Planet Money and The Indicator make their case for the year's top indicator : Planet Money Will it be inflation? Striketober? The supply chain? Our hosts make their case, and the choice is up to you.

The economic indicator of the year

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

Hello. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. And I am here with Stacey Vanek Smith. Hello, Stacey.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Hi, Amanda. How are you?

ARONCZYK: I'm good. Stacey is the host of our sister podcast, The Indicator. How do you describe your podcast, Stacey?

VANEK SMITH: The Indicator is basically like PLANET MONEY, but a little bit shorter and every day. You know the fun-size candy bars?

ARONCZYK: Yes, I do. They are fun and delicious.

VANEK SMITH: I like to think about - we're like the fun-size PLANET MONEY.

ARONCZYK: Right, right - a little bit shorter, just as delicious.

VANEK SMITH: Sometimes more delicious...

ARONCZYK: Oh, my goodness.

VANEK SMITH: ...I would argue, depending on the mood you're in.

ARONCZYK: OK, well, I'm not going to go there.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. So today on our show, on PLANET MONEY, we are going to play what seems to be becoming a Indicator tradition, which is "Family Feud," where a bunch of Indicator and PLANET MONEY hosts face off to decide what's the one economic indicator to rule them all. This episode you're about to hear answers the question, what is the biggest economic indicator of 2021?

But before we get there, Stacey...

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

ARONCZYK: ...This is not the first time that you have been the host of a "Family Feud" Indicator edition, is it?

VANEK SMITH: Well, this was born out of necessity, honestly, Amanda. So we do indicators of the week a lot of times on Fridays. But there was this one week in late July where so many just sort of huge barn-burner-y-type indicators came out, and we couldn't figure out what to do. And so we were just like, let's invite some people over from PLANET MONEY, and we will all make a case for why whatever indicator we are assigned is the most important.

ARONCZYK: OK.

VANEK SMITH: And there were these really big ones, right? There was gross domestic product, which is the sum total of all the goods and services an economy produces. It's a huge economic indicator. There was also the Case-Shiller housing index. The housing market has been on this very wild ride, so that's a big one. We had consumer confidence, which is, you know, so indicative of how much people are going to spend and if they're going to invest. So that's a huge one.

ARONCZYK: Right.

VANEK SMITH: We also had durable goods orders. Those are, like, orders for big things like refrigerators and washing machines, and they're often seen as kind of a tell because they're a more expensive item. So they're sort of an investment-grade items in a certain way. Oh, and then we also had corporate earnings, which were also sort of shocking and eye-popping. So we debated all of those.

ARONCZYK: That is a lot of big indicators in one week.

VANEK SMITH: It was. Yes, it was.

ARONCZYK: And was there a winner?

VANEK SMITH: There was a winner. The wonderful Mary Childs won. She was fighting on behalf of durable goods orders. And I have to say...

ARONCZYK: Right.

VANEK SMITH: ...She had this stroke of genius because she made her case with her dryer going in the background, her dryer, of course, being a durable good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: This indicator's a monthly report from the Commerce Department that shows how much businesses are ordering of stuff that's meant to last at least three years - things like washing machines, tractors, airplanes, computers.

VANEK SMITH: She won by, like, kind of a lot.

ARONCZYK: And how was a winner declared?

VANEK SMITH: We had a poll on Twitter, and people just emailed in their votes.

ARONCZYK: Very good. OK. Well, this is Indicator "Family Feud" round two, back because it was so great the first time. And...

VANEK SMITH: And the stakes have never been higher.

ARONCZYK: The stakes have never been higher. It is the biggest economic indicators of 2021, and the feud is starting right after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF SMITH'S "STRIP PARADE")

VANEK SMITH: OK, everyone. It is time for "Family Feud."

