Economics Explored host Gene Tunny talks about the “greedflation” (greed + inflation) hypothesis with his colleague Arturo Espinosa from Adept Economics. They discuss whether greedy corporations might be responsible for high inflation rates in advanced economies such as Australia and the United States. Gene talks about how the excessive fiscal and monetary stimulus during the pandemic has been a major contributor to higher inflation.
What’s covered in EP186
- [00:01:28] Australia’s high inflation rate.
- [00:06:57] UK windfall tax on oil and gas companies.
- [00:10:27] Greed inflation hypothesis.
- [00:13:29] Markups as a contributor to inflation.
- [00:16:20] Industry concentration and inflationary pressure.
- [00:21:11] Inflation outbreak and COVID stimulus relationship.
- [00:25:45] Problems with Covid stimulus.
- [00:27:58] Excessive stimulus and inflation.
- [00:32:35] Corporate power and antitrust.
Links relevant to the conversation
Chris Murphy’s economic modeling on stimulus and inflation in Australia:
UK windfall profits tax:
RBA on sources of inflation in Australia:
The Greedflation hypothesis – EP186
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:00
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you could join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show. Thanks for tuning into the show. In this episode, I chat with my colleague Arturo Espinosa from adept economics about the greed inflation hypothesis, our greedy corporations to blame for the high inflation that we’ve been living through. After you listen to the episode, please let me know what you think about the greed inflation hypothesis. You can email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you. Okay, let’s get into the episode. I hope you enjoy it. Arturo, good to have you back on the programme.
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 01:12
I’m very happy to be here.
Gene Tunny 01:14
Excellent. Arturo. So it’s at the end of the week, it’s Friday the 28th of April 2023. Earlier this week, we had the March quarter inflation number for Australia. It came in at 7%. So it was lower than at its peak of 7.8%. The quarter before but it’s still it’s still high. And mean, there’s still concerns about cost of living in Australia for sure. I mean, that’s something we’ve all been noticing as we go to the supermarket and other stores. So for sure inflation is still high. One of the things I think is interesting, and I must admit I’ve come to this issue late. Is this issue or this accusation of greed, deflation? Have you heard about this concept of greed, deflation? Arturo?
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 02:05
Well, lately, yes. But when I was student in Peru, I haven’t heard that
Gene Tunny 02:11
nine. I think it’s a it’s a new term that that’s been thrown around. There’s this accusation that a lot of the inflation we’re seeing is due to profiteering it’s due to greedy corporations. So obviously, we do need to be concerned about big business and monopoly power. There’s, that’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about. But there is this question of, to what extent can we explain the inflation that we’ve seen by greedy corporations? So is it greed, flotation. And this has been quite prominent in the media. So there’s a think tank here in Australia, the Australian Institute, and it’s put out a paper in which they’re saying that this is a big part of the inflation problem. So we might talk about that in a moment. And it’s an accusation that’s been thrown around in other countries, too, in the States. And also in Europe, there was an article in Fortune magazine earlier this week. Greed flash deflation is the European Central Bank’s latest headache amid fears it’s the key culprit for price hikes. And I mean, what we see in whether it’s in Europe, or whether it’s in the States, or whether it’s here in Australia or the UK, if you just look at the data, if you look at data on inflation, you look at data on corporate profits and wages, and you look at data on other input costs. It is the case that profits have been have been high and they have grown in this post pandemic period. And this has led some people to argue that, well, they’re just profiteering they’re putting prices up more than can be justified. Now, I think this is a difficult hypothesis to prove it been thinking about it a bit and how you might demonstrate whether it’s the case or not that this is true, or whether you can whether we can rule it out, or or is it something that is it is a legitimate possibility. We do know that certainly profits for oil and gas companies and also coal mining companies here in Australia. They’ve been, they’ve been very high and also profits in other sectors to have been, have been higher. So in banks and, and in other sectors, and that’s what The Australia Institute argues. One of the challenges I see however, is that in economics as in other sciences, you need to be careful to distinguish should join correlation and