Streaming CPI Adjustments: Willing Buyer, Willing Seller or Unwilling Subsidy

When I made the soft call for impending stagflation last October I had no idea that that it would hit the US economy with such force and speed.  The trends were, frankly, obvious and the signs unmistakable.  But it’s the speed with which stagflation struck that I didn’t expect.  We have seen each step of stagflation’s three point play undeniably demonstrated in real life and the result is inflation as far as the eye can see.

Stagflation’s Three Point Play

The return of 1970s style stagflation and the now-confirmed recession along with Federal Reserve “quantitative tightening” could mean policymakers recognize the need to end the easy money policy that has been in place since “quantitative easing” began around 2008. Arguably, the global economy has been in a post-Big Short bubble ever since, with the inevitable growth in the money supply that provided “too much money” that was chasing “too few goods.”

A recession and stagflation call is mitigated by the unemployment rate (which was about triple current rates during the 1970s), which itself is mitigated by the labor participation rate. A ten year view shows that the labor participation rate is still below pre-pandemnic levels even though the unemployment rate has been steady in the recent past. Yet even Y Combinator (that famously wanted to “Kill Hollywood” starting with the unions) warns of investment drying up for startups, but we’re not quite at the point of limited partners refusing to show up for capital calls at major VCs.

Inflation has, of course, been inevitable as has been the commensurate rot of inflation on the buying power of consumers. There is little doubt that inflation has been a long-term trend in the U.S. for quite some time and is likely to be with us for a good long while longer. For songwriters, if you’ve been following the rate increase confirmed in Phonorecords III, imagine what the rates would have been had the rates been indexed in this inflationary environment. We can understand how they missed indexing on Phonorecords III, but they cannot miss it on Phonorecords IV–or give it away as a bargaining chip.

Realize that one accepted method of extinguishing inflation is the “Taylor Rule” implemented by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker in the 1970s for which Presidents Carter and Reagan took tremendous political heat–raise interest rates OVER the inflation rate. (Which is why there was a 21% prime rate–think on that.).

Source: Atlanta Federal Reserve

It was a different country then–America was a creditor nation. No longer true. Of course that’s not likely to happen today because of all the government borrowing during the easy money era. If the government had to pay a rate over the current 8.7% inflation rate, the government would collapse. It is likely that high inflation will be with us for a long time to come.

Being aware of the inflationary economic environment is a critical issue for songwriters in the US who are in the middle of a government rate setting proceeding before the Copyright Royalty Judges at the Copyright Royalty Board in Washington, DC.  Songwriters at least have the opportunity to include a cost of living adjustment in the government’s rate and have asked for it in the streaming proceeding.  Remember, there are two rate proceedings underway:  One for physical mechanicals and downloads and the other for streaming.  Songwriters, publishers and labels are in the physical and downloads proceeding.  Songwriters, publishers and Big Tech are in the streaming proceeding soon to go to trial.

Credit where credit is due, Universal, Sony and Warner labels have included an annual CPI adjustment (or “indexing”) for songwriters in their voluntary agreement to raise the previously frozen mechanical rate for physical and downloads.  The Copyright Royalty Judges also included indexing in the rate for webcasting of sound recordings that they recently decided (Web V). Many of the same Big Tech services were parties to Web V but are now arguing against CPI for songwriters in Phonorecords IV.  Different hearings, true, but a lot of overlap in the parties and their smug little straight faces.

In our stagflationary economy, an agreed-upon inflation adjustment is a fairness making term that doesn’t make songwriters eat all of the inflationary rot from cost increases for “food at home” and force them to predict those price changes five years in advance.  Indexing helps to fix that guess work in what is already a process of educated guessing in the non-existent willing buyer/willing seller folie à deux.

An inflation index is a particularly crucial tool when songwriters are prevented from stepping away from a deal because the government forced a deal upon them, like any statutory rate or in countries where there is a tariff or other compelled agreement.

Failing to use indexing makes the fairly controversial assumption that economically rational songwriters would charge a fixed price regardless of the fluctuations of the cost of energy, food and rent.  By using the government to impose a non-indexed rate, there is a government-mandated implied discount that accrues to the benefit of the services, aka the largest companies in commercial history who just can’t bring themselves to treat songwriters fairly.  

But want to bet these failures will have no impact on the services’ ESG scores on Wall Street?

Take Google for example, flatly rejecting indexing on the streaming side of the CRB proceedings:

“None of Google’s agreements with music publishers contain CPI adjustments for the [Per Subscriber Minimums] contained in those agreements. The Copyright Owners’ proposed CPI adjustment to PSMs is simply unsupported by marketplace evidence.” https://app.crb.gov/document/download/26528

Google is, as usual, full of it and is gaslighting the CRB with inapt arguments.  Google is in a rate proceeding where the government—not Google—sets the terms.  I know that line gets a little blurry for Googlers given how much strangulation Google sustains over government through its vast network of lobbyists, revolving door men and women, consultants and on and on and on.  

I also know that Google would love nothing more than to dictate the terms to the government because Google has not-unjustified delusions of grandeur in this regard due to their mind-blowing level of brazen influence peddling.  It’s not just Google, it’s all of the Big Tech oligarchs, the latter day Xerxes who seek to overwhelm creators through lawfare—songwriters are just low hanging fruit because of the ancient compulsory license—Section 115 of the Copyright Act—that is ready made for Big Tech’s copyright abuse.

But Google is not the government. It is the Congress and not Google that created Section 115 to interfere with private contracts and more importantly interfere with the right to privately contract.  That’s a big deal in the US.

So, the issue isn’t what Google may have done in contracts with a totality of vastly different terms in a completely unrelated setting.  It’s whether the government is paying just compensation for taking away rights under the Constitution of the United States.  More specifically the 5th Amendment “takings” clause.

And the government’s compensation to songwriters is not just. It never has been.

Remember that at the heart of this process, the Judges are required to set a price for songs that the Judges believe reflects what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in a transaction that has been devoid of willing buyers and sellers for over 100 years.  

Google and other Big Tech DSPs in the CRB present the Judges with benchmarks based on prices that are not only distorted by years of abuse to begin with but are permanently disfigured.  Remember, the government set the mechanical rate at 2¢ from 1909 to 1978 and had raised it very slowly ever since while at the same time pretending that the distortion of the 2¢ rate did not exist.

This deep 2¢ hole that songwriters are digging out of may not be the only reason songwriters are so poorly compensated, but this “tuppence” era definitely is a contributing factor.  So whatever value-based rate increase that songwriters can claw out of the Big Tech services must be supported by a cost of living adjustment measured by the CPI just to tread water.  

Price is truth if prices are truthful. And undistorted.

Otherwise, it’s just frozen mechanicals by another name, and Big Tech is simply free riding on the government’s license due to their outsized lobbying influence and government capture. (Need we name names?)

The songwriter is simply subsidizing the biggest corporations in commercial history.