(CHEERING)

VANEK SMITH: OK, we're getting to the end of this year, 2021, which, of course, brings us to the question of, like, what was the biggest story of the year? What was the indicator of indicators? And, of course, you know, this is kind of a stiff competition. So I just figured I would invite our little family over from PLANET MONEY and ask them to make a case for what they think the indicator of the year, the indicator of indicators should be. We have got our wonderful PLANET MONEY correspondent Erika Beras. Hi, Erika.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Hey, hey.

(CHEERING)

VANEK SMITH: We've got our reigning champion, PLANET MONEY correspondent Mary Childs.

CHILDS: Hi, hi. Hello. Hello.

(CHEERING)

VANEK SMITH: The woman with the title. We have the wonderful and amazing Kenny Malone.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: I've been training for weeks. Let's do this.

VANEK SMITH: Who's been training for weeks. And we have the fantastic and wonderful Robert Smith. Welcome, Robert.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: No whammies. No whammies.

VANEK SMITH: No whammies, yes. And me, I also brought my own indicator of the year.

So here are the rules. We all prepared something for our indicator of the year. We're making our case. We will make that case in 60-ish seconds or less. And in the end, you, the listener, will vote. You will pick the indicator of the year, who you think made the best case for the indicator of indicators for 2021.

OK, Robert Smith, tell me what your topic is, and then give us a little three, two, one and I'll time you while you make your case.

SMITH: All right. I think it's entirely clear to anyone who's paid attention this year that the indicator of the year is inflation.

MALONE: (Sighing).

SMITH: It's the word of the year. It's the indicator of the year.

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

SMITH: It is the story of the year.

MALONE: Did you hear that sound? That sound was deflation. Everyone's bored.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

SMITH: All right, I'm pumping myself up. I'm pumping myself up. In three, two, one.

Supply chain bottlenecks come and go. Labor numbers go up and down. But serious inflation in the United States happens once in a generation. This year's inflation isn't just the indicator of the year. It may define the entire decade. Think about it. What do you know about the 1970s? - bell-bottom jeans, disco and high inflation. Inflation destroyed presidents. In order to fight it, the Federal Reserve had to drive the country into a recession.

Now, that was double-digit inflation, and we're not there yet. Last time I checked, prices are up 6.2% from a year earlier. But I would argue that inflation is the biggest story of the year because of what's about to happen next. The Fed has already indicated it will more quickly reduce economic stimulus. Fed Chair Jay Powell just had to admit we can no longer use the term transitory about these price hikes. The stock market's cratering. Republicans are already running on the impacts of inflation, and polls show they can take back the House and Senate. You can pretend it's not happening, but it's already too late. Inflation is in the driver's seat in this economy and is now...

VANEK SMITH: And time.

SMITH: ...The indicator of the year.

VANEK SMITH: All right, Erika Beras, PLANET MONEY correspondent extraordinaire.

BERAS: All right, my indicator of the year is the supply chain. So this is "Family Feud." And because this time of year's so busy and to prevent any feuds within my own family, I thought I'd repackage a poem by the great poet, also doctor, William Carlos Williams. And here it goes.

This is just to say I have not yet ordered the presents - that are probably stuck on a container ship - which you are most likely expecting on Christmas morning. Forgive me. I should've clicked place order, and now it's too late.

So the story of the year is supply chain shortages. To be fair, it's a story that started not just this year, but it's escalated. Quick rundown - the whole supply chain is broken. Things people need - they're not getting anywhere. They're just stuck on ships. They're idling at sea. They're on port terminals. And it intersects with all the other big stories of the year, like labor shortages. There aren't enough drivers. There aren't enough warehouse workers, not enough factory workers to make the stuff. Inflation - there's not enough stuff. That increases competition. Prices get higher - kind of an issue.

And one more thing - I did order my gifts months ago because I was paying attention to the biggest story of the year.

VANEK SMITH: And time. Oh, my gosh. A William Carlos Williams poem...

BERAS: I got it in.

VANEK SMITH: ...In the middle of your indicator.

