Category Archives: economics

Less Than Useful Data: Consumer Confidence?

Useless Information by Curly via Flickr -

When Justin Fox surveyed a number of financial analysts to learn what their least favorite economic indicator was back in 2010, most identified them dispassionately. Being analysts, of course, that's to be expected.

But some can be remarkably passionate about data they believe doesn't tell them anything useful. When we widened our current day search for the most useless economic statistic, we came across Jim Bianco's glorious 2012 diatribe against the Consumer Confidence Index at The Big Picture.

Because Bianco is a talented analyst, he makes his point, convincingly with data and charts. It really is worth clicking through to read Bianco's commentary, so we won't try to excerpt much of it, but here is a succinct summary of what Bianco finds the Consumer Confidence Index does not tell us about that you might think it would:

  • Non-farm Payroll Jobs
  • Employment Conditions
  • Retail Sales

And here's what Bianco argues it does tell us about:

  • The Stock Market (S&P 500)

He faults the survey questions the respondents to the survey used to determine the Consume Confidence Index are asked to answer:

To most Americans these questions are too abstract. It is like asking them, “what is the weather in the United States and what do you expect the weather of the United States to be?” How does one answer this? You would probably look out the window and describe what you see.

The consumer confidence questions are being answered in a similar manner. Respondents don’t really know how to answer such abstract questions as business and employment conditions, so they describe what they think is the ultimate economic indicator, the stock market’s recent movements. While spikes in gas prices or other economic events (i.e., 9/11, “The Great Recession”) will supersede this method at times, most of the time the stock market is used to formulate answers to the above questions. In the last few months the stock market is up strongly, so it should not be a surprise that consumer confidence is up as well.

Since we do not need an indicator to highlight recent stock market performance, the Consumer Confidence Index becomes rather useless as an economic indicator. If it measures nothing more than recent stock market performance, economists should not be puzzled by the lack of a relationship between something like retail sales and consumer confidence. Consumer confidence and retail sales no longer relate.

In politics, the equivalent in uselessness is the Presidential Approval Rating, which has historically worked much the same way. Except instead of the stock market, the approval rating is often more about what Americans think about gas prices.

In his 2012 analysis, Bianco presented charts to illustrate a generally strong correlation between the level of the S&P 500 and the Consumer Confidence Index from 1999 through 2011. The main exception is the period coinciding with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2006 through the so-called "Great Recession" in 2009, where Americans had other factors weighing on their assessment.

Five year later, Bianco's basic hypothesis still rang true, as Bianco updated his chart illustrating the correlation through mid-2017.

But what about between then and now? We've put together the following chart to show the correlation between the U.S.' Consumer Confidence Index and the S&P 500 from January 2014 through April 2023.

We chose this period to present a few years of overlap between Bianco's 2017 chart with the available data in the years since. What we find is that Bianco's close correlation between the Consumer Confidence Index and the S&P 500 holds up until shortly after the Coronavirus Pandemic Recession began in March 2020.

Then, like after the housing bubble burst in 2006, we see other factors affecting how Americans respond to the Consumer Confidence survey questions. Overall, we see the two follow the same up and down pattern, but that changed noticeably starting from April 2021.

That's when stock prices and the consumer confidence index diverge, with stock prices rising while consumer confidence falls. That divergence coincides with the arrival of inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy.

The S&P 500 and consumer confidence kept moving on divergent tracks until after December 2021, when stock prices changed direction and began falling. That coincides with Wall Street's expectation the Federal Reserve would respond to the escalating inflation with interest rate hikes in early 2022.

Both measures would then go on to reverse and begin rising in the July-October 2022 time frame, shortly after fuel prices peaked and began to fall.

So what does all this mean? Under what we'll call "normal conditions", we'll agree with Bianco's assessment that consumer confidence doesn't tell us anything we cannot divine by watching stock prices. The Consumer Confidence Index is, dare we say, mostly useless indicator in that situation.

But when conditions are not normal, when it diverges from its correlation with stock prices, we think it may actually be more useful. If for nothing else than to confirm more extraordinary things are occurring within the U.S. economy.

Image credit: Useless information by Curly via Flickr. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Global Economy Heated Up, But Will It Continue?

Coal-fired Datong No. 2 Power Station at Datong, Shanxi Province China by Cajeo Zhang via Unsplash -

China's ongoing efforts to stimulate its economy are showing up as a significant increase in the pace of CO₂ accumulation in the Earth's atmosphere. The latest data covering the month of April 2023 is consistent with a surge of economic activity during the preceding month.

