Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Dec 9, 2021

2022 US Economic Outlook: Gauging Inflation, Labor & The Fed


Ellen Zentner: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Ellen Zentner, Chief U.S. Economist for Morgan Stanley Research.

Robert Rosener:  And I'm Robert Rosener, Senior U.S. Economist.

Ellen Zentner: And on this episode of the podcast, we'll be talking about the 2022 outlook for the U.S. economy. It's Thursday, December 9th at noon in New York.

Robert Rosener: So, Ellen, we're headed into 2022. We're in a pretty unique moment for the U.S. economy. We see rising inflation, supply chain issues and uncertainty about Fed policy. Of course, we also had disappointing job growth in the month of November, but unemployment that is now not far from pre-COVID lows. So we've got a lot of different indicators sending very different messages right now. How should listeners be thinking about the U.S. economy right now and what that means for the outlook into 2022?

Ellen Zentner: Yeah. So we're pretty constructive on the U.S. economy, and it may be surprising with all the uncertainties that you noted. You know, consumers are in very good shape. We've been talking about excess savings for a long time on these podcasts. Excess savings is still there as a cushion. Look, inflation is rising and continues to rise, but it's rising because demand is still strong. At the same time, we don't have enough goods of what people want to buy. So I don't think we're out of the woods yet for rising inflation. I think we're going to get some more prints here that are even higher. But we already are getting indications from our equity analysts that their companies are saying that their supply chains are easing. So I think, within just a matter of months, we should start to see inflation come down. And while households are telling us in our surveys that inflation worries them even more so than COVID, they're still spending. And we expect that as we move into next year, we're going to recoup some of that deferred demand from goods that are going to be available that weren't there before.

Ellen Zentner But the other thing that's really important for consumer spending is the jobs numbers, and you mentioned that, Robert, explained to people-- because this was the number one question we got after that jobs report: how is it that you get a headline number? That's so disappointing, but unemployment rate is that low? I mean, is it good? Is it bad?

Robert Rosener: Yeah, it's a really mixed picture and a lot of different indicators pointing in a lot of different directions. So of course, we got our latest read on the labor market that showed a slower than anticipated rise in jobs. In the month of November, we created 210,000 jobs. That was less than half of what was expected, but overall, the report still had a solid tone. And one of the reasons why there are still solid indications coming from the labor market is that we're seeing continued healing from some of the biggest effects of the pandemic and that came through, most notably in November in labor force participation. One of the biggest shortfalls in the labor market has been the number of individuals who are actually actively participating in the labor force. We saw the labor force participation rate, in total, rise 20 basis points in November to 61.8%. That's still well below the 63.4% peak we saw pre-COVID, but it's notably out of the very sticky range it's been in since the summer. So we're seeing continued healing there. We're expecting that healing is going to continue, and that's going to be a very important part of this labor market recovery.

Ellen Zentner: So what are you telling clients then that are worried about wage pressures and where those might go? Because participation, rising participation, does matter there. So what's our message?

Robert Rosener: Well, much like the inflation backdrop, we're moving through a period of more elevated wage growth. There's been a significant amount of disruption in the labor market and alongside it, wage pressures have risen. But labor supply opening back up is a very important way that we're going to see supply and demand come back into balance in the labor market. We just got data on job openings, which showed that aggregate job openings in the economy are in excess of 11 million. There's one and a half open jobs for every unemployed individual in the labor market. If we boost the number of people who are actively participating in the labor market, it's going to bring those supply and demand metrics in better balance, and it should help to ease wage pressures alongside that.

Ellen Zentner: OK, that's interesting because, you know, one conversation that we have with our equity investors quite a bit is, you know, how should companies be looking at higher wage pressures? And of course, if you talk to economists and academics, right, we love to see higher nominal wages because that means stronger backdrop for aggregate demand. But the other reason why I really like higher nominal wages, they precede capital deepening. So if companies want to offset a higher wage bill, then you've got to find efficiencies and to find efficiencies, you've got to invest. So we're seeing companies invest in IT and equipment. We are we're calling it 'the global COVID capex cycle.' And that's really a bright spot in the economy for next year's outlook as well. So we would expect that to continue.

Robert Rosener: So, Ellen, we talked about a lot there. We've got elevated inflation now, some of which may be passing as supply chain disruptions ease. We have labor markets that, on the one hand, look tight, on the other hand, look like they have scope for further recovery. What does this mean for Fed policymakers and how do they put together the puzzle of what's going on in the economy when they're thinking about normalizing monetary policy?

Ellen Zentner: Yeah, it's not an easy job, is it? But Chair Powell is going to continue that job, as we've learned, and it's not going to be an easy backdrop for him. The Fed is concerned about what looks like more persistent inflationary pressures than they had previously thought. So no doubt, you know, you and I can sit down and pick apart the data and easily point to areas of inflation that are clearly temporary. But we've just not seen evidence of it as early as expected. And markets are starting to pressure the Fed on really giving more weight to price stability. And so we have seen a shift from the Fed. Last week, we heard Chair Powell say that price stability is important and only price stability would then beget maximum employment. And so really putting a lot more pressure on the price stability side of things. So we think at this upcoming FOMC meeting next week that we're going to see quite a hawkish shift from the Fed, both in their message around how quickly they are reducing the pace of their purchases. We think that they'll end that early. And then we'll see their so-called dot plot show an indication that they're going to start rate hikes earlier than expected, probably two quarters earlier than expected. And so I think that's a really important shift. And what it means is that going forward, our forecast that inflation will eventually start slowing in the first quarter will be very important in determining when the Fed actually does start increasing rate hikes.

Ellen Zentner So that was a lot to unpack about the outlook. There's many more details, and we'll pick out interesting parts for folks as we go along. A new podcast to come. And Robert. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

Robert Rosener: Great speaking with you, as always, Ellen.

Ellen Zentner: As a reminder, if you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcast app. It helps more people find the show.

The US economy is in a unique moment of uncertainty but headed into 2022, shifts in inflation, the labor market, and Fed policy tell a constructive story.

In this addition to the Thoughts on the Market series, Chief U.S. Economist Ellen Zentner translates the sometimes complex world of economics, helping investors identify early indicators of market-moving trends. 

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