MALONE: Erika, you had to introduce this poem, have a whole thing.

SMITH: Bravo.

MALONE: Very good.

SMITH: I just heard the part where you talked about inflation, and I thought you were right on about that.

BERAS: That's the only thing you heard.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: It's quite a strong filter you've got there, Robert (laughter).

Kenny Malone, are you ready to bring your 60-second indicator of the year?

MALONE: Yes. And I just want to say...

VANEK SMITH: OK.

MALONE: ...Remember how, like, Power Rangers...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

MALONE: ...Like, Power Rangers were all very important and very powerful...

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

MALONE: ...But when they were all together, they were...

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

MALONE: ...A uniquely powerful being?

VANEK SMITH: They were a force.

MALONE: Well, that is my indicator. I don't disagree with any of my colleagues that these are important indicators. But to me, the indicator of the year is the word trillion. Hear me out here for a second.

OK, I shall begin with a few pandemic headlines - "President Trump Signs $2 Trillion Coronavirus Rescue Package," "Federal Reserve Takes Additional Actions To Provide Up To $2.3 Trillion In Loans," "Biden Signs Landmark $1.2 Trillion U.S. Infrastructure Bill." Friends, listeners, Indicator kin, billions of dollars is nothing. We have entered the paradigm of the trillion, once-in-a-lifetime generation pieces of spending from the government that come now with more economic questions than ever. Has the role of government fundamentally changed? Did this save the economy during the pandemic? How will this affect inflation and labor and supply chain and education and climate change?

This story touches every other story you have heard or will hear defended today in ways that we do not even know yet. And so that is why I will concede, government spending is not the story of the year. It's not the indicator of the decade, like Robert's. It is the story of the century. I'll go back to decades if I have to. But the fact is the U.S. government tacked on those zeros, and we will be reporting on this for years and years to come.

I conclude today by paraphrasing that one quote that I always forget. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we are talking about real money and the real economic story of the year. Thank you.

VANEK SMITH: What comes after trillion, by the way, Kenny?

MALONE: No one knows yet. And that's the question we're all asking ourselves, Stacey. So we'll see.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) OK, I see Mary Childs, and you are the current reigning champion.

CHILDS: I am. I have the golden trophy.

My most important - no, not mine. Everyone's. The most important indicator of the year is labor. For economists who study the labor market, it is a chaotic and unpredictable time, but it's also super fascinating. And for a lot of workers, it is the best market they've ever seen. First off, workers have leverage. Did you hear about Striketober? People have been walking off the job to demand better pay, safer working conditions, sick leave, health care. Companies are paying higher wages. Hourly earnings have gone up. And did you hear about the Great Resignation? People are quitting their jobs in record numbers, which is maybe contributing to the so-called labor shortage, where a lot of companies are saying they can't find workers.

The unemployment rate has dropped almost 4%. That includes improvements for Black, Hispanic, Asian workers, for men, for women. We are regaining some of the horrifically unevenly lost ground from earlier. But we still have fewer workers than pre-pandemic, which is kind of the big mystery. Like, where is everybody? So for a while, people thought that maybe it was the additional unemployment benefits, but those expired and the problem didn't. So is it, like, not wanting to get sick in a pandemic? Or maybe people are caring for a sick loved one? Maybe they retired and they're like, no, I'm good. I'm out. Maybe they dropped out because of their kids or - you know, schools keep closing, their day care is too expensive. Maybe it's years of draconian immigration laws. Or maybe everyone is a crypto billionaire and a TikTok influencer. But what we do know is that this is the biggest and best story of 2021, bar none, because it affects all of us, and we all love a mystery.

VANEK SMITH: That was, like, very fast. You got - you packed - it was, like, packed with information.

CHILDS: Thank you. I have a lot to say.

SMITH: Mary, would you say your script's inflated?

CHILDS: I would actually say, nominally, yes, but I would say the real script actually remained stagnant.

