The continued decline in Treasury yields has prompted many short-sighted arm-chair analysts to declare that the Fed was right about inflationary pressures being “transitory”. Of course, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen herself admitted, a little inflation is necessary for the economy to function long term – because without “controlled inflation,” how else will policymakers inflate away the enormous debts of the US and other governments.
As policymakers prepare to explain to the investing public why inflation is a “good thing”, a report published this week by left-leaning NPR highlighted a phenomenon that is manifesting in grocery stores and other retailers across the US: economists including Pippa Malmgren call it “shrinkflation”. It happens when companies reduce the size or quantity of their products while charging the same price, or even more money.
As NPR points out, the preponderance of “shrinkflation” creates a problem for academics and purveyors of classical economic theory. “If consumers were the rational creatures depicted in classic economic theory, they would notice shrinkflation. They would keep their eyes on the price per Cocoa Puff and not fall for gimmicks in how companies package those Cocoa Puffs.”
However, research by behavioral economists has found that consumers are “much more gullible than classic theory predicts. They are more sensitive to changes in price than to changes in quantity.” It’s one of many well-documented ways that human reasoning differs from strict rationality (for a more comprehensive review of the limitations of human reasoning in the loosely defined world of behavioral economics, read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”).
Just a few months ago, we described shrinkflation as “the oldest trick in the retailer’s book” with an explanation of how Costco was masking a 14% price hike by instead reducing the sheet count in its rolls of paper towels and toilet paper.
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