@RIAA Chief’s Proposal to Settle the Frozen Mechanicals Crisis by Expanding the Songwriters at the Table

The frozen mechanicals crisis points up one of the key problems in administering the statutory mechanical license in the US: Songwriters are a fragmented group. Merely chanting to courts that you represent all songwriters and publishers in the world when you know that is not reflective of reality is not a recipe for successful negotiations. It was only a matter of time until one of these deals imposed on the songwriter community turned sour. Frozen mechanicals turned out to be the black ice on the Nantucket sleigh ride.

Getting a result that is satisfactory to a broad group of songwriters and independent publishers is a challenge, no doubt. But the frozen mechanicals situation is actually not quite as bad as it could be.

First, we know what the dispute is about and the way the dispute could be solved. Those terms:

–Raise rates on the “Subpart B” configurations, meaning songs sold under the compulsory license in the permanent download, vinyl and compact disc configurations;

–Reach a private settlement and avoid the “battle of the experts” and further expensive litigation

–Include a broad group of activists from the US and other countries in the process.

–Create a settlement that is likely to pass review by the Copyright Royalty Judges (and ultimately Congress) and is at least less likely to get appealed by George Johnson and whoever else can manage to be granted standing.

–Unite the community against the streaming services.

The detailed and well-thought out sober comments by so many songwriters that seem to have been at least somewhat compelling and persuasive to the Judges tell the RIAA members who they must deal with and also give a good idea of what these group would find satisfactory. The RIAA members also have a unique opportunity to extract themselves from the “late fee waiver” deal that can be recast on more appropriate terms and include a much wider group with far fewer relations that give the appearance of conflicts.

Second, this is why it was encouraging to read this quote from Mitch Glazier, a long time community leader, deal maker, and head of the RIAA in an Ed Christman post from yesterday–a comment made outside the four corners of the RIAA’s controversial filing now characterized as “procedural”:

Glazier, however, says that he has no control who participates in the CRB proceedings — it has its own process that makes those decisions — he does have a say who participates in the negotiations for a new rate settlement and wants to include other independent songwriting groups, publishers and labels. He wants their point of view to inform negotiations, he says. But in order to have those discussion, it will take more time than the CRB currently would allow, thus the motion to delay responding to the judges on how adjudication should move forward.

I have to imagine that the major labels probably went into this Phonorecords IV proposed settlement first filed in early 2021 (so negotiated in late 2020, one would guess) feeling that surely their counterparties would have polled their membership and reached a bona fide consensus before making the deal. Particularly when the streaming companies were so obviously going to make the “good for the goose” argument in the streaming piece about frozen rates being applied equally to mechanicals regardless of who was paying.

This is particularly true when the services get to pay the old rates pending an appeal and are therefore incented to stretch out appeals as long as they can as a matter of drill if not sport. Another huge miss in the negotiation of Title I of the Music Modernization Act.

Songwriters know that if they are not at the table, they are on the menu as our dear late Governor Ann Richards used to say. It’s nice to see Mitch Glazier offering to include the wider group in settlement negotiations and we should all look forward to see how that goes. As Mr. Glazier said, his members are free to negotiate with anyone they want, and it’s obvious that the people who held themselves out has having all the experience and authority to speak for all songwriters in the world fell a bit short this time.

Let’s not make that mistake again. We are on the clock, and the golden hour for settlement is at hand.

The Effect of Unfrozen Mechanicals on Controlled Compositions

Nice post by Ed Christman in Billboard explaining the continuing crisis on frozen mechanicals. Ed comes up with a rough justice quantification of the impact on songwriter and music publisher revenues in light of controlled compositions clauses in recording contracts that apply to (a) songs written and recorded by artists, or (b) songs by “outside writers” if and only if the artist can get the outside writer to accept the controlled compositions terms and rates.

For those reading along at home, one theory (aside from sheer leverage) that gets used in this context is that the artist/writer can agree on behalf of all co-writers to accept the terms of the license granted by the artist to the label in the controlled compositions clause because they are co-owners of an undivided interest in the song copyright and can grant nonexclusive licenses in the whole subject to a duty to account provided the license is not economic waste or self-dealing. Let’s just leave all that where it lays for now, but that story has never really been properly challenged–particularly the economic waste part given the rate fixing date issue and even the frozen mechanicals crisis itself. We’ll come back to that bit some other time.

The rate fixing date is a key part of the discussion for understanding the impact of unfreezing mechanicals. So what is that rate fixing provision?

Remember, the controlled compositions clause starts with reducing the minimum statutory mechanical rate in the US (and in theory in Canada subject to MLA) in effect at a point in time. That point in time is either commencement of recording (booo!), delivery, release or sale of a unit embodying the song at issue. Remember that the labels only pay mechanical royalties on physical and downloads (the rates at issue in the frozen mechanicals crisis)–streaming services pay for the interactive streaming mechanicals (and there is no mechanical for webcasting, a whole other beef).

You say, wait–isn’t the mechanical rate 9.1¢? Why does it matter when the record was recorded, delivered, released or sold? Won’t the rates all be the same? And you’d be right if you were asking about a record recorded and released in 2006 or after, or a record recorded and released between 1909 and 1978, like, say some titles by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Otis Redding or Miles Davis.

But–it wasn’t always this way. The mechanical royalty rate was set at 2¢ by Congress with the first statutory license, i.e., compulsory license, in 1909 and did not change until the 1976 revision of the US Copyright Act effective 1978. The rate then began to incrementally increase over the years until it reached 9.1¢ in 2006, a phased increase that was to compensate for Congress failing to increase the rate for 70 years, aka “the Ice Age”. The Congress really screwed up songwriters’ lives by freezing the rate at 2¢ during the Ice Age and songwriters and their heirs have been paying for it ever since, right up to the 2006-2022 period, aka “the Second Ice Age” or the Return of the Neanderthals.

In an effort to help songwriters shovel out from the Ice Age, The Congress also authorized indexing the minimum rate to inflation from 1988 to 1995. Indexing is again on the mind of the Copyright Royalty Board right now–bearing in mind that an increase in rates due to inflation has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the song copyrights so there’s no confusion. Indexing simply applies any increase in the consumer price index to the statutory rate and preserves buying power. In a way, it is the opposite of a case about value. Indexing assumes that the value issue was already decided (in this case in 2006) and simply preserves buying power so that the “nominal” rate of 9.1¢ in 2006 can still buy the same amount of goods or services in 2022 (or 2023 in the case of the CRB rate period). Otherwise the “real” rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate, is not 9.1¢ it is about 6¢.

Remember–the proposed rate increase to 12¢ by the CRB is not about value, it’s about buying power because it’s solely focused on inflation.

