A Vibecession, a vibe session, and this weird moment for consumer sentiment. : Planet Money We're not in a recession, but why are the vibes feeling so off? We put the question to an economist and one expert on "vibes" and also hire a jazz band to take a pun way too far.

Subscribe to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney

Vibecession Vibes Session

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1123281909/1123614230" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

Nikara Warren, professional vibraphonist, have you ever been in a vibecession?

NIKARA WARREN: A vibe session? I've been in many vibe sessions.

ERIKA BERAS, HOST:

No, no, no, no, no - but have you ever been part of a vibecession?

WARREN: I'm going to go ahead and say yes again.

FOUNTAIN: Maybe we should explain ourselves, Nikara because when we say vibecession, we are referring to this new idea that kind of describes our economy right now. The idea is that the economic vibes are off - so off, they could actually lead to a recession.

BERAS: So combine the words vibes, recession - vibecession.

WARREN: Got it.

BERAS: What do you think?

WARREN: Got it.

BERAS: It's like the Bennifer, the Brangelina of economics...

WARREN: Got it.

BERAS: ...You know, yeah (laughter).

WARREN: Gotcha.

FOUNTAIN: And the reason we invited you here today, Nikara, is that we love a pun. And you play the vibraphone, aka the vibes. Could you just play us a little ditty?

WARREN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: And a session in jazz - what does that mean?

WARREN: A session is just when people get together and play. It could be a recording session. It could be a jam session.

FOUNTAIN: Right, right, right. And so see where I'm going here? Today, we are going to look at the state of the economy in three different ways to see why people are saying it's maybe a vibecession - at a live vibes session because Nikara, you are not the only musician here today. You have brought your band - a bassist and a keys player and a sax player. And we are all right here live in the PLANET MONEY studios in New York City.

BERAS: Nick is very excited. Nikara, what's the band called?

WARREN: We are NIKARA presents Black Wall Street.

BERAS: All right. Play us in.

WARREN: All right, one - intro - two, one, two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Erika Beras.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. Something weird is going on in the economy, and we're going to try to get to the bottom of it.

BERAS: Today on the show, Nikara and her band are going to help us understand what's happening in our economy that is so confounding - how GDP growth and jobs numbers and the housing market are all pointing in different directions, leading to weird vibes.

FOUNTAIN: It's a vibecession vibe session, everyone.

BERAS: Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: We're back. It's PLANET MONEY. We're here with Nikara Warren, her vibes and her band. Hey, Nikara.

WARREN: Hey, how's it going?

FOUNTAIN: All right, so Nikara, professional vibraphonist, aka vibes player, we've asked you here today because we're doing this show about the state of the economy today, and for that show, we've challenged you to compose a song - a song inspired by three different economic indicators that, put together, will hopefully embody this weird, possibly vibecessionary (ph) time that we're in. And as a reminder, the term vibecession means the mere fact that people's feelings about the economy are so bad can lead to it becoming bad. Do you accept this challenge?

WARREN: Sure.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) That's the energy we want. But before we get there, let's meet the coiner of this term - vibecession - Kyla Scanlon. I think you're, like, the closest we have as a society to, like, econ and finance influencer. Do you...

KYLA SCANLON: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: ...Do you hate that term?

SCANLON: Yeah. So people started calling me a finfluencer (ph), and I literally wanted to rip my hair out. I was like, don't say that word.

FOUNTAIN: Where you might know Kyla from is her videos. She puts out an extraordinary amount of videos about the economy and finance. They're like PLANET MONEY, but a million miles a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCANLON: Germany is still planning to shut down some nuclear plants, and the weird thing is, this might have Europe buying Russian gas through China, who is the world...

So I just clip any space in between the audio. Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: It does seem like it's just like, jump cut, jump cut, jump cut, jump cut.

SCANLON: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah.

SCANLON: Yeah, it's a lot of that because, you know, you have to keep people from scrolling. And the only way that you're going to do that is if their brains are essentially melting and they're like, what - what?

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

SCANLON: So yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, boy.

SCANLON: (Laughter) You know.

BERAS: Kyla says the way she came up with this term vibecession started one morning not too long ago. She got a question from famous online guy Hank Green and decided to answer it and make one of those mind-melting videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCANLON: This video is for Hank, and it answers the question are we in a recession using data from GDI and...

