The Inventory Question

Mark Thoma asks a very good question:

“I hadn’t looked at this for awhile—should I interpret the return of the inventory-sales ratio to near normal levels as good news?”

Here’s the picture Thoma was looking at, updated to incorporate today’s U.S. Census Bureau release on February manufacturing and trade inventory and sales:

Tim Duy has taken a look at these data and comes to this conclusion:

“Increasingly, the recovery looks sustainable—sustainable in the sense that a double dip recession looks unlikely. As Bloomberg reports, this is the message of the inventory cycle, which appears to have largely run its course. Inventories surged as the recession intensified, leaving firms scrambling to bring output in line with the new level of sales. Now, firms have inventories under control.”

I have been pondering those data as well, ever since the advance fourth quarter gross domestic product report indicated that 3.4 percentage points of the then-reported 5.9 percent annualized growth rate was accounted for by a slowing in the pace of inventory decumulation. (The numbers have subsequently been revised to 3.8 percentage points of a 5.6 percent growth rate.) It certainly appears that inventory-sales ratios have reverted to the prerecession norm, justifying Duy’s sense that inventories will not be a big part of the economic story as we move through 2010.

That conclusion does rest, of course, on the likelihood that a downward trend in the ratio truly did break in the middle part of the decade. As the chart shows, the same pause in the trend occurred in the mid-1990s, only to commence its southward trek on the other side of the 2001 recession.

But the situation is even more curious than that. If you dig a little deeper, you find that not all inventory-sales ratios tell the same story. In particular, inventory-to-sales ratios at the retail level look very lean relative to prerecession levels while manufacturer’s inventories still appear to be relatively bloated.

What, exactly, is that chart trying to tell us? Does it represent some shift in supply-chain management, with inventory holdings being pushed down from the retail level to manufacturers? If not, can we expect some resurgence in retail inventories (as the Duy-cited Bloomberg article suggests), coupled with continued decumulation at the manufacturing level? And what would be the net effect of such developments on aggregate inventory levels?

Those are good questions, too. If you have any insights, I’d love to hear them.

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About David Altig 91 Articles

Affiliation: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Dr. David E. Altig is senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. In addition to advising the Bank president on Monetary policy and related matters, Dr. Altig oversees the Bank's research and public affairs departments. He also serves as a member of the Bank's management and discount committees.

Dr. Altig also serves as an adjunct professor of economics in the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago and the Chinese Executive MBA program sponsored by the University of Minnesota and Lingnan College of Sun Yat-Sen University.

Prior to joining the Atlanta Fed, Dr. Altig served as vice president and associate director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He joined the Cleveland Fed in 1991 as an economist before being promoted in 1997. Before joining the Cleveland Fed, Dr. Altig was a faculty member in the department of business economics and public policy at Indiana University. He also has lectured at Ohio State University, Brown University, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Duke University, John Carroll University, Kent State University, and the University of Iowa.

Dr. Altig's research is widely published and primarily focused on monetary and fiscal policy issues. His articles have appeared in a variety of journals including the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, the American Economic Review, the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, and the Journal of Monetary Economics. He has also served as editor for several conference volumes on a wide range of macroeconomic and monetary-economic topics.

Dr. Altig was born in Springfield, Ill., on Aug. 10, 1956. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees in economics from Brown University.

He and his wife Pam have four children and three grandchildren.

Visit: David Altig's Page

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