That's not much of a surprise. Last month, we observed early indications the Chinese economy was finally gaining traction after the Chinese government lifted its zero-COVID lockdowns at the end of 2022. What is surprising is how rapidly the rate at which carbon dioxide accumulates in the Earth's atmosphere is increasing following the turn in direction for China's economic momentum.

The latest evidence of that upward momentum can be seen in the following chart. It shows a significant increase over last month for the change in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured by the remote Mauna Loa Observatory.

Trailing Twelve Month Average Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - April 2023

But how long might that surge continue?

Reports indicate China's economic activity unexpectedly cooled during April 2023, the effects of which would be expected to show up in atmospheric CO₂ data during the next two months.

For its part, China's government is still going gangbusters in trying to stimulate its economy. During the first three months of 2023, local governments in China approved more new coal-fired power plants than they did in all of 2021.

That matters because China is, by a very wide and increasing margin, the world's biggest national producer of carbon dioxide emissions. And since China's export-oriented economy supplies much of the world with consumer goods, changes in the rate at which those emissions accumulate in the air tell us quite a lot about the relative health of the global economy.


National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 9 May 2023.

Image source: Photo by Cajeo Zhang on Unsplash. The same power station is identified and depicted at closer range in Paul Sonders' photograph at FineArtAmerica/Getty Images.

Learning from Failure

Learn From Failure by Brett Jordan via Unsplash -

It has been said that President Biden's economy is now "stuck between a rock and a hard place". But to understand why it is being described that way, we need to understand how we got here. How we got here is a story of failure.

The story of that failure begins, as many of these stories do, with the people responsible for it attempting to justify the actions they took that contributed to it. In Washington, D.C., that means the story begins with an anonymous official within the Biden administration who is trying to put the best possible face on the situation by claiming they only had the best of intentions.

Biden set out to use the COVID-19 aid dollars to get people back to work quickly and prevent the typical "scarring" in recessions that can leave people earning less for the rest of their careers and, in some cases, permanently jobless. He succeeded at that mission as the economy has about 4 million more jobs than the Congressional Budget Office forecasted it would at this stage.

A White House official said the policies were designed with the specific goal of bringing jobs back faster than in past recoveries. After the Great Recession began at the end of 2007 and the economy crashed, it took more than six years for the total number of U.S. jobs to return to pre-downturn levels. In the pandemic recovery, the jobs total rebounded to its prior level in a little over two years. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Biden's goal was to spur a burst of hiring that would cause strong growth in the long term. If the jobs recovery had dragged on, some people would give up hope and drop out of the labor force, reducing the ability of the economy to grow for decades to come.

What could possibly go wrong with such noble intentions?

Alas, in seeking to boost the jobs numbers by so much so quickly, the Biden administration's plan to overshoot the economy's output gap to obtain that outcome unleashed inflation with all its negative and cascading consequences. That persistent inflation wasn't supposed to happen according to the extremist activists who most fervently pushed the "Go Big" stimulus plan the Biden administration ultimately adopted. They claimed conventional measures of the output gap were flawed and they assumed the economy's potential GDP and its output gap were much larger than those mainstream estimates indicated. Arguing that was the case, they asserted little to no inflation would result from their plan for a super-sized stimulus.

That proved to be a bad assumption.

That assessment is confirmed by Paul Krugman, perhaps the most respectable backer of the "Go Big" plan, and so far, the only backer who has since acknowledged that assumption was badly wrong. The following excerpts from his July 2022 mea culpa describe what he was thinking at the time and the lesson he's learned from the failure:

In early 2021 there was an intense debate among economists about the likely consequences of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package enacted by a new Democratic president and a (barely) Democratic Congress. Some warned that the package would be dangerously inflationary; others were fairly relaxed. I was Team Relaxed. As it turned out, of course, that was a very bad call....

Those of us on Team Relaxed argued, however, that the structure of the plan would lead to a much smaller surge in G.D.P. than the headline number would suggest. A big piece of the plan was one-time checks to taxpayers, which we argued would be largely saved rather than spent; another big piece was aid to state and local governments, which we thought would be spent only gradually, over several years.

We also argued that if there were a temporary overshoot on G.D.P. and employment it wouldn’t sharply increase inflation, because historical experience suggested that the relationship between employment and inflation was fairly flat — that is, that it would take a lot of overheating to produce a big inflation surge....

Even so, historical experience wouldn’t have led us to expect this much inflation from overheating. So something was wrong with my model of inflation — again, a model shared by many others, including those who were right to worry in early 2021....