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

SMITH: Oh.

VANEK SMITH: That's a deep cut. That's a beautiful answer.

CHILDS: Thank you. Kind of undercuts my argument, though.

VANEK SMITH: All right, my economic story of the year is a little different. And it might sound a little quirky at first, but I think once I finish making my case, there will be no doubt in mind that I have landed on, in fact, the economic story of the year and of the millennium...

MALONE: Whoa.

VANEK SMITH: ...Since we seem to be inflating.

SMITH: Inflation.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: My economic indicator of the year is $69.3 million, and this is what somebody paid for an NFT from the artist Beeple. Of course, an NFT is like a digital painting or a digital piece of property that you can own. And the reason it's my indicator of the year is not so much the NFT phenomenon alone, but it is what it represents, which is this amazing amount of money swirling all around the globe, looking for anything that could give it a return on investment. Someone on TikTok started, as a joke, a cryptocurrency called SCAM coin. Within one hour, it was worth $70 million. The junk bond market is going crazy. People are pouring money into stocks. There is so much money roving around the planet right now looking for a return on investment.

Of course, the last time we saw this was right before the big housing crash. This is - we are in the giant pool of money again. This is like PLANET MONEY's DNA. And I'm a little worried with all of this money coursing around the globe that, you know, bubbles could happen. And hopefully we will not end up where we did back in 2008. But I think this is why this is the story of the year, because there is a lot of money chasing returns, and it's showing up in all kinds of ways - cryptocurrency, NFTs, junk bond market, the stock market, everything.

MALONE: Stacey, it's good. Beeples to bubbles.

BERAS: That was pretty good.

SMITH: Bravo.

MALONE: Beeples to bubbles.

SMITH: Bravo. And I have to say, since the voting for this will take place online, how do you think crypto and NFTs are going to do on a...

BERAS: Interesting.

SMITH: ...On a Twitter poll? Come on.

CHILDS: She's stacking the deck. She's like, I love crypto, bros.

VANEK SMITH: I'll be tallying the votes myself.

SMITH: I just want to say, it's so nice to see you all. I miss you all. This has inflated my Grinch heart three sizes this day. And isn't that the kind of inflation that matters?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, the inflation of love.

CHILDS: That was really beautiful.

VANEK SMITH: Love-flation. And it's real love, not nominal. It's real.

CHILDS: That's right. That's right.

BERAS: I think that's the economic indicator of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS-MAXIME BOUTAULT AND FREDERIC VITANI SONG, "DON'T LET ME DOWN")

SMITH: (Singing) Love, love, love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS-MAXIME BOUTAULT AND FREDERIC VITANI SONG, "DON'T LET ME DOWN")

MALONE: It's important that the audience knows that Stacey is wearing, like, a track jacket and is now holding, like, a cartoon stopwatch with, like, buttons that are bigger than anyone would need.

VANEK SMITH: I ordered it special. It's really hard to order a normal stopwatch now. Like, they're almost not available. They all do, like, strange calculations, like - or they're, like, Bluetooth enabled. I just wanted a regular stopwatch with a stop and start button.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID THOMAS REILLY AND TOMMY REILLY'S "SHARK")

ARONCZYK: That concludes indicators of the year - "Family Feud" edition. Tell us which indicator you think should be crowned the indicator of all indicators for 2021. You can tweet your answer - @theindicator - or you can email them - indicator@npr.org. Put Indicator of Indicators in the subject line. And to find out who won, plus the surprise prize, you'll have to go and listen to The Indicator in the new year.

We love to hear from you. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org. I will admit I single-handedly go through all of the emails 'cause I love them so much. So please write to us. We are also on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok - @planetmoney.

Today's show was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from James Sneed. It was mastered by Isaac Rodrigues, fact-checked by Taylor Washington and edited by Kate Concannon. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID THOMAS REILLY AND TOMMY REILLY'S "SHARK")

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