FOUNTAIN: The video pointed out that it was hard to tell. There were lots of mixed signals - like growth was slowing, but weirdly, incomes were rising. So maybe we're not in a recession.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCANLON: What this means is that the economy is not doing that bad. But as a note, all this highlights that we're in a weird economic cycle. And...

BERAS: She posted the video, went to the gym and oh, boy, when she came home, the commenters did not like this video - and other similar videos that Kyla posted.

SCANLON: And all these people were like, you're so wrong. Like, it is so bad out there. And I was like, why do they feel so bad when things are relatively OKish (ph)? And that's sort of, like - the whole thing, I was like, man, the vibes are just off.

BERAS: Kyla went and looked, and it wasn't just internet commenters. People in general were feeling like things were off. And she coined this term about this - vibecession - and, as she does, put out a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCANLON: Hey, everyone. My name is Kyla. Welcome to my channel, where I talk about the stock market and the economy, amongst other things. Today, we're going to be talking about a vibecession, and we're going to be talking about feelings and emotions, so I'll...

BERAS: And in the video, she says that while many economic indicators are pointing in good directions, a lot of the data about feelings were going in the exact opposite direction.

FOUNTAIN: Do you have a favorite indicator of, you know, consumer household sentiment?

SCANLON: I mean, University of Michigan is good.

FOUNTAIN: Ah, yes, the University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment - Go Blue. Every month, researchers from U-Mich (ph) call up 600 people and ask a bunch of subjective questions - questions about feelings.

BERAS: Like, are you financially better or worse off than a year ago? Is next year going to be good times or bad times? Is now a good time to buy a fridge or a stove or a washing machine? They take the answers, add them up, do a little division and come to a number - the Index of Consumer Sentiment.

FOUNTAIN: And lately, it has been a wild ride for this index. According to the survey, consumer sentiment just cratered in the last few years. In June, it was the lowest in recorded history.

BERAS: All right, Nikara, here it is - the first musical challenge for you and your band. I have right here in my hand...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER BEING WAVED)

BERAS: ...A chart of the last 10 years of consumer sentiment from that Michigan survey. Charts don't really work on the radio, so we're going to have you help us describe this chart.

WARREN: Oh, OK, yeah. It looks like it's a pie. It's moving - it's up there, and then just a big drop down. So that's what I'm looking at.

FOUNTAIN: All right. Now, describe that chart to me musically on your vibes.

WARREN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: Beautiful. That was exactly how the chart looks. And Nikara, when you've been on the road and you're up on stage, you're between songs, you're working the crowd and you're like, hey, how's everyone feeling tonight? - are people yelling back, like, have you seen the price of gas? Why is everything so expensive? The economy sucks. I mean, what are people saying?

WARREN: I mean, I'll say this - I definitely always have to ask how everyone is doing more than once. There's a little bit of lull the first time around.

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: But then, you know, then you realize, like, we're here to have some fun. So there must be some sort of something in the air that is keeping us a little bit down.

FOUNTAIN: This ring true for the band? You got any economic hecklers?

JONATHAN MICHEL: No, no, no - no economic hecklers. You know, other hecklers - tomatoes.

WARREN: Tomato hecklers.

FOUNTAIN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BERAS: Those tomatoes are expensive. I don't know where...

FOUNTAIN: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: Exactly.

BERAS: You get them just to throw.

WARREN: Do not throw your produce.

BERAS: And look, many economists don't think that falling consumer sentiment - vibes - are driving this slowdown. There are a ton of other things that drive the business cycle - borrowing rates and liquidity and supply chain snarls. And Kyla says, yes, but also, feelings, consumer sentiment - they're a big deal.

FOUNTAIN: I think you wrote in your piece - and this was amazing to me - that 70% of our economy is consumer spending.

SCANLON: Yeah. And because it is so hippie-dippy and it's kind of like, why are you talking about feelings, a lot of people don't talk about it because you want to be taken seriously, and if you're out here being like...

FOUNTAIN: Yeah.

SCANLON: ...It matters how people feel, people are going to be like, oh, shut up. Like, you don't know what you're saying. But - and so, like, I think one of the reasons that vibecession was so sticky is because people were like, oh, like, oh, wow, like, somebody is actually sort of really going after consumer sentiment and, like, really going after, you know, the people aspect of the economy. You just don't see a lot of work around that.

