.
People who have substantial assets invested in houses and stocks have seen their wealth rise: house prices were up 16 percent for the year through September, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index. And the stock market, when last I looked, was up 19 percent — about $8 trillion for the year — according to the FT Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index.
A good part of the increases in stock and house values has to do with Federal Reserve policies. In March of last year, with the economy falling off a cliff because of covid and unemployment soaring, the Fed said it would hold short-term interest rates close to zero indefinitely, using a variety of unusual measures.
The Fed move, combined with Congress passing a big spending boost, helped revive the economy. It also revived a stock market where the S&P 500 had fallen a sickening 34 percent in less than six weeks. (Since their March 23 bottom last year, stocks then have risen 109 percent, according to the Wilshire 5000, adding about $25.8 trillion in value.)
This deepens inequality because more than 40 percent of Americans aren’t in the market.
These low rates encourage higher home prices by making mortgages cheaper, which means that buyers can afford to pay a higher purchase price because the low rates hold down their monthly mortgage payments to affordable levels.
The low rates encouraged higher stock prices in two ways. First, the ultra-low rates induced people and institutions seeking income from their investments to buy dividend-paying stocks that had yields in the mid single digits, which were double or triple the yields available on ultra-safe fixed-income securities they would have normally bought. Second, ultra-low rates increase the present-day value of companies’ projected future earnings.
In an attempt to hold down inflation, the Fed recently announced plans to raise interest rates three times next year. But even if the Fed pushes short-term Treasury rates to 2 percent or so from the current almost nothing, the new rates will still be very low by historical standards.
Even though the Fed will sharply cut back its trillion-dollar-plus purchases of Treasury securities, I figure those rates will still stay relatively low.
And none of the asset-enhancing benefits of the Fed’s low-rate regime directly help increase the wealth of people who haven’t got much (if anything) in the way of stocks or home equity.
Many low-income people lost their jobs because of covid, or have to live in peril of losing them. On top of all that, they’ve got to deal with inflation without any of the offsetting financial gains that more fortunate people are getting. Where I live, gasoline costs 50 percent more than a year ago, and food costs are up substantially. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck — or stimulus check to stimulus check — constantly rising prices are pretty scary.
The one upbeat thing I see is that the rising shortage of workers has led to wage increases, which lots of companies and lots of well-off people are complaining about.
But you know what? Just as I think it’s fine for businesses to make profits, I think it’s fine for workers to take advantage of labor shortages to boost their income. If companies can’t find enough workers, let them offer higher wages and higher benefits until they attract the workers they need. That’s how the free market is supposed to work.
And now, I’d like to briefly revisit my recent article about the problems my local Barnes & Noble store and the bn.com website are facing because of pop-up ads undercutting their prices. The company’s CEO, James Daunt, reached out to me after the story appeared and told me that the pop-ups are inserted onto his site by the Microsoft Edge browser (which is what I use) and that his company can’t stop them and doesn’t get any revenue from them. “We can only presume that whoever pops-up pays to pop-up,” he said.
He also told me that the local store that I like so much is likely to close this summer, to be replaced with a fast-food restaurant. However, he said that B & N intends to open a new store in the same area. That makes me feel a tad better.
And on that note, I wish you and yours a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year. And let’s hope that by the time year-end 2022 rolls around, today’s traumas, troubles and divisiveness will be history, not current events.