causation. I think what Institute’s such as research, researchers think tanks, such as The Australia Institute have found I think they’ve found a correlation isn’t causation I think that’s a lot harder to establish and might go into, into why that’s the case. So I want to talk about correlation versus causation, how might you prove whether there’s green inflation is, is a legitimate thing or not? And we’ve also got to think about here, what’s the what’s the scientific way to look at this and to come to a conclusion now, The Australia Institute is a think tank, and it has a particular agenda. It has a progressive or a left wing bias. And so this type of hypothesis of green inflation appeals to it. So we need to keep that in mind. And we should think rigorously about whether it makes sense or not. Okay, so that’s, that’s a bit of an intro to this idea of greed, inflation. Or one of the other things I just wanted to mention in the intro is that there have been calls for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies in, in many countries, and they did impose one in the UK, I don’t know if you saw the news about the that windfall tax that they imposed on oil and gas, know, what will happen are they put on a, an energy profits Levy, because arguably, a lot of the the excess profits that the oil and gas companies were making, that was due to the higher prices associated with the war in Ukraine. And if you think about it, from an economic perspective, they really didn’t need those profits to have been motivated to invest in the first place. So you could argue that they were, they were x supernormal profits. And so therefore, you could make a case for a some sort of excess profits. Levy. And so that’s what they did in the UK, they put on a an energy profits levy a 25% surcharge on extraordinary profits, the oil and gas sector is making and, and that’s we saw a similar thing here in Australia wheeling, Queensland with the higher royalty rates on coal. So they put in a new, a couple of new tiers in their royalty rates. I think they had a 40%. There’s now a 40. What is it a $40 a tonne royalty rate, once the coal price gets above a certain, certain level? And I mean, this, this is something that’s controversial, because then companies say, Well, there’s a sovereign risk that oh, there’s a risk of that, that we didn’t anticipate before. Now, we have to really think about whether we invest in your state or your country. So there’s that that to consider. But that’s just to say that why this is relevant is because if you think that this green inflation is a problem, then you might be more inclined to to advance policy measures like that, like a windfall profits tax or higher, higher company tax or something like that. So I think that’s a that’s one of the issues in the policy debate I thought I’d mentioned. Okay, Arturo, any thoughts on ADD or green inflation? So far,
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 08:26
it seemed that probably these inflation can be caused by these corporate big multinational corporation that wants to maximise the profits. Without taking into account what happening in the White House household level, the pressure of these inflation particularly is on the household Australian households, that they need to pay higher prices in energy, fuel, my grocery staff, so that is, that is painful.
Gene Tunny 09:04
Yeah. How plausible Do you think there’s greed inflation hypothesis is so basically it’s saying that the corporations are taking advantage of this concern over inflation? Or that they see that? Okay, so prices have started to rise and corporations think, okay, let’s just keep increasing prices, because we’re, we’ve got the cover to do. So now. We’re, it’s, we can get away with it, essentially. Now, what’s the problem with that argument? So we’re thinking like economists would say that the problem with that argument is that if one company decides to do that, and they’re doing it illegitimately that their costs of production really haven’t increased. Wouldn’t another company try and undercut them or try to they just, they wouldn’t raise their prices as much and then they could steal some market share from them. Yeah, the third point? Yep. So it requires some time. coordination among the companies, doesn’t it some sort of implicit collusion. And I think this is where some of these models, there are some theoretical models that appears which are trying to lend support to this greed inflation hypothesis. Did I think you found a study, didn’t you, Arturo, that said that this or that? Was that an empirical study you found that said that where there’s market power, it looks like there is some tendency to have
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 10:25
there’s a few of them, the the those paper have found positive correlation between higher concentration higher inflationary pressure,
Gene Tunny 10:36
really? Okay. And do you think they’re good studies, though they published in good journals, do we what do we know?