FOUNTAIN: Kyla's word - vibecession - it went everywhere - onto FM radio...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So give us the - how you came to the vibecession thing.

FOUNTAIN: ...And AM radio...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's a recession of vibes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Did the person saying this have a man bun?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The vibes are back...

FOUNTAIN: ...And Philippine TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: She coined the term vibecession, but it's not just to be cute.

FOUNTAIN: In editorial meetings of a certain economics podcast, reporters asked if there was room in the budget to hire a vibraphonist - and their band?

BERAS: And yes, Kyla had coined the perfect word for the moment. But this idea of feelings leading to downturns - bona fide macroeconomists think about this all the time, including Jennifer La'O, who studies this stuff at Columbia University.

FOUNTAIN: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you have this econ paper that's just called "Sentiment."

JENNIFER LA'O: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: Was that - it was kind of funny. Like, it's not that economics-y (ph) to me, you know?

LA'O: Right, right. We're very proud of that title.

BERAS: Jennifer says many economists care a lot about emotions. They have for a long time - way before vibecession - since, like OG economist John Maynard Keynes.

LA'O: I do think it's just a rebranding for today's generation, of these ideas that have been around for a long time.

FOUNTAIN: I think you're right. It's just a clever rebranding of Keynes' theory of animal spirits.

LA'O: Animal spirits, emotions, you know, these type of things that affect economic decision-makers' decisions. I mean, we're not machines.

FOUNTAIN: We asked Jennifer to walk us through the second ingredient, the second component that's affecting the vibes or maybe the animal spirits, whatever you want to call it. And it's a big one - inflation. And she says the reason it affects the vibes so much is that it touches so many parts of our lives - our rents, our bills, our groceries.

LA'O: When people are, you know, throwing a party - take barbecues. They know how much they were able to buy last year in terms of, you know, hamburger...

FOUNTAIN: Dogs and buns.

LA'O: Yeah. All these things, you know how much you bought last year. And then now you go to a store this year, and if your wages haven't grown at the same rate as prices, you buy a lot less.

BERAS: And listen, we've talked a lot on PLANET MONEY about how people's expectations about inflation are one of the most important things policymakers are looking at.

FOUNTAIN: Because if they think the price of dogs and buns are going to keep going up, they'll probably ask for a raise. And maybe their employers will be forced to raise prices and so on and so forth.

BERAS: Right. That's called the wage price spiral. And also inflation leads to uncertainty about the future. And that's bad for investment, which is bad for the economy.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. So the same way that vibes being off can lead to a vibecession, inflation being high and people thinking that it'll be high in the future can lead to more inflation. And that's bad.

BERAS: Nikara, before you and the band play something else, I have a quick question. Is there some, like, I don't know, I'm going to say it's like a musician thing that you've noticed has gotten more expensive? I'm looking at you, and I'm thinking mallets, maybe.

WARREN: Yeah. I - you know, I don't notice it so much in mallets because I get my mallets for free.

BERAS: Oh, lucky.

WARREN: But I definitely travel for sure. I mean, that's definitely going up. And as a bandleader, you're always going to notice that.

FOUNTAIN: Craig on tenor - reeds more expensive?

CRAIG HILL: Yeah? Before, they're about $25 a box. Now, it's, like, closer to $30.

FOUNTAIN: What's some other things that inflation has hit? Axel, anything more expensive?

AXEL TOSCA: For me, I live in New Jersey, so just the fact that I have to hop on the train, on the bus, everything is going up. So, yeah, the bus came out a couple of dollars up, so yeah...

FOUNTAIN: Travel.

TOSCA: Travel.

FOUNTAIN: Jonathan on the bass?

MICHEL: Yeah, it's sort of the same thing. You know, Uber's - I live in Brooklyn. And so I take a lot of Ubers to the train and things. And it all adds up.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Lugging that bass and that amp around.

MICHEL: Yeah. I also play double bass so...

FOUNTAIN: That is a big instrument.

BERAS: Double the size.

WARREN: Double the fun.

(LAUGHTER)

FOUNTAIN: All right, Nikara, we have another challenge, another chart for you and the band to make into music. This one is a measure of inflation, technically 10 years of what's called Core CPI. And this time, Craig on the tenor is going to interpret it, which I thought was kind of clever. You know, horn players inflate their lungs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) That was amazing.