In any case, the whole experience has been a lesson in humility. Nobody will believe this, but in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis standard economic models performed pretty well, and I felt comfortable applying those models in 2021. But in retrospect I should have realized that, in the face of the new world created by Covid-19, that kind of extrapolation wasn’t a safe bet.

Krugman's mea culpa is a model to follow for all professionals who takes economics as a science seriously. Unlike the ideologically-motivated activists who refuse to acknowledge the role they and Biden's COVID stimulus had in contributing to the inflation that followed its implentation, Krugman can do what they are unwilling to admit. He can honestly acknowledge the Biden administration's choice to overshoot the output gap and run the economy "hot" helped make the inflation that followed and learn from that failure:

Much, although not all, of the inflation surge seems to reflect disruptions associated with the pandemic. Fear of infection and changes in the way we live caused big shifts in the mix of spending: People spent less money on services and more on goods, leading to shortages of shipping containers, overstressed port capacity, and so on. These disruptions help explain why inflation rose in many countries, not just in the United States.

But while inflation was confined mainly to a relatively narrow part of the economy at first, consistent with the disruption story, it has gotten broader. And many indicators, like the number of unfilled job openings, seem to show an economy running hotter than numbers like G.D.P. or the unemployment rate suggest. Some combination of factors — early retirements, reduced immigration, lack of child care — seems to have reduced the economy’s productive capacity compared with the previous trend.

These factors were either ignored or given short shrift by the partisans who dismissed the conventional measures that indicated the output gap would be greatly exceeded by the "Go Big" stimulus measure. Since Krugman's acknowledgment, more evidence has accumulated these factors may have been decisive in shaping how the economy responded to the American Recovery Plan Act's massive stimulus spending.

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Brooking Institution's Lauren Bauer, Wendy Edelberg, Sara Estep, and Brad Hershbeln released a study backed by data that points to many of the same factors Krugman identified as contributing to inflationary pressures. In a separate analysis, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Stephanie Ferguson identified many of the same inflationary factors at work.

Meanwhile, another study released days earlier by the Brooking Institution's Katharine Abraham and Lea Rendell provides a demographic explanation for why the pandemic recovery for the labor force has played out the way it has and why improvements in the labor force participation rate are now mostly over:

Almost all of the remaining shortfall in U.S. labor force participation is the result of demographic and other trends that predate the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research that suggests little chance that growth in the number of workers will help ease a tight American job market.

After accounting for factors such as population aging and changes in education that influence people's willingness to work, the study showed that U.S. labor force participation was only about 0.3 percentage points short of where it would have been without the pandemic - equivalent to around 700,000 "missing" workers.

"Much of the decline in labor force participation over the past three years should have been anticipated even absent the pandemic," Katharine Abraham, a University of Maryland economics professor and former U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner, and Lea Rendell, a University of Maryland doctoral candidate, wrote in a study released late on Wednesday in conjunction with a conference at the Brookings Institution think tank.

These demographic factors make it unlikely the unemployment rate can get much lower than 3.5%. That constraint matters because Biden's "Go Big" stimulus plan has made the economy "inefficiently tight", which aligns with Krugman's mid-2022 observation the economy is "running hotter than numbers like G.D.P. or the unemployment rate suggest":

A new independent economic analysis helps to show why the low unemployment rate has yet to resonate with people: There aren’t enough workers to fill the open jobs, causing the economy to operate with speed bumps and frictions that make things seem worse than they are in the data. The analysis suggests that the economy would arguably function far more smoothly with unemployment higher at 4.6%, even though that could translate into nearly 2 million fewer people holding jobs.

The job market is what economists call “inefficiently tight,” a problem the United States also faced during the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II. The current tightness is as severe as it was at the end of World War II. This mismatch causes companies and consumers alike to feel as though the economy is in a rut, said Pascal Michaillat, an economist at Brown University.

Not in a rut, so much as failing to deliver on its promise by making everything both more costly and more scarce than the economy can either afford or sustain. In the now immortal words of Larry Summers, President Biden's "excessive stimulus driven by political considerations was a consequential policy error". Then again, Larry Summers is in the enviable position of being able to say "I told you so!"

But the activists who pushed the "Go Big" stimulus thought they knew better. Looking in the rear view mirror, it's amazing to learn how much they didn't know but should have. It's also rather amazing to consider what they knew but chose to disregard in dismissing the warnings of mainstream economists. Their legacy will make for quite a cautionary tale.


Katharine Abraham and Lea Rendell. Where are the missing workers? Brookings Institution. [PDF Document]. 30 March 2023.

