Production smoothing on a grand scale

It was just reported that the US GDP fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2008 but it would have fallen 5.1% had it not been for the inventory adjustment – demand “fell off the cliff” but firms kept producing, thereby causing inventories to rise.  One might interpret this as a nice demonstration of the production smoothing strategy on a grand scale – it is costly to shut down production, so keep producing and build inventory with the assumption that eventually demand will exceed your production and you can then draw down your inventory.  Production smoothing is particularly effective for coping with seasonal demand because then the firm has a good sense that demand will indeed return during the high season.  Now it is a little bit different. The drop in demand is not seasonal but systematic and it is not clear when demand will level off or at what level it will converge to. In particular, if the economy is still producing above the new long term rate of demand, then further adjustments to production will be needed.

The depth of the downturn may hinge on firms’ willingness to hold inventory. If they want to reduce their current inventories to their levels over the past five years, then they will need to really slam on the break (in effect, we have already produced for future demand and to return to equilibrium requires stopping production so that demand can catch up).  However, if firms are willing to hold on to their additional inventories, then the adjustment need not be so severe – in that case all that is necessary is that the firms align their current production with their current demand rate.

These issues are exhibited on a more “micro” scale at Chrysler. They stopped production in December 2008 because their inventories were higher than they could manage (or wanted) and continuing to produce would have only increased them further. They only just resumed production. If their current production rate equals their current demand rate, then their inventory level will remain unchanged. If they want to reduce their inventories, then they will have to produce at a rate that is lower than demand for some time.

So this raises the question of whether inventories are stabilizing or destabilizing to an economy.  You can tell a story for either one, and some additional data collection is needed to resolve the conflict.

Wall Street Journal, Jan 31, 2009, Economy Dives as Goods Pile Up

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