American political debates over inflation have settled into predictable — and mostly unhelpful — patterns. On one side, “neoliberal” Democrats such as Lawrence Summers and Jason Furman argue that President Biden’s Covid stimulus bill was too aggressive, causing the economy to overheat and precipitating an inflationary wage-price spiral. On the other, progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and members of the Biden administration point to factors like idiosyncratic supply chain disruptions from the pandemic and later the Ukraine war, while increasingly leaning on explanations involving “corporate greed”. Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to blame Biden for inflation, but have added nothing of substance to discussions around either its causes or cures.
The conventional inflation narratives are both flawed, however, and are increasingly deployed to cover a retreat to the comfort of traditional ideological divides. Summers and Furman, for example, are aggressively pushing to eliminate tariffs to counter inflation, even though Trump’s 2018 tariffs cannot account for accelerating inflation in 2021, and their repeal would offer at best small and temporary relief. Likewise, Democratic rhetoric against “corporate greed” and “price gouging” mostly takes the form of moralistic posturing and only obscures more serious concerns about industry concentration and lack of competition.
Moreover, each side’s preferred explanations for inflation seem at odds with their perceptions of its severity and staying power. If, on the one hand, a one-time spending bill is the main culprit, then the Fed should easily be able to manage inflation through interest rate hikes (already underway), and there is little reason to fear an out-of-control inflationary spiral. In an April 2021 interview, Summers argued that a one-off stimulus would alter long-term expectations and lead to persistent inflation because it signaled the advent of “a new era in progressive policy”. But a year later, any such progressive paradigm seems dead and buried, and unless Democrats pull off a miracle in the midterms, it is likely off the table through at least 2024.
On the other hand, if “corporate greed” — read charitably as underlying structural problems in the economy — is the main driver of inflation, then it seems unlikely that the Fed will be able to contain it, except perhaps at the cost of a severe recession. If that is the case, then any future progressive fiscal expansion would have to be ruled out, given its devastating inflationary consequences, unless those problems are addressed.
Indeed, the question going forward is whether there are structural issues — aside from idiosyncratic supply chain problems — that will cause inflation to remain elevated and lead to stagflation (high inflation and low growth). Here, there are reasons for concern, although they do not fit neatly into either conventional narrative and so have received relatively little attention.
The most intriguing and potentially alarming trends are visible in the oil market. In December 2019, before Covid, global oil consumption was about 100 million barrels per day, and the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude hovered around $50-$60 per barrel. At that time, the US operating rig count was around 800 (around 2,000 globally), according to Baker Hughes. After the pandemic hit, in 2020, global oil demand fell to about 90 million barrels per day, prices collapsed and briefly went negative, and the US rig count hit a low of around 250. Oil demand recovered about half the lost ground in 2021 and is expected to return to 2019 levels of 100 million barrels per day this year. In December of 2021, WTI spot prices were around $75, rose significantly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and currently sit around $110. Yet the US rig count is still around 700 (of 1,600 globally). The last time oil prices were above $100, before the crash of 2014, the rig count was over 1,800 (3,600 globally).
This trajectory is difficult to square with inflation accounts based on excessive demand. Oil demand has still not exceeded pre-pandemic levels; it is supply that has lagged. Meanwhile, far from being “too greedy”, companies seem to not be greedy enough — at least in the conventional sense of maximising profits. Instead of reinvesting their earnings in drilling new wells, even at profitable oil prices, companies have returned cash to shareholders.
Some have argued that oil companies are not drilling because of the Biden administration’s environmental regulations. As a critic of those policies, I am sympathetic, but they cannot account for the larger phenomenon, including international drilling. Others have suggested that ESG investing requirements have prevented the oil and gas industry from accessing capital. While there is no question that ESG as presently constructed is a disaster, this does not explain why companies are not reinvesting their own earnings. There are some time-lag issues — wells cannot be drilled overnight — but prices have now been elevated for months. Oil futures are also over $80 through most of 2024, meaning companies can hedge future production.
The best explanation is, therefore, the simplest one: shareholders prefer that companies return cash rather than invest, a preference widely discussed among industry participants and observers. Oil companies, to quote Bloomberg’s reporting on this issue, have “responded to investors’ persistent insistence that they return cash to shareholders and not spend their cash flow on capex. . . . That means that we have under-invested in oil, which helps to lead to a higher oil price, but it also means that those companies do have much more free cash flow.”
Any serious analysis of today’s inflation must recognise the different dynamics at play across various sectors. The oil industry is not the same as the housing market, semiconductors, shipping, and so forth. Nevertheless, across industries, the trend of shareholders preferring cash returns over investment has been prevalent in recent decades. Corporate share buybacks, which dropped from previous highs during the pandemic, returned to record pace in 2021 and 2022, according to Goldman Sachs.
The oil industry is actually a late adopter of this cash-return model. Previously, exploration and production companies were typically managed to maximise their “net asset value”. This meant that, in the American shale boom of the early 2010s, companies were investing in drilling at levels far above their operating cash flow, using debt financing to fill the gap. After the crash of 2014, however, Wall Street gained additional influence over the sector. Ever since, the industry has maintained “capital discipline” and avoided negative cash flows.