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 10:42
Those are probably most of them are publishing good journals. And also in economy, we know that the mythologies bar are different. And also each metal he has his pros and cons. So we need to, to consider that and analyse in detail what is.
Gene Tunny 11:05
So probably too much for us to do in this episode. But we’ll put links in the show notes. So if you’re in the audience, and you’re interested in having a look at those studies, you can check them out, and I might have a closer look at them after this. I know that there are studies like that, and that would lend support to this greed inflation hypothesis. And so maybe we can’t completely rule it out. There’s a paper by John Quiggin and Flavio ministers, and John and Flavio, their professors at University of Queensland and economics. I know both of them. Well. And John’s actually been on the show before. And they wrote a piece in the conversation. I think they had a working paper to back it up and inflation has been amplified by firms with market power. And so their argument is that where one or more firms is big enough to have market power for any given quantity sold, prices will be higher. Yep, and increasingly higher as demand for the product climbs, okay. This means that after a boost to demand such as the one that followed the COVID stimulus, in the end of the lockdowns, firms with market power amplify the resulting inflationary shock. Okay, so they’ve got a model where they come to a conclusion that having market power means that you’re more likely to be able to take advantage or to put your prices up if there’s this, this demand shock, okay. Possibly. I mean, my feeling is that if there is a level of competition in the market, then that should constrain that. But look, if there is market power, maybe that’s an interesting, interesting hypothesis. And there are studies from the States did you see this isn’t just something in Australia, there are studies from the US as well as a Kansas City Fed study from 2021 There’s a really interesting point they make in this that I think it’s worth thinking about in this whole green inflation conversation. So I think Andrew Glover Jose, I think you know how to pronounce his name. Yeah, cuz Sam was traded veal. Okay, that’s great. And Alice Vaughn and Rebecca they present evidence that markup growth so markups on products sold. So for the to get the profit. So the markup growth was a major contributor to inflation in 2021 markups grew by 3.4% over the year, whereas inflation as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures was 5.8%. Suggesting markups could account for more than half of 2021 inflation. This is what I think’s fascinating. They note that the timing and cross industry patterns of markups growth of markup growth are more consistent with firms raising prices in anticipation of future cost increases rather than an increase in monopoly power or higher demand. I think that’s a really critical point. So look, it might be the case that if you look at the data, at the moment, that it looks like the businesses are doing incredibly well. So they’ve got high profits. And they’ve they’ve increased their prices, but it could be that they’ve increased their prices in anticipation of future cost increases. Now to some extent, you have seen those future cost increases will in fuel I mean fuel prices were higher for I think they’re starting to come down. But energy prices here in Australia are still going up. Costs of other inputs are increasing labour costs. Labour hasn’t responded as much as some people have been forecasting for years. So wages growth is still It hasn’t really been that spectacular. But look, I mean, there’s something to that that could be the case that what we’re seeing is businesses. It’s not as if they’re being greedy. They’re just concerned about their own costs rising and they’re increasing their profits. Another thing to keep in mind, of course, is that that profits are procyclical. And this inflation has occurred at a time of a booming economy, the economy post COVID boomed. And as we came out of the pandemic, and that’s a time when you’d naturally expect to see higher profits. And we’ve also seen high inflation, unfortunately. So it could be correlation rather than causation. Again, look, lots of there’s a lot going on. There are lots of aspects of the economy. And I think that Kansas City Fed study, and I’ll link to that in the show notes that makes a good point about how you need to consider expectations in assessing what companies are doing. Okay. There was also a study by the Boston Fed that you found wasn’t there. So this is one of the other Federal Reserve Banks. So what was that cost price relationships in a concentrated? Economy? Was this a study you were talking about before?