So back to controlled compositions. It is no coincidence that at the same time as the 1978 increases were phased in, the labels established controlled compositions clauses that knocked songwriters back down. They would probably not have gotten away with freezing by contract at 2¢ so they let the rate float up but much more slowly and with several caps. The first cap is the maximum number of songs, usually 10 or 11. The next cap is the infamous 3/4 rate, where the label pays based on 75% of the minimum statutory rate. But the third cap is the rate fixing date and that’s the one we want to focus on in the unfrozen mechanicals context.

In simple form, it looks something like this contract language:

If the copyright law of the United States provides for a minimum compulsory rate: The rate equal to seventy-five percent (75%) of the minimum compulsory license rate applicable to the use of musical compositions on audio Records under the United States copyright law (hereinafter referred to as the “U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate”) at the time of the commencement of the recording of the Master concerned but in no event later than the last date for timely Delivery of such Master (the applicable date is hereinafter referred to as the “Copyright Fixing Date”). (The U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate is $.091 per Composition as of January 1, 2006); 

The way that the statutory rate increases come into the controlled compositions clause is because from 1978-2006 the statutory rates increased across albums delivered across album cycles. If you consider that the rates used to increase about every two years and that an album cycle can be two years, it’s likely that LP 1 would have a lower rate than LP2, LP 2 than LP3 and so on right up to 2006.

Also remember that the increases in rates are prospective, meaning that the controlled compositions rate on recordings delivered in the future will, of course, get the higher rate, even if the past rates don’t change which they don’t, at least not yet. Also consider that permanent downloads often are excluded from controlled comp treatment and are paid at full rate, probably on the rate fixing date in the artist’s agreement. Sometimes the download rates “float” or increase in line with increases in the statutory rate, but that’s part of individual negotiations.

If there is an outside songwriter who does not agree to accept the artist’s controlled composition rate (and there are plenty of these) what happens? Typically the label will account to the outside writer at their full minimum statutory rate but will deduct that payment from the maximum aggregate mechanical royalty payable to the artist (i.e., the 10 song cap). There’s some twists and turns to this involving rates on different units “made and distributed”, but for our purposes there is one clear thing to understand:

Because of the rate fixing date which is frozen by contract (the Mini Ice Age) the artist/songwriter will be paying a higher mechanical to the outside writer from a frozen royalty “pool”.

This is why you should always, always demand “protection” for at least one outside song in your contract and then review each album to determine if that needs to be increased. This is particularly true for records made in places like Nashville where the record company will demand you work with “A” list songwriters (assume none of whom will take 3/4 rate) and then try to deduct the difference between the uncontrolled rate and the controlled rate from you (and if it gets big enough, cross it to your record royalties). (Not only will A list writers not take the 3/4 rate, they’re pissed because they can’t charge you double stat like they do double scale for sessions.)

Example: You have a 10 x 3/4 rate cap on mechanicals, the “cap rate”. That’s the 68.25¢ album rate you hear about (10 x .75 x 9.1¢). Say you have 10 songs on your album and you wrote all of them. You get the entire 68.25¢. If you had two outside songs whose writers get 9.1¢ under current rates, you deduct 18.2¢ from the cap rate, and that leaves 50.05¢ as the “controlled pool” or the total mechanical royalty payable to the artist/songwriter (actually all controlled writers, but leave aside that wrinkle).

So you can see, that’s no longer a 75% rate, it’s actually more like a 55% rate.

Now let’s assume that the new rate is 12¢. Same calculation, two outside songs now get 24¢, but the cap rate stays the same because of the rate fixing date. During the Mini Ice Age, i.e., while that cap rate is fixed at 9.1¢ x 10 x .75, the controlled pool now is expressed as 68.25¢ – 24¢ = 44.25¢, or about 48% (44.25 ÷ 91). The artist’s publisher is not going to be wild about that; the outside writer’s publishers will be thrilled.

This will start to true up on the next LP that takes a rate fixing date after the 12¢ rates go into effect. In that situation you’d be increasing both sides of the equation, so the cap rate would increase to 90¢ (10 x .12 x .75). The outside writers still get 12¢ each for two songs (or 24¢) which is deducted from the cap rate to get a controlled pool of 66¢. The true controlled comp rate is then back to about 55%.

These effects will be less pronounced if you have protection for one or more songs (or fractions of songs) or you have a higher cap, say 11 or 12 instead of 10 (with corresponding increases on other configurations). But you see the trend line.

I think this leads to the conclusion that increasing the statutory rate is a huge step forward and we should all be grateful to the Judges. The rate fixing dates for catalog titles (really the entire rate fixing date concept) must also be considered and any new effort to tweak the controlled compositions clause to effectively nullify the Judges’ rate increase will no doubt cause further conflict.

One day Congress will again act to reduce the effects of the controlled compositions clause and especially the rate fixing date, but in the meantime the Judges may well visit the issue to the extent they are able before we see the Return of the Neanderthals.

Songwriter Inflation Adjustments Must be Mandatory

Both the consumer price index and the producer price index increased this month and the Federal Reserve is making noises like it intends to increase interest rates and reduce what is called the Fed’s “balance sheet”. Once again, the freeze on mechanical royalties for physical records like CDs and vinyl and failure to index to the consumer price index looks increasingly irresponsible if not downright antagonistic. If you agree that songwriters need to have a cost of living adjustment permanently built into all statutory rates, we have to also recognize that may be a heavy lift and needs to be supported by evidence. Here’s a few ideas.

Consumer Price Index

US Inflation Rate Jan 2020-Jan 2022
The Consumer Price Index tracked a 7.5% increase in inflation, and even excluding energy and food prices the CPI rose 6% (which applies to all those who don’t drive and don’t eat).

The next chart shows increases in the categories of goods that make up the CPI.

The January inflation rate is the highest since February 1982. If you don’t remember what was happening in February 1982, it was the end of the 1970s stagflation with supply side “exogenous” shocks to a number of sectors including energy. The other hallmark of the 1970s and early 1980s corresponding to the staglation is a black swan (we hope) increase in the prime rate of lending. The prime rate exceeded 20%.

One could say that the only reason that the prime rate is not much higher today is because the Federal Reserve adopted a zero interest rate policy (or “ZIRP”) in response to the 2008 financial crisis as did other central banks in other countries. The idea was that cheap money would encourage banks to make loans to borrowers as well as other banks and more debt would stimulate the economy. That’s why interest rates have been at or near zero for so long. (Not everyone thought this was a good idea, including me.) The truth is we don’t really know what interest rates would be absent the central banks’ distortion of the credit markets–perhaps for all the right reasons, but distortions nonetheless.

Increases in the 1970s prime rate caused all interest rates to increase, including credit card rates and mortgage rates. We are accustomed to seeing mortgage rates around 5% partly due to ZIRP, but mortgage rates were much higher in the 1970s. This caused a contraction in the number of people who could qualify for a mortgage and extremely high mortgage payments for those who could (not to mention “points” paid to compensate for the credit risk).