BERAS: Yes. That there is the sound of inflation in the last decade. It was around 2%. We thought it would stay there forever. And then it just shot up, like that horn.

FOUNTAIN: All right, so we got inflation and vibes way off. But another part of this is that a lot of other things in the economy are going right right now. You can see this in a lot of places. People are traveling a ton. Restaurants are packed. Business spending is up. Retail spending is up. But mostly, when we talk about the good news, says Jennifer La'O the economist, we are talking about the job market.

LA'O: The unemployment is very low. The job market is tight. The economy looks like it's booming.

BERAS: There has been wage growth over the last few years, though, on average, inflation has eaten away a lot of that, and unemployment is near a record low for the past 50 years. There are two job openings for every available worker right now.

FOUNTAIN: And when people talk about a job market like this, they use some fun, I think kind of musically inclined words. They say it's a booming labor market, or they say the labor market is tight. Nikara, employment is the backbone of the economy. The rhythm section is the backbone of the band. For the final element of this song, can they do something tight and booming?

WARREN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: Oh.

BERAS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: That was so good.

BERAS: That was really good. OK. What we're hoping you all can do for us right now is put all this together - the falling vibes, inflating horns, the tight, booming rhythm section - all together for a song that sort of maybe describes our economy right now, the vibecession song.

FOUNTAIN: It's going to be funky. It's going to be janky, just like the economy right now. All right. So we started it off with the rhythm section. We've started off with the tight and booming labor market.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: Love it. And now, Nikara, added a little consumer sentiment, a little vibes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: And let's get that sax with the inflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) That was a very vibecession-y (ph) song. Thank you all.

(LAUGHTER)

BERAS: That sounded a lot better than the economy feels right now.

FOUNTAIN: Coming up after the break, how can the economy get out of this janky place?

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Hey, Wailin Wong here. Heads up - in our next episode for PLANET MONEY+ listeners, we'll tell you how to enter for a chance to be a contestant on a new quiz game we're trying out over at The Indicator, which, of course, is our daily economics podcast from PLANET MONEY. So be sure to listen to that next episode. And if you want to join the fun, subscribe to PLANET MONEY+ at the link in our episode notes.

BERAS: All right. We're back. It's PLANET MONEY. So we've laid out where we're at these days. The vibes are off. Inflation is inflating. Job market is tight and booming.

Actually, Nikara, band, can we get a little taste of that vibecession song, just a short version?

WARREN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: Yes, that's the funky economy right now. And the people whose job it is to get our economy out of this funk are, by and large, the Federal Reserve because, as a reminder, it's their job to think about both inflation and the job market.

FOUNTAIN: The job market, as we've said, is doing pretty swimmingly. And so the Fed right now is focused on getting that inflation rate down.

WARREN: And the main way they're going to try to do this, what they've been doing so far is they're going to raise interest rates.

FOUNTAIN: Which how, again, does the Fed raising rates tamp down inflation? We asked Jennifer La'O, the macroeconomist from Columbia, to walk us through it. And she brought up an example that her and her husband are dealing with right now. They need to decide on whether or not to buy a big-ticket item.

LA'O: This is actually a true story. Our...

FOUNTAIN: This is true? Oh, perfect.

LA'O: This is a true story. Our - we came back from a trip away for a weekend, and everything in our fridge had spoiled. And there was...

FOUNTAIN: Oh, no.

LA'O: ...You know, the freezer was not frozen.

BERAS: She says they could make it work, so they had a decision to make.

LA'O: Do we spend the thousand dollars now, or do we spend the thousand dollars next year and buy the fridge next year?

FOUNTAIN: And she walked us through how that decision is being affected by the Fed. Actually, wait. I have a silly idea. Nikara, I don't know if you know this, but it's kind of a podcast trope, a podcast joke at this point, to put some music, oftentimes a vibraphone, as the, like, backing track to dense explanatory sections.

WARREN: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Does this ring a - yeah?

WARREN: Totally, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Do you think you could knock one of those out for us for this next section?

WARREN: Sure. Sure, sure.