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 16:15
Exactly if the concentration, right,
Gene Tunny 16:19
okay. So the US economy is at least 50% more concentrated today than it was in 2005. So they, their findings suggest the increase in industry concentration over the past few decades, could be amplifying the inflationary pressure from current supply chain disruptions in a tight labour market? Okay, so this was a paper from 2000, until I’ll put a link in the show notes. Right. So that’s, that’s supporting that greed foundation thesis. Look, there’s there’s a whole bunch of you know, there’s studies that support it to an extent and then there’s others that question it, or there’s commentary that questions that. And one of the things you found Arturo, which I think was fascinating was that the so the Reserve Bank of Australia, so as central bank, and here in Australia, it doesn’t really give any credence it doesn’t really think much of this whole green inflation idea, does it or it hasn’t hasn’t raised it or doesn’t talk about it as a possible explanation does
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 17:20
exactly here that RBA pointed out that there’s a place I fuck towards accounting for around half of the increase in inflation over the year to September 2022. But they didn’t mention anything about really corporations.
Gene Tunny 17:35
Right. Okay. So what I’ll do is so I can be to be objective and to be to be fair, on both sides of the argument, I’ll put links to, to, to what the RBA has been saying to both of those fed studies and also to what The Australia Institute has been, has been saying, I mean, they’re been the most vocal about about this. I mean, their analysis to them suggests this is an analysis of national accounts data. Again, it’s it’s an analysis of correlations of data that’s that they seen these things happening at the same time and drawing a conclusion based on that now, can you make the conclusion that this is due to greedy corporations, or corporations being more greedy than normal? Okay, I mean, we live in a capitalist economy. Okay. So businesses are going to maximise profits. There’s no doubt about that. But look, that’s the system we’re in. But is this something that in times of inflation, does it amplify the inflation or lead to, to more inflation than you you’d otherwise expect? I think that’s the hypothesis, The Australia Institute, based on their correlation, all analysis I call it says just looking at correlations, they would argue that it does. So their analysis suggests to them that 69% of excess inflation, so above the, the Reserve Bank’s target of two and a half percent, since the end of 2019, came from higher unit corporate profit margins, while only 18% of the student labour costs. Right. Okay. And they go on in that report to say that, look, it’s not just the profits in the mining sector, because it was just profits in the mining sector. And whereby, okay, the miners are really profitable. And so there’s a lot more profit in the Australian economy that’s on that’s because of all these export earnings. Right? So it’s not as if they’re making all of these profits by exploiting people in the domestic economy. So that’s where that argument of theirs would fall down. But then they do go on to point out it’s not just mining, that where there’s these excess profits in their view, there’s, you know, higher profits in it. in financial services and banking and in other sectors, so, yeah, check that out. And I think they ask a good question. And it’s good that they’ve made this contribution to the debate, because it forces us to think rigorously about what’s been driving inflation and what’s the cause of inflation. And we’ll get on to that again, in a moment. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 21:03
Now back to the show. One of my old Treasury colleagues, John to in the financial review, John has written an opinion piece, which is very good. John’s good writer. Blaming inflation on greedy business is a populist cop out. And I think what John is saying here, I think this is where a lot of the economists in the Reserve Bank or the Treasury, I think they would agree with John, I think I largely agree with John, and I’ll go into into why in a moment. And John’s main message is that it was the spillover of public sector stimulus that lasted for too long, not price gouging by companies that fueled the inflation outbreak. Did you have a look at that? That article by John?
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 21:55
Yeah, yes, I rebuilt the conclusion. Yes. He made a good point.
