Consumer Prices Jumped. Should You Worry? That's Sparking A Heated Debate

Apr 13, 2021
Originally published on April 14, 2021 12:21 am

Prices for some of your favorite things are going up. The big question is how long the price hikes will last.

Consumer prices rose 0.6% in March, according to the Labor Department — the sharpest increase in nearly nine years. Higher gasoline prices account for nearly half the increase, but prices for hotel rooms, baseball tickets and haircuts were also higher.

Over the past 12 months, the department's consumer price index has risen 2.6%. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, inflation was 0.3% in March and 1.6% over the past year.

The March price increase is somewhat exaggerated by the point of comparison. Prices fell a year ago when the pandemic first took hold in the United States, dropping 0.4% in March 2020 and another 0.8% in April.

But fundamentally, the jump in prices is coming at a time when businesses are still struggling to keep pace with unexpectedly strong demand.

Shoppers are likely spending more freely as pandemic restrictions ease, helped by $1,400 relief payments passed by Congress last month, as well as accumulated savings from a year of reduced travel and entertainment.

That is further straining supply networks that were already stretched thin, with traffic tie-ups at West Coast ports and shortages of steel, lumber and computer chips.

A survey of manufacturers last month found more than 70% were paying higher prices for raw materials and other supplies. Less than 1% had seen their costs decline.

Some of those extra costs will continue to be passed along to consumers, in the form of higher prices for everything from Cheerios to Huggies diapers.

The big question is how long it will last. Both the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve say the uptick in inflation is likely to be temporary.

The central bank expects inflation this year to exceed the Fed's long-run target of 2%, but officials also believe the increase will recede.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell stressed that as the economy recovers from its pandemic slump, businesses will adjust to meet consumer demand, meaning this year's price increases need not lead to an inflationary spiral.

"The nature of a bottleneck is that it will be resolved and the supply side will adapt," Powell said last week at a forum sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. "Whatever cost people have to bear because supplies are temporarily tight as the economy reopens, those won't be repeated next year."

Powell added that if price hikes were to continue unexpectedly, the central bank has the tools to control inflation, typically by raising interest rates.

But that comes at a cost in lost job growth, so the Fed has said it won't raise rates preemptively.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who previously served as head of the central bank, said a period of somewhat higher inflation would actually be a welcome development.

"The problem for a very long time has been inflation that's too low, not inflation that's too high," Yellen told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has warned repeatedly that Congress may be pumping too much money into the economy — at the risk of causing asset bubbles or a hard-landing recession, if the Fed is forced to quickly raise interest rates.

Biden pushed though $1.9 trillion in stimulus last month, which came after Congress had already passed trillions in dollars of aid last year. And the president has proposed trillions of dollars in additional spending on infrastructure and other investments.

"It doesn't seem to me that the preponderant probability is that it will work out well," Summers told the Financial Times.

The Biden administration insists it's not taking the inflation threat lightly, even though it believes prices will soon stabilize.

"We will, however, carefully monitor both actual price changes and inflation expectations for any signs of unexpected price pressures that might arise as America leaves the pandemic behind and enters the next economic expansion," White House economists Jared Bernstein and Ernie Tedeschi wrote in a blog post.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More Americans are eating at restaurants, getting our hair cut, going to ball games as fear of the pandemic slowly fades. But the price of that renewed confidence is, well, higher prices. Last month, prices jumped at their sharpest rate in nearly nine years, partly as a result of increased demand. And fear of inflation has rattled financial markets in recent months. We're going to talk this through with NPR's Scott Horsley.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I do want to note inflation over the last 12 months has been measured at more than 2.5%. What is driving this increase now?

HORSLEY: There's a number of factors. Remember; prices fell sharply a year ago when the pandemic took hold in the U.S., so some of the big increase last month was just making up for that. But we are seeing increased demand. A lot of people got those $1,400 relief payments last month. And as people get vaccinated, they're feeling more comfortable doing things they haven't done in a while, like taking a road trip, for example. Gasoline prices were a big driver of last month's price hike. And we also saw higher prices for tickets to sporting events and airfares and hotel rooms. Jan Freitag, who tracks hotels for the CoStar Group, says guests are filling almost three times as many hotel rooms now as they were a year ago in the early days of the pandemic.

JAN FREITAG: I think two shots plus two weeks makes for a healthy travel demand, and we're seeing more people on planes, more people in hotels and, therefore, higher occupancy.

HORSLEY: And hotel rooms are still cheap compared to what they were before the pandemic, but room rates are going up. They rose about 4.5% last month. And hotels also hired about 40,000 more workers last month to keep pace with that growing demand.

KELLY: So it sounds like that's - it's all good news for hotels and other businesses.

HORSLEY: Businesses are certainly happy to have more customers, more orders after what's been a really tough year for a lot of them, but the rebound does come with some challenges. Supply chains are stretched thin. We've seen shortages of everything from lumber and steel to computer chips, and those shortages are also contributing to the rise in prices. Now, the Federal Reserve says they're not overly worried about inflation. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell expects before too long, supply will catch up with demand, so he doesn't think we're going to see prices just keep spiraling upwards.

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JEROME POWELL: The nature of a bottleneck is that it will be resolved, that the supply side, if you will, will adapt and that, therefore, whatever costs people have to bear in prices because supplies are temporarily tight as the economy reopens, those won't be repeated next year.

HORSLEY: The Fed's projecting inflation to be about 2.4% this year, but by next year, it's expected to settle back to about 2%, which is the central bank's long-range target.

KELLY: Scott, the word expected seems to be doing a lot of work there. What if that's wrong? What if inflation does keep climbing?

HORSLEY: Yeah, then the Fed would have to raise interest rates to put the brake on prices, and that's bitter medicine because it also puts the brake on job growth. So for now, the Fed is in wait-and-see mode. What they're really watching for is any change in people's expectations about inflation. We've had decades now to get used to pretty low inflation. If that changes and people start to think prices are going to just keep going up, then that can become a hard cycle to break.

KELLY: That is NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CFCF'S "LETTERS HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.