Remember the Federal Reserve’s mission is to use monetary policy to keep inflation under control and unemployment low. There are two policy “weapons” the Fed has to accomplish its mission: interest rates and the money supply. When the Fed adopts a ZIRP, what happens if those low rates don’t have the desired stimulus? That just leaves the money supply when zero interest rates lead to a “liquidity trap.”

With interest rates at their lower range (or “lower bound”) the Fed stimulated the money supply in a particular way called “quantitative easing” which involved increasing the money supply by creating money to buy treasury notes in a special way (not exactly printing money, but effectively similar) and also buying mortgage backed securities and other bonds in the open market. This was especially true in “busted offerings” when the government financed deficits with Treasury notes purchased by the Federal Reserve. And yes, that does sound rather hinky.

We’ll come back to that ZIRP policy and quantitative easing in another post, but let’s just say for now that the Federal Reserve provided more money to certain kinds of banks than they’d ever seen before in an effort to stimulate the economy without raising inflation. Yet they must have always known that an easy money policy was inflationary and due to ZIRP they had limited options–to kick the can down the road. Like a balloon payment in a mortgage, the devil would come for his due at some point. That time may be now.

Whenever inflation goes up, there is an assumption–fueled by those who wish to avoid blame–that inflation is just transitory and will recede if the central banks take anti-inflation steps, such as raising interest rates by targeting even higher interest rates on Federal Funds (currently 0.25%) on top of an already higher 10 Year Treasury Bond.

If the Fed raises rates by .25% five times this year as projected by banks like Goldman Sachs, that will essentially double the interest payment on government bonds which fuels both federal spending and the national debt. The problem with that is the higher interest rates proposed by the central bank also affect government borrowing to service the $30 odd trillion dollar national debt. Maybe you can withstand your credit card rate increasing by five percent, but the government cannot.

As you can see from the charts above, some of this inflation is increasing at an increasing rate. It is going to take time to recede. Energy markets are fluid, for example, but rents are not. The conventional wisdom is that mortgage rates and home prices vary inversely to each other. Mortgage rates can also have an effect on rental prices, too; the harder it is to qualify for a mortgage, the more people have to rent, so rental prices go up. Rental prices are also sticky, meaning that once they go up, they don’t decline very rapidly or at all. Ask yourself the last time a landlord cut your rent?

Speaking of the government’s credit card, it is important to look at the effect that inflation has on interest rates for another reason: many people have been dealing with the cost of inflation is by putting it on the credit card. Not everyone has a seven figure base salary.

Credit card interest rates are currently averaging around 14.5%, which means that if you don’t have a good credit score, you’ll probably pay closer to 20%. Bear in mind that the Federal Reserve has announced its intention to hike interest rates multiple times this year, so if that happens those in the riskier tier will be paying closer to 25% by December and people with “good” credit will be paying closer to 20%. Both of which are loan shark rates.

Bands are prone to maxing out credit cards in the best of economic times so are likely to be especially hard hit just with increased interest payments on existing balances. This multiplier effect is important because on top of everything else the cost of inflation for people who have been putting it on the credit card is going to be many times worse than it is for people who have been paying cash. This is not something that you really wanna mess with, so if there’s any possible way and I mean any possible way you can either stop making it worse or start paying down that credit card do it because this is going to get very weird.

Producer Price Index

The Producer Price Index rose 1.9% in January to 9.7%. Remember, the PPI is a leading indicator of future inflation because producer prices foreshadow increases in future goods as lower priced inventories decline and price increases are in part passed through to consumers (or are in part absorbed by firms to sustain demand).

Inflation Expectations

Should songwriters expect inflation rates will effect the statutory rates in the coming years? Remember that inflation expectations can have a direct effect on actual inflation because those expectations determine wages–if you think inflation will rise, you ask for higher wages. You see this on the interactive streaming mechanical rates (which recently were amended to include a cost of living adjustment), but for some reason not on the physical.

Determining inflation expectation requires survey data, and the benchmark surveys of consumer sentiment and inflation expectations are conducted by the University of Michigan. US inflation expectations for the next 12 months rose to 5% in February of 2022 from 4.9% in January. That is the highest level of 1-year Inflation expectations since July of 2008.

Conclusion

All this confirms again that inflation for the foreseeable future is not and will not be “transitory.” Statutory rates should be indexed to inflation for the foreseeable future. This should not even be a question (and was the rule in the latter half of the 1970s, and all of 80s and 90s). If the Copyright Royalty Board will not include a cost of living adjustment in all statutory rates, perhaps it should be imposed on them.

Do I Feel Lucky: Increasing Economic Justifications for Abandoning Frozen Mechanical Rates at the Copyright Royalty Board

We hear from an increasing number of songwriters who are learning about what is going on in the current rate fixing movements at the Copyright Royalty Board, some for the first time. In a nutshell, the Copyright Royalty Board rate fixing is a hugely expensive process that puts generations of children through university among the participating lawyers and lobbyists. By the time the money gets through the snake, so to speak, that process results in what are, frankly, scraps delivered to the kitchen tables of songwriters at the end of the day.

The rate fixing proceeding sets the statutory rate for certain times of song uses that are mandated by the federal government. There are two main categories of statutory rates under that compulsory mechanical license: physical (sometimes called “Subpart B” rates) typically paid by record companies, and interactive streaming (sometimes called “Subpart C” rates) typically paid by services like Spotify. (At least theoretically paid–often not judging by the size of the $424 million black box that is still just sitting under the collective’s five year plan.)

We all know that songwriters have been crushed by the failure of streaming mechanical rates to keep pace with streaming’s cannibalization of physical carriers. What many songwriters do not know is that one reason why their mechanical royalty income has dropped is due to an agreement among the major players to freeze the physical mechanical rates at the 2006 level of a minimum rate of $0.091 (currently worth approximately $0.06), and then to extend that freeze several more times for a total of 15 years so far. (The freeze essentially codified the controlled compositions rate but applied to all songwriters in the world.) There is a current proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board in which the major players have reached an agreement to extend that 2006 freeze for another five years starting in 2023 and running to 2027. Shocking, I know.

In fact, the majors have now got themselves boxed into a corner on the interactive streaming rates that they are trying to increase. Why boxed? Obviously because the services are not stupid and if they see physical mechanical rates frozen when the record companies are paying, they ask why should the streaming rates increase when the services are paying? (And before you ask, this bid rigging is “legal” because everyone gets an antitrust exemption (17 USC §115(c)(1)(D). Cute.)

There is, of course, an unholy connection between statutory rates, controlled compositions clauses in record deals and mechanical royalties–see this post for the history. Let’s just say for this post that a page of history is worth a volume of logic.

