A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Everything seems more expensive.
Restaurants that limped through Covid shutdowns now say they may need more government help to get through soaring food costs. Grains? Up 93.8% in a year. Beef? Up 41.4% in a year. Shortening and cooking oil? Up 34.8%
It’s not anecdotal. It’s a fact. The consumer price index, the nation’s key marker for inflation, saw the largest one-month jump in 13 years in June. Prices were up 5.4% over the past year, also the largest jump in 13 years.
Gas prices are leading the way, up more than 45% compared to a year ago.
But there’s an important asterisk there. Gas prices are often relatively volatile and a year ago, they were were extremely low.
Each inflation story is slightly different, but they all share the pandemic. Writing about inflation, CNN’s Chris Isidore explained the complicated situation that has led to skyrocketing car prices:
Car prices are being driven up by strong consumer demand for cars, along with a limited supply due to a shortage of computer chips needed to build the cars. Rental car companies, a key seller of used cars, already sold off much of their fleet of cars last year to raise cash during the pandemic and now don’t have enough cars to rent.
Post-pandemic premiums. Edmunds.com did an analysis for CNN Business and found some year-old cars are being sold for more than they did new, during the height of the pandemic. That’s similar in my mind to the tales of people paying six or even seven figures over asking for houses.
People emerging from the pandemic and spending money they saved or money they’re getting from the government is central to all of this. But Isidore writes that there is a serious question about whether this price bubble will be permanent:
Although prolonged inflation can be a cause for concern, there’s reason to believe that this recent rise in prices – although pronounced – will be temporary. Inflation is soaring in part because prices are returning to normal levels after the economy fell into a recession. That makes year-over-year comparisons seem electric, showing up as big increases.
People are traveling. His example is the travel sector, where prices are up, but not compared to pre-pandemic.
Airfares are up 24.6% over the last 12 months, while hotel and motel prices rose 15.1%. But both are still below where they stood in June of 2019, ahead of the pandemic.
The re-surge of vacation travelers and government aid that continues to float them has made airlines like Delta profitable again, according to information released by the company Wednesday. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, they won’t be back to normal until business travel returns.
Isidore talks to economists who think this is a post-Covid binge of demand and that supply will return to normal as production and supply chains return to normal.
He also talks to economists who think higher prices are here to stay. Labor shortages now have led businesses to offer higher wages, for instance. They won’t likely start cutting wages in a few months. Some of this is permanent (and good for workers making more money!).
Price hikes you’re not supposed to notice. I also read this CNN Business report on how grocery chains may have added a few cents here or there onto prices that were already surging for other reasons.
“Stores are betting most customers won’t balk at price increases because they need to buy groceries, after all, and will still consider shopping a bargain compared to eating out at restaurants,” writes Nathaniel Meyersohn. “Prices for food at restaurants are growing faster than prices at grocery stores, according to Labor Department data, giving grocers more flexibility to charge you extra.”
Argument: This too shall pass. The Federal Reserve acknowledges the inflation, but isn’t going to do anything about it any time soon, according to Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell, who testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
The Fed could “pump the brakes” on the economy by raising interest rates, although that would have its own set of chain reactions.
Inflation, Powell said in remarks to the House Financial Services Committee, “has increased notably and will likely remain elevated in coming months before moderating.”
The bottlenecks partially responsible for inflation should clear out and there are other elements of the economy – the job market – that need further rebounding.
Inflation is now a political weapon. But the fear of inflation is not solely an economic debate. Republicans have used inflation and particularly gas prices to argue against additional government spending by the Biden administration.
Democrats view their effort to remake the country’s infrastructure with a $3.5 trillion investment for a more just and eco-friendly world as a sound investment. Republicans, generally, disagree, and they’ll use inflation to fight spending.
“If you look at inflation and the first six months of this year, it’s as bad as it was in the last six months of 1981,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said at the Capitol. Now-President Joe Biden was a senator in Washington in 1981 and knows that inflation helped sink President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection in 1980.
Inflation today vs. inflation in the 1980s. I asked Isidore, who pays a lot of attention to inflation, about McConnell’s comparison and he offered some important context:
There’s no doubt that cash directly to Americans, like the additional $1,600 Biden passed earlier this year or the new child credit, puts more money out there to spend. More spending creates more more demand and with supply not significantly greater, more demand means higher prices.
Higher wages to attract workers will do the same thing.
But we’re a long, long way from 1980. One difference – a much larger percentage of the work force had union contracts that had cost of living adjustments or COLA built in back then, so higher inflation meant higher wages, meant higher inflation. That’s what’s known as inflationary spiral.
There was also far less competition from overseas goods. So wages could go crazy. I’m old enough to remember those days. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I know 1980s inflation. 1980s inflation was no friend of mine. This is not 1980s inflation.
The rate of inflation for all of 1980 was 13.5%, while in 1981, since McConnell brought it up, it was 10.3% for all goods, throughout the whole year. And there was no black swan, once-in-a-century event distorting the year-over-year comparisons.
Today, while the 12-month change in June was up to 5.4%, the annual rate of increase over the course of the first half of the year was only 3.4%. It’s a lot worse than it was pre-pandemic. But not double-digit crazy with exceptions in a few categories.
There are also Democratic critics of Biden’s policies. Notably, Larry Summers, President Bill Clinton’s former Treasury secretary who was left out of Biden’s administration, who has raised the alarm about inflation partially caused by government spending for months.
“These figures and labor market tightness and the behavior of housing markets and asset prices are all rising in a more concerning way than I worried about a few months ago,” he told Politico on Tuesday. “This raises my degree of concern about an economic overheating scenario. There are huge uncertainties in the outlook, but I do believe the focus of concern right now should be on overheating.”
Summers met Tuesday with Biden aides at the White House. Perhaps they were trying to get him to stop raising the alarm about inflation while they push fellow Democrats to agree to new government spending.
High prices, meanwhile, will be something for everyone to watch and pay.