There's clear proof that the U.S. economy is headed in the right direction. Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate dropped in November to 4.6%.
But while this is good in and of itself, it also has a side benefit. In this segment of Industry Focus: Financials, The Motley Fool's Gaby Lapera and John Maxfield dig into the relationship between unemployment and inflation, detailing in particular why a little more of the latter would improve the economic outlook even further.
A full transcript follows the video.
This podcast was recorded on Dec. 5, 2016.
Gaby Lapera: One of the things you should look for is when unemployment rates drop, inflation tends to tick up.
John Maxfield: That's exactly right. That is why that 5% rate is so important, also. If unemployment falls below that 5% rate, the theory is that, what employers are going to have to do is start increasing their wages for the laborers. And if you increase wages for laborers, you're putting more money in people's pockets. If you put more money in people's pockets, that allows them to go out and bid up the prices of goods and services. If you bid up the prices of goods and services, you're creating inflation. So this is a good sign when you consider that inflation, the other side of the Federal Reserve responsibility, has been below its target rate. It came in at 1.6% in October. But the Federal Reserve is looking for a 2% inflation rate. So, that's coming in below. So, as these pressures in the labor market come to play, that is theoretically going to push that inflation number up closer to what the Federal Reserve is looking for.
Lapera: Yeah. I will say, there is one figure that is not quite as heartening in this report, which is the youth unemployment rate. The youth unemployment rate peaked in 2010 at 18.7%, and right now it's hovering around 12%. Which is not great, at all. Youth unemployment rate is considered people who are not enrolled in school, who are high school graduates but have no college, and are between 16 to 24 years old. So, 12%, still not great. It is dropping, but it's something to keep in mind.
Let's talk a little bit about interest rates. Janet Yellen is probably going to stick to what she said in November. Consumer confidence is up, in general, and unemployment is down. It seems like it might be time to start raising the interest rates.
Maxfield: That's right. Let me back up for one point I want to make on inflation. In the United States, when you think about the last 40 years, inflation has really gotten a bad name. The reason it has gotten such a bad name traces back to the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation shot up into double digits. It was like 18%-20% at the peak of the inflationary cycle at that time period. And that is not a good thing, because it's such an uncertain environment. Then you start thinking about the Weimar Republic and Germany and all those different things. But, you do want some inflation. The question is, how much inflation do you want? The Federal Reserve says 2%. So, the question is, why do you want even some inflation? Why don't you just want perfect price stability? The reason is that, in the United States, our GDP -- and I'm sure listeners have heard this statistic a million times -- 70% of our GDP traces itself back to the consumer and consumer expenditures.
When you think about consumer expenditures, a lot of people buy things on debt. People buy houses on debt. I own a house. I actually don't own the house, Bank of America owns the house. (laughs) Same thing with most people and cars. They buy them and they get a loan for the car. Well, any time you're buying things on credit and you have inflation, that is making the cost of borrowing decrease each year. Let's say, mortgage rates right now are like 3.5%. Let's say inflation goes up to 2%. That means the real cost to borrow is only 1.5%. That incentivizes people to borrow, which then pushes consumer expenditures, which are 70% of the U.S. economy. That is why you do want some inflation, but you don't want it to get out of control, where you're adding uncertainty and impacting consumer confidence, on the other side of that.
Every month, the Federal Reserve either has a meeting, or its chairwoman, Janet Yellen, has to testify before Congress. When she does that, or when they have a meeting and release the notes, they give an update on the perspective of what they're thinking about in terms of interest rates. Janet Yellen came out last month and said, we will raise interest rates "relatively soon" if there continue to be positive metrics that suggest that the economy is improving. We just saw that, with that unemployment statistic. That is as straightforward a statistic as you can get to show the economy is improving. So, what this means is that -- and you can never predict for sure when the Fed is going to raise interest rates -- but it certainly suggests that, at the Fed's meeting this month, there is a very good chance that they will, in fact, do so.