The point I want to make to you in this post is that time is going by and no progress is being made in the current proceeding (styled “Phonorecords IV“) just like there’s no progress being made in the last proceeding (styled “Phonorecords III“); some people ask why these rates and appeals were not resolved in the giveaway that was part of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (aka the Harry Fox Preservation Act) which created the Mechanical Licensing Collective. If you’re going to make a major change to collectivize songwriters and vastly expand the scope of the compulsory mechanical license, shouldn’t you have gotten something for it? I’d count myself in the group that’s asking those questions so you know my bias. In a recent comment, I called the Copyright Royalty Board the “cornucopia of chaos,” which it is at least on the mismanaged mechanical royalty rates.

Inflation and Mechanicals

One thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that inflation is a major factor in determining any statutory royalty rate. This is certainly standard with the webcasting rates negotiated by SoundExchange with the same Copyright Royalty Board. It seems that if someone just asked for “indexing” the rates to inflation, the CRB just might give it. But no one is pushing on that open door except the songwriters and publishers who commented on the majors proposed settlement but who cannot afford to be part of the Phonorecords IV proceeding itself.

So leaving aside an increase in all of the actual rates that would reflect the value of songs, it does seem that we must accept the thinking of many economists that inflation is here to stay for a while and will surely extend into the 2023-27 rate period of Phonorecords IV. I’ve posted about these indicators before, but here’s some additional information. A cost of living adjustment seems like it should be a pro forma request–it only increases the rates if there is an actual increase in the cost of living as measured by an objective standard, typically the CPI-U (Consumer Price Index-Urban) measured by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since we are projecting at least two years into the future, let’s consider a few metrics that measure two years into the past. What is the trend line for inflation? Up and to the right, as they say.

US Inflation Rate

Equity Markets

We normally don’t spill much ink on the stock market because markets go up and down, can’t pick a top and can’t pick a bottom. But–stock markets are often a leading indicator of the direction of growth in the broader economy so let’s look at what’s been happening in a few different measures. Remember–the conventional wisdom is that a 20% correction to the downside is the definition of a bear market.

I have been beating the stagflation war tocsin for quite some time now (since May 2021), and unfortunately I think the markets are waking up to the true-1970s style stagflationary environment we may be entering. This means lower growth combined with surging prices for consumers and producers. And that is truely bad news bears. (If you don’t know about 1970s stagflation, take a few minutes and read up on it. And even if you don’t, the negotiators of the statutory mechanical rates really should know. Some of them may have lived through it the first time around.)

The tech-heavy NASDAQ index has dropped about 14% since November, returning to February 2021 levels with no end in sight.

The broader Russell 2000 is more revealing with a 19% decline over a few weeks as more inflation/stagflation confirmation data comes in:

This broader decline is confirmed by the S&P 500:

And if you were looking for confirmation of declining retail sales as a measure of growth, consider Amazon’s stock performance:

A little closer to home, consider Spotify’s recent stock performance which shows its pandemic-fueled riches coming back to reality (although not so good for any employees who got a stock option grant in the last 18 months or so):

Bond Yields

Remember, the bond market is exponentially larger than the stock market. We’ll come back to this, but consider what is happening in the bond market and think about this question: what could cause both the stock market and the bond market to decline?

US Savings Rate

The savings rate shows a couple of anomalies where the savings rate spiked to unnatural highs of 34% in a lockdown era and again to 27% after government stimulus, but–the savings rate has sharply declined to pre-pandemic 2018-ish levels Why? I would speculate that this is partly due to rising prices of goods to consumers, particularly energy, rent and food and the decline of “real” wages (nominal wages less inflation).

Commodities

Consider a couple of inputs–there are many–but note for our purposes that these commodity prices are at or near recent highs, or are retracing recent highs. The trend line is up and to the right, which suggests that these prices are likely to continue upward into at least the first year of the Phonorecords IV rate period (2023) and potentially beyond.

Energy

However you feel about fossil fuels, the reality for singer/songwriters or bands is that the way they try to supplement their declining songwriting income is by touring and for almost everyone, touring means gasoline. I don’t have to tell you what gasoline prices are doing–you know whenever you fill up the van. This chart is a measure of gasoline futures, which is the bet that the commodity traders are making on the future price of gasoline (not the price at the pump where you live). Again, the trend line is up and to the right.

And of course if you’re going to make it to the gig or the writer room you’ll need to avoid that freezing to death thing and you’ll care about heating oil prices, up 70% year over year:

To take it a step back, crude oil is closing in on $100 a barrel due in part to exogenous supply side shocks and contractions. If crude goes over $100, we are in a whole new world that we have not seen since 2014.

Conclusion

So you get the idea, right? This is all evidence supporting a cost of living adjustment for mechanical royalties. When the stock market declines, particularly declines sharply as it is currently performing, that is largely to do an expectation of slower growth in the economy as a whole. They’ve been wrong before, but the market is actually a pretty good leading indicator of the direction of growth.

Declining stock prices foreshadow declining earnings which foreshadows declining economic growth. What happens when growth decreases? Inventories may drop, and supply declines (which is already happening and you know that if you’ve been to the grocery store lately). GDP may also decline.

Remember the stagflation three point play? In this chart, Y1 GDP declines in Y2.

Lower growth or economic stagnation is the “stag” part of stagflation.

When bond prices go down, typically interest rates are trending up, which signals an inflationary outlook. If current bond prices decline because interest rates are increasing (or are anticipated to increase), that is most likely anticipating the Federal Reserve’s announced rate increases in 2022. The number of rate increases is anticipated to be somewhere between three and five (some say even six) in 2022. The Fed increases interest rates to tamp down inflation, so you can say that lower bond prices (which vary inversely to interest rates) is anticipating the “inflation” part of 1970s-style stagflation. Just to be clear, this is all readily available public information.

It’s becoming more obvious that we are watching a slow moving train wreck (cynics like me might say we’re beginning to get hit with the balloon payment for 2008 after 15 years of quantitative easing, but that’s a story for another day). The slower the train wreck, the more likely the wreck will occur during the Phonorecords IV rate period. Since the Federal Reserve is still busily printing money, these metrics are all leading indicators of how much blood will be left on the floor starting around March 2022 or so. And we haven’t even talked about what the announced Federal Reserve rate hikes will do to the housing market even if each one is a relatively small increase.

You don’t need an expert economist to produce any original research on this for the CRB–the question for songwriters is why don’t we already have a government rate indexed to inflation? The indexed rate is only paid if you actually get an increase in the CPI, which even then only preserves the value of whatever nominal rate you do have–it’s not a “real” rate increase. So why not at least try to get a cost of living adjustment? There’s no reason not to at least try to get indexing on every statutory rate which was the standard approach on mechanicals for many years after 1978 until the 2006 freeze. Unless your bonus is tied to a big percentage increase in the headline rate rather than the less obvious indexing that would actually protect the value of songs.

Which all seems to be to be so obvious that if you don’t have it you’d have to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? The odds are all on the house.

All Economic Indicators Are Flashing Red at the Copyright Royalty Board on Frozen Mechanicals

All of the economic indicators are telling us that inflation is going to be around for a while–so songwriters should expect some cost of living adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index when the Copyright Royalty Board sets mechanical royalty rates, especially for the frozen mechanical rate on physical phonorecords. Why do I say that?