FOUNTAIN: She's bringing out four mallets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOUNTAIN: All right, back to how the Fed affects whether we decide to buy something now or later. Remember, the fridge costs a thousand bucks. Jennifer La'O could buy the fridge now, or she could save that money. For simplicity's sake, let's say the Fed has raised the interest rate to 10%. If Jennifer saved that thousand dollars, in a year, it could be worth 10% more. In a year, she'd have 1,100 bucks.

LA'O: That means that what I'll get out of that 1,100 is not just buying a new fridge next year, but I can also buy more food to put in that fridge. Or I could buy an upgraded fridge.

BERAS: Assuming fridges don't cost more a year later, Jennifer comes out ahead. It's rational for her to wait to buy.

LA'O: And that's essentially what the Fed is trying to do. The Fed is trying to increase the interest rate to incentivize households as well as companies to not spend today, to save that money today. And by not spending today, if enough people in the economy are not spending today, that cools down the economy and leads to less inflation.

BERAS: That's what the Fed is hoping for. They hope Jennifer and a bunch of other people don't buy fridges and that lower demand keeps fridge prices steady.

FOUNTAIN: They are, in essence, trying to unharsh the inflationary vibes for not just fridges but also houses and cars, everything. By raising interest rates, the Fed has made borrowing for those things way more expensive, and it's starting to have an effect. The used car market is cooling. The housing market is cooling. Builders are starting to build less houses.

BERAS: And that's the reason a lot of people, a lot of economists think you're overrating the vibes animal spirits effect on the economy. This downtick in the economy is not about feelings. It's about people being rational and responding to the signals from the Fed. This slowdown is the system working.

FOUNTAIN: If all this goes according to the Fed's plan, inflation will cool without lots of job losses. The Fed is actually using a made-up term for this. They're hoping for a, quote, "soft-ish landing" as in, you know, you crash landed the inflationary plane, but everybody's all right.

BERAS: OK. Now, here's the scary part. The Fed hasn't really pulled off this soft-ish landing thing before, certainly not with inflation this high. And that's because when people stop buying stuff, it's bad for the economy. It slows growth, and people lose jobs. And so the big fear is that we might head towards a hard landing with a lot of job losses.

FOUNTAIN: So, Nikara, our last ask of you today, this idea of a soft-ish landing is kind of a term of art, right?

WARREN: Yeah, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Luckily, we have some artists here live in the studio today.

WARREN: We do.

FOUNTAIN: Would y'all play one of your songs that sort of embodies this idea of a soft-ish landing, this perfect, maybe impossible scenario where you get out of a tricky situation and everything turns out all right?

WARREN: Cool. Let's do it. We'll do "Heather Gray" second A, like, right in. And then we're going to end on that E-flat major 7. That's cool? All right. One, two...

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKARA WARREN'S "HEATHER GRAY")

FOUNTAIN: Beautiful vibe session song. Nikara, can you give the band a shoutout?

WARREN: I would love to. We've got Jonathan Michel on the bass.

MICHEL: (Playing bass).

WARREN: Yeah. We have Axel Tosca on the keyboards.

TOSCA: (Playing piano).

WARREN: Yeah, man, grateful for him. We now have Craig Hill on the tenor sax.

HILL: (Playing saxophone).

FOUNTAIN: And last but not least, the extraordinary Nikara Warren.

WARREN: (Playing vibraphone).

BERAS: It's always been kind of my dream to do this for the PLANET MONEY production staff. On production, James Sneed; on editing, Jess Jiang.

FOUNTAIN: In the booth moving the sliders, Katherine Silva with an assist from Neal Rauch. In the mixing booth, Gilly Moon.

BERAS: The man behind NPR's New York studios, give it up for Brian McCabe.

FOUNTAIN: You can find us on all the social medias. If you are into weird concept art about the economy, the channel you'll probably get the most joy out of is the PLANET MONEY TikTok. They are doing some weird stuff over there.

BERAS: Nikara, where can people find your music?

WARREN: You can find my music anywhere that you normally find music. But if you'd like to follow me on the socials - @nikaramusic - N-I-K-A-R-A music; also at nikarawarren.com.

BERAS: All right. I'm Erika Beras.

FOUNTAIN: I'm Nick Fountain.

WARREN: I'm Nikara Warren.

FOUNTAIN: This is NPR. That's it. That's our show today. Thank you for listening. Was that the weirdest recording session y'all have ever been part of?

MICHEL: No.

(LAUGHTER)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.