Economic theory assumes that companies are managed to maximise individual firm profits and, therefore, that they will invest to expand operations as long as expected returns exceed the cost of capital, and that they will compete with each other until profit margins approach zero. But economic theory has refused to grapple with the fact that maximising shareholder returns is not identical to maximising firm profits.
Financial market incentives may discourage competitive investment in favour of shareholder returns, as seen in the oil industry; indeed, the gap between firm hurdle rates and cost of capital is a distinguishing feature of recent economic history. In short, what economic theory presumes to be “rational” for a single firm may not be “rational” from the perspective of a diversified institutional portfolio manager. If anyone is too “greedy”, in other words, it is not corporations but shareholders. Or, more precisely, the incentives of financial managers may not be consistent with maximising overall output. This trend has led to an erosion of productive capacity and supply buffers, which has become painfully evident in recent years.
The same forces also encourage industry concentration through mergers and private equity “roll-ups” to preserve pricing power, as well as the separation of high-value intellectual property rents from capital and labour costs. The result is a bifurcated economy with high-margin “superstar” firms on one side and low-profit “commoditised” firms on the other. In an inflationary environment, this means that firms with large profit cushions, like superstar firms built on intellectual property rents, probably have the pricing power to maintain high margins. Firms without pricing power, like small-business restaurant franchisees, often have no profit cushions and must raise prices out of necessity.
Fears of stagflation have focused on a Seventies-style wage-price spiral, but the above considerations suggest that a greater concern today may be the threat of a “profit-price” spiral. In the Seventies, investment was discouraged by high taxes, strong unions (which directed profits to labour), and relatively robust antitrust enforcement. With low investment, increasing demand only led to more inflation rather than growth.
Today, we have low taxes, weak unions (although tight labour markets), and high industry concentration. These conditions, combined with shifts in corporate governance and financial management, have also discouraged investment — by facilitating extractive financial engineering, as in the case of the oil industry example. A scenario in which companies maintain returns in a stagnant economy by preserving margins while avoiding competitive investment is also more consistent with recent empirical findings. Corporate profit margins achieved a record in 2021 (though they seem poised to retreat somewhat in the coming quarters), and studies have found that rising corporate profits have contributed significantly more to inflation than labour costs. Employees may be able to manage some concessions in a tight labour market, but the data hardly suggest that is the dominant factor.
This sort of firm behaviour has a telling precedent: the modern tobacco industry. Since cigarette consumption began dropping in the Eighties, the basic model of tobacco companies has been to offset sales volume declines with price increases. This strategy works because tobacco companies face little competition due to industry concentration and regulations prohibiting advertising. Thus cigarette price inflation has averaged about 7% per year since 1997, while overall inflation during that time has been slightly above 2%.
The example is revealing because tobacco companies’ high cash returns and low capex requirements have historically made them attractive to financial investors, despite modest growth or innovation. Because of its dividend, Philip Morris was the highest performing stock of the 20th century, beating out far more technologically significant rivals. Guided by the incentives of financial markets, it would not be especially surprising to see more industries adopt the “stagflationary” behaviours of Big Tobacco.
To the extent that is the case, monetary policy alone will not be sufficient to heal the economy. Low rates since the financial crisis have supported asset bubbles but not high investment. Nor will demand-side policies work. As the last several months have shown, further stimulus payments are likely to allow companies to take profits without supporting sufficient investment or wage growth.
Given the immediate-term salience of monetary policy debates, it is often forgotten that escaping the stagflation of the Seventies required not only a sharp rise in interest rates but also the “supply-side” reforms of Ronald Reagan. In this respect, an overlooked element of Summers’s critique of the Biden stimulus bill — that it was not simply too large but too weighted toward transfer payments — is especially apt, as is his call for “a kind of progressive supply side economics that emphasizes . . . public investment.”
Conventional supply-side policies like tax cuts, typically associated with Republicans, fall prey to the same financial dynamics described above, and have led primarily to increased shareholder returns and asset bubbles rather than increased investment in recent years. New supply-side approaches are required, such as the proposed funding for manufacturing investment contemplated in the COMPETES/USICA conference bill. The administration has also proposed other supply-side measures in areas such as housing, but previous efforts along these lines were weighed down by unpopular progressive wish-list items. Rumours that the administration is considering a cancellation of some student debt — with no accompanying reforms to higher education policy — suggest progressives still remain trapped in old welfarist paradigms.
Contrary to neoliberal disdain for tariffs and “hipster antitrust”, however, prudent competition and trade policy reforms will be necessary to boost domestic investment in a highly concentrated economy whose industrial base has eroded. And although progressive proposals for a windfall tax on profits would do nothing to solve supply-side problems, a tax on “windfall buybacks” may make corporate earnings reinvestment more attractive.
Even if inflation subsides more rapidly than expected, a new policy focus on the supply side is necessary. Avoiding stagflation simply by returning to “secular stagnation”, as Summers would put it, would only lead to further decline and likely a repetition of the same cycle in the future. Also required is the recognition that fundamental assumptions of economic theory — and the ideological approaches they inspire — no longer match the realities of America’s financialised economy.