The U.S. Consumer Price Index closed 2021 at 7%. That is the highest inflation level since 1982–and remember in 1982 the U.S. had already had a solid two to three years of Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker’s anti-inflationary surge after the malaise of the 1970s.

The Producer Price Index for 2021 was measured at 9.7% by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest calendar year increase since 2010. The PPI is a leading indicator of inflation as measured by the CPI because it measures a large basket of raw inputs and future price increases that will affect the CPI in weeks or months.

The University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment fell to 68.8%, its second lowest level in a decade (the lowest being in November 2021). The survey also measured “confidence in government economic policies is at its lowest level since 2014.” The consumer sentiment survey indicates that consumers expect bad times ahead, or at least expensive times. This can have a pronounced effect on consumer inflation expectations.

Consumer inflation expectations remained unchanged after rising strongly over the last year, particularly the one-year outlook. Inflation expectations can be a self-fulfilling driver of inflation for a number of reasons such as FOMO pricing on homes and cars as well as wages–if you expect inflation to rise x% in the next 12 months, today you will seek wage increases of at least x% (if not more).

All of this tells us that the entire idea of extending the freeze on statutory mechanical royalties gets more absurd by the day. It’s entirely reasonable to “index” statutory mechanical royalties during the current rate setting period of 2023-2027 as we’ll all be very lucky to get through that period without suffering crippling inflation that will further erode the 2006 rates the CRB has used for the past 15 years.

Real Mechanical Rates Have Declined with Inflation Increases Due to #FrozenMechanicals

If you follow economics, you probably have heard the expressions “real wages” or “nominal wages” or “real” versus “nominal” wages. This isn’t a Cartesian metaphysical discussion–it’s about the effect of inflation on what they tell you you’re getting paid. Nowhere is this truer than with the statutory mechanical royalty rate. The rate will inevitably decline over time due to the rot and decay of inflation. Inflation is like having a cavity in your tooth that you don’t fix. It doesn’t go away. It may not hurt yet but it’s going to.

The effects of inflation are hardly a secret. Because of the effect of inflation on interest rates set by the Federal Reserve (who is charged with keeping inflation under control), vast numbers of people around the world keep watch on U.S. inflation rates as well as inflation rates in other countries.

US Inflation Rate Over Past 5 Years

For example, an hourly worker might be paid $12 an hour by her employer. That’s her “nominal wage” or “money wage.” But the issue is not what the worker is told they are getting paid, it’s what the worker can buy with her wages. What her nominal wage buys her is her “real wage” or her nominal wage adjusted by inflation during the same time period. Real wages are always less than nominal wages. This is why workers commonly get annual cost of living adjustments to nominal wages that increase their nominal wages based on inflation in addition to nominal performance-based increases. The same is true of entitlement payments like Social Security which just announced its biggest inflation adjustment in many years.

This is particularly important when understanding nominal and real statutory mechanical rates set by the government’s Copyright Royalty Board every five years. With a nominal wage (as opposed to a government rate freeze like a price control), there are a number of different countermeasures you can take in response to a wage freeze and take quickly. You can always try to negotiate a higher hourly or annual wage if you are falling short of inflation. You can also try to quit and find another job that pays more money. Perhaps even get an annual raise built into your salary.

However, with the statutory mechanical royalty, there is no escape. Songwriters are at the mercy of both the government (in the form of the Copyright Royalty Board) and the people who are supposed to be negotiating for them who seem to have decided that millions of songwriters don’t need a cost of living adjustment. Without “indexing” the statutory mechanical to inflation (meaning a CRB ruling requiring automatic cost of living increases based on increases of inflation), songwriters’ buying power actually decreases over time. That’s the difference between the nominal mechanical royalty and the real rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the “frozen mechanical” that you’ve probably heard a lot about if you’re a regular reader. It’s called “frozen” because the rate for physical and vinyl was set by the CRB in 2006 and has not been raised since–apparently at the request or acquiescence of those negotiating in the songwriters’ interest. Think about that–remember what happened in 2008 (just a couple years after the rate was frozen)? The Great Recession aka The Big Short.

It may not be obvious to you but most of the laws in the US are not passed in Congress and they are not signed by the President. The overwhelming majority of these laws are created by administrative agencies, often located in the Executive Branch, but not always. When it comes to songwriters there is a federal agency that has almost total control over certain aspects of your life.

That agency is the Copyright Royalty Board which has three “judges” that are appointed by the Librarian of Congress (therefore are in the Legislative Branch of government along with Congress). While these members of the Copyright Royalty Board are styled “judges” they are not “all purpose” judges appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate (under Article III of the Constitution for those reading along at home). (This CRB appointment issue is a matter of some debate but we will talk about the appointment issue some other time (attention Justice Kavanaugh).)

Whether you know it or not or like it or not you have delegated your personal agency to the CRB and you have also delegated your agency to the people who can afford to appear before the CRB. This is the classic case of the merger of the little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol who think they can plan your life better than you can. If you have no idea about the CRB, there’s an easy answer–you’re very unlikely to ever wander into a CRB hearing because the hearings take place in the Library of Congress which is not someplace that songwriters typically are found. Even so, you have delegated your authority whether you know it or not and whether you like it or not to certain representatives of the music publishing community who act on your behalf and probably without your direct authorization. There’s plenty of blame to go around. To paraphrase Lord Byron, if you want a friend in Washington get a dog. Preferably a big one with teeth.

Here’s an example. According to government data, 9.1¢ in 2006 is worth approximately 13¢ today, or approximately a 33% inflation rate. That means that the frozen 9.1¢ rate in 2006 has the buying power of approximately 6¢ in 2021. In other words, the real mechanical rate has actually declined although the nominal rate has stayed the same. Why? Because like King Canute commanding the ocean, the nominal rate was not increased to at least stay even with inflation and inflation rotted it from the inside out.

So you can see that when you’re considering the mechanical rate that is set every five years by Copyright Royalty Board, the rate that matters is the real rate. However, the CRB only set a nominal rate for songwriters in 2006 even though they could have increased that nominal rate based on increases in the consumer price index. They could also have increased the rate in Phonorecords II or Phonorecords III but did not.

And now 15 years later, the frozen mechanicals crisis has been engaged by a revolt of the songwriters in Phonorecords IV, currently before the CRB. The struggle is all about real vs. nominal mechanical rates.

Evidence Mounts for Inflation Indexing for Songwriters

No one needs to be told that inflation is on the rise. We all see the evidence everywhere we go: gasoline prices, groceries, rent, health care, you name it. Inflation may not have increased prices to the point that large numbers of consumers are substituting away from particular goods because they can’t afford to buy, but it’s getting there.