Gene Tunny 22:00
Yeah. And he relied on a study by Chris Murphy, who’s a former Treasury model. I actually work with Chris’s daughter in Treasury, Carol, I believe, if I remember correctly. So Chris, is a well known Australian macro, economist. And he was at KPMG e contact for a while. Now he’s a visiting fellow at ASU. And he’s done something a bit more advanced than what The Australia Institute did. The Australian Institute just looked at the national accounts and inflation data and tried to draw conclusions from that from just basic data analysis. Now, I think the problem in economics is, you can only go so far doing that, if we’re talking about testing hypotheses, what’s the scientific approach to do that, you probably need something a bit more than just the basic data analysis. Now, one of the problems we have in economics, of course, is that you can’t run controlled experiments as you can in the lab. So we’re always trying to come up with clever ways to, to analyse the data, to do econometric modelling of some kind, to work out whether these hypotheses can be maintained, or whether they’re, they’re rejected. That’s what I’d say on that. And what Chris Murphy does is he runs a simulation. He’s got this macro economic model, this econometric model of the Australian economy based on a broad range of macro economic data, and relationships that have some basis in economic theory. And what he does is he simulates the economy, if it was subject to COVID. But there wasn’t all of the arguably excessive monetary and fiscal policy response there was the there was some contraction in GDP. I mean, there’s a quite a substantial contraction in GDP still in that first quarter of COVID. Because people just would have naturally socially distanced anyway, right, even in the absence of policy measures. And we did say that in in some economies, that there was no, there was no way of avoiding the the economic shock from COVID entirely. But if you didn’t have the, all of that stimulus than by his estimates, you would have avoided a lot of the inflation. And I think this is really, really interesting, really interesting modelling. And Chris Murphy has a paper in the economic papers journal, which is a journal that’s actually published by the Queensland branch of the Economic Society was aranea, which I was once the secretary of. No longer though, but you can get that online, I’ll put a link in the show notes, fiscal policy in the COVID, 19. Euro. Really good paper. And what he does in this paper, which I think is excellent, is he just highlights how massively generous the COVID stimulus was, the stimulus during COVID was particularly job keeper, which was just incredibly generous, and he ended up because of the eligibility rules, there are all these people who are they were only employed part time, but they effectively get compensated as if they were full time workers. So there are a lot of people getting access excess money. And there’s an argument that that stopped some of those people from searching for a new job, if they were if they are on job keeper, or if they’ve been supported by job keeper. So, yeah, lots of problems with that, that stimulus and I think we’re, if we had another pandemic, I mean, let’s hope we don’t, I mean, still getting recovering from that last one. I mean, it was just the excessive response was just at it, and just, yeah, incredible. But if we do have it, I think we would have a much better, or a hope, whatever much better economic policy response. But what Chris Murphy found was that the fifth and this is in Australia, the fiscal response to compensate for income losses. In services industries meant that unemployment was around two percentage points lower for three years than otherwise, than it otherwise would have been. And there was over compensation for every $1 of income, the private sector lost under COVID, fiscal policy provided $2 of compensation. And then there was of course, the ultra low interest rates, point 1% cash rate, the hundreds of billions of dollars of monetary stimulus via quantitative easing, all of this additional money in bank accounts, I’ve got some charts that I’ll put in the show notes. So just show how much the Australian money supply is grown. I think since 2020, the amount of money so the stock of money in Australia has increased by nearly a third or around a third or something like that. And think about that. This is part of this whole. And this is something that what I’ve been saying on this show for the last couple of years, I mean, what we’ve got is too, too much money chasing too few goods, if you looked at what happened during the pandemic, and within the fiscal policy and monetary policy, what we saw with the inflation now, no doubt, significant part of it was due to the invasion of Ukraine. But what we end up seeing with inflation is what you would have expected based on the the massive stimulus and particularly the massive monetary growth that we saw. And so therefore, you don’t need this green inflation hypothesis. You can explain a lot of it by the excessive stimulus. And this is what Chris Murphy shows in that paper. Germany thoughts on that, Arturo?