Lauren Bauer, Wendy Edelberg, Sara Estep, and Brad Hershbeln. Who's missing from the post-pandemic labor force? Brookings Institution. [Online Article]. 4 April 2023.

Stephanie Ferguson. Understanding America's Labor Shortage. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. [Online Article]. 7 April 2023.

Paul Krugman. I Was Wrong About Inflation. New York Times. [Online Article]. 21 July 2022.

Pascal Michaillat. US Labor Market Continues to Cool in March But Remains Inefficiently Tight. Pascal's Newsletter. [Online Article]. 7 April 2023.

Political Calculations. How Bidenflation Was Made. [Online Article]. 30 March 2023.

Image credit: Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

Accumulation Pace of CO₂ Picks Up as China’s Economy Speeds Up

Beijing Air Pollution by Kentaro IEMOTO@Tokyo via WikiMedia Commons -

As expected, March 2023 saw an uptick in the pace at which carbon dioxide is accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere. While small, that change could mark the beginning of an improvement in global economic activity. Particularly in China, which ranks as the world's largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions by a very wide margin.

The country, which is on track to surpass the United States' total CO₂ historical emissions around 2050 has been struggling to gain economic traction since it lifted its zero-COVID lockdowns at the end of 2022. In March 2023, the country appears to have succeeded.

With greater economic output, the country's carbon dioxide emissions would have increased, which ultimately shows up in the Earth's atmosphere. The following chart shows that change as a small uptick that may mark the reversal of the downtrend of recent months should the planet's CO₂ accumulation rate continue increasing.

Trailing Twelve Month Average Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - March 2023

Much of China's role in becoming the planet's primary producer of carbon dioxide emissions has come as the result of its government's industrial policy. More remarkably, the Chinese government accelerated its production of coal-fired power plants during the past year, which may accelerate that achievement.

China permitted more coal power plants last year than any time in the last seven years, according to a new report released this week. It's the equivalent of about two new coal power plants per week. The report by energy data organizations Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air finds the country quadrupled the amount of new coal power approvals in 2022 compared to 2021.

That's despite the fact that much of the world is getting off coal, says Flora Champenois, coal research analyst at Global Energy Monitor and one of the co-authors of the report.

"Everybody else is moving away from coal and China seems to be stepping on the gas," she says. "We saw that China has six times as much plants starting construction as the rest of the world combined."

China's government is also expanding the country's output of coal and boosting its imports to fuel its growing count of coal-fired plants to power its factories as the country's economy recovers from its zero-COVID lockdowns.


National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 5 April 2023.

Image source: WikiMedia Commons. Beijing Air Pollution by Kentaro IEMOTO@Tokyo (2014). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

China’s Zero-Covid Lockdowns Slow Pace of CO₂ Accumulation in Earth’s Atmosphere

China is, by a very wide margin, the world's leading producer of carbon dioxide emissions. No other nation has ever put as much carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere in a single year as China. That includes the United States, the world's second largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions.

These statements are based upon data provided by Global Carbon Project for 2022, which reports historical data for national fossil fuel-based emissions of carbon dioxide from 1850 through 2021. In that most recent year, China added some 3,131 metric tonnes of carbon (MtC) to the Earth's atmosphere, while the U.S. added 43% of that amount. U.S. carbon dioxide output peaked in 2005 at 1,675 MtC and has generally fallen in the years since, while China surpassed that level in 2006 and has continued to increase its CO₂ emissions each year.

We're making a point of highlighting China's outsized role in contributing to global carbon dioxide emissions because its shows up in measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, which increasingly tells us quite a lot about the state of China's economy. In February 2023, those measurements provide more evidence that the Chinese government's zero-COVID lockdowns during the final three months of 2022 negatively impacted its economy.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - January 2023

Changes in China's economic growth drive changes in the country's CO₂ emissions, which are typically reflected in atmospheric concentration data measured at high-elevation observatories on the big island of Hawaii some 4-6 weeks later after they've fully diffused into the Earth's air. What that data indicates is that China's zero-COVID lockdowns, which were ramped up during the fourth quarter of 2022, effectively reversed much of the third-quarter's rebound.

Looking forward, we should see the pace at which CO₂ accumulates in the atmosphere reverse once again and start to increase. That change will coincide with increased economic output in China following its government's complete reversal of its zero-COVID policy and its lifting of lockdowns at the end of December 2022.


National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 6 February 2023. Accessed 6 February 2023.

Global Carbon Project. (2022). Supplemental data of Global Carbon Budget 2022 (Version 1.0) [Data set]. Global Carbon Project. DOI: 10.18160/gcp-2022.