This is important for songwriters who are paid on a statutory rate set by the government’s Copyright Royalty Board that tries to approximate what a willing songwriter would charge a willing music user in five year tranches. It is this five year bet that causes heartburn–one solution that the CRB recently applied to webcasting is to index their government royalty to inflation so that the royalty actually retains its value and increases as inflation increases, called “indexing”.

For whatever reason, the rates for physical configurations and downloads has not contain inflation indexing since it was put in place in 2006 and still does not in the current proposed settlement. Songwriters across the board are resisting this and demanding indexing as part of the “frozen mechanicals” debate as part of the current Copyright Royalty Board rate setting proceeding (styled as “Phonorecords IV“).

Unfortunately for all of us, a statistic released today suggests that inflation continues apace. The Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis continued its upward trend indicating that consumers are spending more which suggests inflation is the reason not an increase in wealth. As Trading Economics summarizes:

Personal spending in the US increased 0.6% mom in September, following an upwardly revised 1% rise in August and above market forecasts of 0.5%. Spending on health care, food services and accommodations, foods and beverages, pharmaceutical products and gasoline offset lower sales of motor vehicles. Personal income on the other hand fell 1%, the first decline in 4 months and much more than expectations of a 0.2% drop.

Even if you don’t go as far as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s assessment that “hyperinflation” is coming soon, it’s pretty easy to see that if the Copyright Royalty Judges fail to add indexing to the mechanical rate (frozen or not) as they had so many times in the past, songwriters will find their government royalty eaten away by inflation. (“Hyperinflation” is a rise in prices of 50% a month.)

It’s also becoming clear that inflationary pressures will continue well into 2022 and 2023–the rate set in Phonorecords IV is theoretically to begin in 2022.

Indexing is crucial.

Decline in GDP Projection Increases the Importance of Inflation Adjustments in Government Song Pricing #IRespectMusic

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Remember the stagflation three point play? Supply contracts, prices go up due to those supply side shocks and real gross domestic product contracts. Stagflation also results in higher unemployment. Stagflation can take a long time to shake out of an economy once it sets in.

Stagflation’s three point play

We can learn from the economic history of stagflation, particularly in Japan and the U.S. Japan had a stagflationary period started by the economic shock of the collapse of Japan’s real estate market (not unlike what is happening in China with Evergrand and Sinic) and the follow on effect of a 60% decline in Japan’s stock market. The U.S. had a stagflationary period in the 1970s brought on by a dependence on foreign oil and predatory pricing largely by OPEC. That led to skyrocketing oil prices and gas lines. Both countries experienced a “Lost Decade” due to stagflation.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta announced this week that it projects real GDP grown in the third quarter of 2021 to fall to 0.5% with some caveats:

https://www.atlantafed.org/-/media/Documents/cqer/researchcq/gdpnow/RealGDPTrackingSlides.pdf

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis gives a longer term chart of GDPNow:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPNOW/

The point of these graphs is to emphasize that the US economy appears to be heading to a contraction and inflation brought on by a combination of supply side shocks (cost-push inflation) and demand caused in part by government actions (demand-pull inflation) combined with sharp increases in gasoline prices among other commodities. Gasoline prices ratchet through many products in the economy and have been sharply higher over the last 12 months as the U.S. became more dependent on OPEC production.

https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/gasoline

All the indications are that the U.S. may be headed into a prolonged period of stagflation which is inflation combined with a stagnating economy. It seems less and less likely that inflation is “transitory” and more likely that it will last well into 2023 and possibly 2024.

How does this affect songwriters? Remember that the mechanical rates set in the current Copyright Royalty Board rate proceeding will fix prices until 2027, so it appears that there will be considerable overlap between the inflation cycle and the royalty rates–all the more reason to seek the same inflation indexing for songs as the CRB recently granted for sound recordings.

Why Songwriters Should Care About Inflation Protection for Mechanical Licenses

In a word: Stagflation. Maybe. In more words, classic stagflation occurs when supply side shocks lead to the costs of goods increasing while the real economy declines. We certainly have had and continue to have supply side shocks and it’s hard to tell what the real economy is doing because of distortion. Due to the COVID pandemic, the global economy has been hit with a cascading series of supply side shocks. For example, one shock is due to supply chain disruptions which look something like this:

If you’ve ever been on one of the very large cargo ships, you will know that is a big mofo. (When a sailor looks at all those elephants churning up the water, you can’t rule out a collision which could have really big problems depending on where and how bad that collision is.)

There currently are something like 500,000 shipping containers sitting on ships off of the Port of Los Angeles that can’t unload. That means someone has ordered the goods in the containers, perhaps paid in advance all or part of the cost of those good, but can’t get the goods to sell. And that’s just Los Angeles. That’s also called a supply side shock.

A supply side shock may cause an increase in the prices of the goods that are available to sell which causes a shift in the aggregate prices in the economy as a whole.

Another supply side shock may occur when inflation causes the price of goods to increase over the level that a firm can eat to avoid passing on the cost to their customers. This causes earnings to decline and eventually share prices to decline. If the market does not re-establish equilibrium fairly quickly, right after earnings decline, the price may get passed on to the consumer which may cause demand to drop which will ultimately cause earnings to decline. This is cost-push inflation which is a bit different from what you normally hear about too many dollars chasing too few goods or demand-pull inflation.

So to recap: cost-push inflation is a decrease in the aggregate supply of goods and services caused by an increase in the cost of production, and demand-pull inflation is an increase in aggregate demand from one or more or all of households, business, governments, and foreign customers. 

Inflationary pressure is compounded by an increase in the money supply, especially a sharp increase in the money supply.

All this should be sounding familiar if you follow the news.

The Stagflation Three Point Play

Historical examples of stagflation events in the US are particularly related to energy cost shocks and OPEC’s use of oil embargos to influence US foreign policy and support for Israel. We’ll come back to this, but remember that the crippling stagflation of the 1970s was largely due to one input–energy. The gas lines of the 1970s and heating oil price increases were particularly profound and the resulting stagflation influenced the increase in interest rates to a prime rate of 21.5% in December of 1980 after President Jimmy Carter lost reelection. It may be hard to comprehend a prime rate of 21.5% in this low interest rate environment, but don’t feel bad–it wasn’t so easy to understand then, either. The shys were jealous.

Could it happen again? At this point, I think it’s hard for anyone to rule it out entirely, so the probability is a positive integer. What did songwriters do during the stagflation era of the 1970s? Unlike most of the rest of the peacetime economy, songwriters had mechanical royalties set by the government at a fixed price. Starting in 1909, the federal government set songwriter royalties at 2¢ per unit and never changed the price until 1978. Needless to say, the stagflation of the 1970s destroyed the government’s fixed songwriter royalties. By 1978 it’s not an overstatement to say that songwriters earned a negative royalty rate if you adjusted for inflation. This was all due to the government’s wage controls on songwriters. (You can argue that this is the primary reason songwriters get paid so little today.)