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 28:09
Whoa, this point, you the last point that you have mentioned is very clear. It made me think, okay, yes. The these re the cooperation argument is not 100%? Sure, shall we, whether if some academics, or you know, researchers will try to understand the drivers behind inflation. When I mentioned, drivers, of course, we include these government expenditure in increments. And also lit, we can include another factors at fame level, like, for example, to, to use markups in order to maximise profits. So that kind of thing is,
Gene Tunny 29:03
yeah, I think you made a good point before. I mean, we really want to have a look at what’s been happening in specific firms. I think we’ll have to wait for studies that really examined what’s happened at that firm level, maybe using that business longitudinal database data? I don’t know. But yeah, clearly, this is a it’s a big issue. And I think it’s one that we need more evidence to resolve. But I guess what I would say is that we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion. I mean, I’m pretty confident that we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it’s greed flesh, and that is just because a greedy corporations, I think there’s there’s a lot more. I’m not even sure to what extent that’s a significant factor. In fact, the corporations more greedy than normal. I mean, it’s this idea that it could amplify a shock that is inflationary, possibly, but I’d like to see, yeah, I have to sort of think deeply about what that means. It’ll is and what that mechanism is, I mean, my view is that you don’t need that great inflation hypothesis to explain what’s happened because it’s perfectly understandable if you just think about the the massive, the massive shock that we saw now. So think Chris Murphy, what he found was that if you didn’t have the stimulus, if you just had COVID, then then by the end of 2022, you’d have inflation at around 4.2%. So you would have ended up with some inflation as the economy bounced back after COVID. But what ended up happening, of course, is that inflation went far beyond 4.2%. In Australia, we ended up with 7.8% in Australia. And what Chris Murphy’s modelling shows is that, in his scenario, his his actual forecast scenario, he’s worked out that the excessive macro stimulus drives inflation, three percentage points higher, so three percentage points higher to a peak of 7.2%. Okay, which is in the wall ballpark of where it did get. So in his model, he can you explain it with the stimulus. Now, of course, it’s a macro model and models that we all know the problems of trying to forecast the economy and modelling the, the actual path of the economy with an econometric model with with equations. We’ve got parameters estimated, statistically or using econometric methods there. They have their limitations. But to me what, what Chris Murphy does is, is a better way to think about this sort of try and answer this question than just this basic correlation analysis that’s done, where we go, oh, well, profits are up. inflation’s up. wages aren’t up by much. It looks like it must all be inflation’s. At the same time as we’re having inflation companies are making more money. Therefore, it’s greedy, greedy corporations, I think I don’t really think that’s, that’s the right way to think about it. Having said that, I mean, it’s worth having the conversation and forces us all to think more rigorously about the causes of inflation and what we should do about it. And he thought cetera? No, I think that’s pretty much all I wanted to go over. I’ll put links in the show notes, to all these various papers and reports we talked about. The RBA has put something out on inflation drivers where they look at the different factors and they don’t seem to think much of this whole green inflation, explanation. But look, I think it’s worth covering. I know that, you know, we do have to be mindful of corporate power we have to be mindful of, of monopolies or oligopolies that exploit their market power. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, then that’s why we have things like the a triple C, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, or we have the we have the antitrust statutes in the US. And we have whatever the equivalent is in the UK. Did you see in the in the they’re quite muscular in the UK? Did you see the they’re blocking that? Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard? Oh, I haven’t seen that. Oh, yeah. That’s quite interesting, because one of the things I’ve covered on this show is this issue of big tech and to what extent we should be concerned about big tech, so might have to come back to that in a in a future episode. I thought that was a really interesting development, because they’re concerned about Microsoft’s already a behemoth, right. Concerned about Microsoft getting getting even more market power in games. Okay, well, thanks so much for your time and for helping me think about this issue of greed, inflation, it’s helpful to talk about these issues with with colleagues. So I can think about really clarify how I’m thinking about it. Am I on the right track? Am I being biassed? Am I too sceptical of this hypothesis, which might actually have some merit. But yeah, I think my view is that we can probably explain inflation most, if not all of the inflation by the excessive fiscal and monetary stimulus. We don’t need this great inflation hypothesis that said, Look, if they can provide convincing evidence that it is a thing then sure let’s let’s look at it a bit more closely. So think that’s where all I’ll end up. Tomorrow. Thanks so much for your time.
Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 34:37
Thank you for having me, as well was my pleasure. Very good.
Gene Tunny 34:43
rato thanks for listening to this episode of economics explored. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org Or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if your podcasting app lets you then please write a review and leave a rating. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.
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