Why did this happen? Government mandated wage and price controls were common in wartime–during World War II, military expenditures exceeded 40% of gross domestic product (GDP) so the government had an interest in controlling labor and materials costs. They accomplished this through the War Labor Board and the Office of Price Administration. If that sounds positively Soviet, it was. Unlike songwriter royalties, the government mandate was temporary.

By the time the 1976 revision to the Copyright Act rolled around, songwriters lobbied effectively for their statutory mechanical rate to be increased. However, given the rampant inflation of the time, they needed protection because even with prices reset after five year periods, inflation could easily eat away any gains. That’s one reason why after the 1976 revision, mechanical rates gradually increased and eventually were increased based on the Consumer Price Index (called “indexing”) for many years.

If you followed the recent commentary opposing an extended freeze of the mechanical royalty rate for physical and downloads, the inflation issue is front and center once again. And if you observe the current state of the economy and the likely future, you’ll understand why indexing may be crucial to preserving the value of whatever mechanical royalty is set by the Copyright Royalty Board, the songwriter’s version of the WWII era Office of Price Administration. And who would bet against inflation?

Of course, the CRB heard absolutely no evidence on the inflation issue from the NMPA, NSAI and the major labels that essentially put their finger in the air and decided to freeze rates. That’s not the end of the story, though. The relevant information on inflation is readily available in the public domain and the CRB can take notice of it if they want.

Remember, the 1970s stagflation was a highly unusual economic condition caused by a supply side shock of one input–energy. Here’s a few examples of current supply side shocks from multiple inputs. I think it should give everyone pause before they rule out a need to index the statutory rates for songwriters.

Personal Consumption Expenditure Index (US Govt. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

The “PCE” and “Core PCE” are indexes that economists monitor (such as the economists at the Federal Reserve) to track inflation trends. So let’s see what these metrics tell us about the inflationary trends that would be an argument to support indexing mechanical royalties.

“Core PCE” is another look at consumer prices that excludes the cost of food and energy which doesn’t make much sense to you and me, but is another way to look at underlying inflation trends for economists. This is important because it can influence decisions about interest rates at the Federal Reserve.

For perspective, here’s a five-year look at PCE and at PCE excluding food and energy:

The data tell us that the five year inflationary trend is up and to the right with an increasing slope. It is the sharpness of that increasing slope that gives pause–the inflationary trend has been up since 1959 per the following chart, but the steepness over the last 12 months is unusual.

Overall US Inflation Rate

The PCE and Core PCE is confirmed by the overall U.S. inflation rate as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

You see the trend here. Inflation has sharply increased. Consider the last twelve months–inflation has tripled.

Do we think it will continue to increase or will it decline? Let’s consider the inputs that can cause that supply side shock we talked about above.

Residential Rent Prices

According to Zillow, “[t]ypical U.S. rents grew 9.2% year-over-year in July, according to the Zillow Observed Rent Index (ZORI) — the fastest recorded by Zillow records in data that reaches back through 2015 — to $1,843/month. Projecting forward historical ZORI values from February 2020 — the last full month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest — we estimate that the U.S. ZORI in July was 2.9% ($52) higher than where it would have been if the last roughly 18 months had been more ‘normal.’ “

And CBS news confirms the data:

After dipping last spring, rents around the U.S. have not only recovered but are now blasting past their pre-pandemic levels. In 44 of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, rents have surpassed where they were before the health crisis, according to data from Realtor.com. Nationwide, the median rent reached a record high of $1,575 in June, an increase of 8% from a year ago.

Cotton

Cotton is a commodity that finds its way into many goods. The Wall Street Journal reports that cotton prices have surged to their highest level in a decade, but that Levis won’t be passing on the cost increase to consumers–yet. Remember cost-push inflation?

Levi’s commentary on the cotton-pricing issue should soften some of those fears—at least in the near term. On its earnings call Wednesday evening, the apparel company said that much of its own cotton prices have already been negotiated for the first half of 2022 and that it expects its cost of goods sold to increase 1% in the first half of 2022 compared with 2021 levels. For the second half of 2022, the company said it might be able to negotiate prices that will lead to a mid-single-digit percentage increase in costs compared with 2021 levels. Cotton accounts for about a fifth of the cost of producing Levi’s jeans.

Food Inflation

If you’re going to just look at the core PCE without food and energy, you can’t just ignore those two key inputs if you want to know what is going on at the micro level. We’ll look at both food inflation as well as inflationary effects on a few key energy components, especially for touring bands. Consider this chart of food inflation in the US over the last twelve months which itself is slightly higher than the core PCE.

Propane

Propane–also known as heat–is a lot more relevant to consumers particularly as we head into winter. Propane generators are of particular interest to anyone who suffered a power outage during a polar vortex–ahem–and as you can see, propane prices are already through the roof.

Same story for natural gas and heating oil.

Gasoline

If you’re planning a ground tour, keep an eye on the price of gasoline, also up and to the right.

10 Year US Treasury Bonds

You may not be aware of it, but practically everything in your financial life is affected by the 10 Year US Treasury bond. The “10 Year” is used as a reference point for a multitude of financial instruments and interest rates around the world. This includes mortgage rates and credit card rates. As you can see, over the past 12 months, the yield on the 10 Year treasury note has increased or nearly doubled. And remember that the bond market is orders of magnitude larger than the stock market. The bond market is also run by sophisticated traders–I’ve never heard of day traders in the bond market.

You want to keep a good eye on the 10 year because the Federal Reserve plans to “taper” which is one of those fancy names like “quantitative easing” that sounds like a caramel macchiato but is actually not. What that means in a nutshell is that the Federal Reserve plans on buying fewer treasury bonds than they have done–sopping up however much debt that Congress wants to take on. (Some people say this is a lot like printing money–remember that increasing the money supply is one of the causes of inflation, particularly sharp increases in the money supply.)

A cynic–certainly not me–might say that the Federal Reserve keeps the interest rates low because if the U.S. government ever had to pay anything like a market interest rate, the country would go under. But this cannot go on forever, hence “tapering”.

People may disagree with this “printing money” analogy, but the money supply has substantially increased in the last 12 months and it came from somewhere.

Conclusion

If you stayed with me this far, thank you. I hope I’ve persuaded you that it in the current environment it is highly dubious that songwriters should ever agree to a fixed mechanical rate for any configuration that is not indexed to inflation. Even if you don’t think that stagflation is around the corner, we are certainly seeing considerable inflation in a number of inputs–the supply side shock that is the hallmark of a period of stagflation may not come solely from energy this time. Just because energy was the culprit before doesn’t mean that the economy will not succumb to stagflation by a thousand cuts in the future.

I once had a cat that would run to the closet when unknown visitors arrived. I said he was guarding the closet because they could be coming that way. If you’re going to be forced to take the government cheese, maybe songwriters should build in an indexed escalator like the CRB did in the webcasting rates to at least allow you to keep your head above the inflation or stagflation waters.