Unfolding Story

February 13, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Trying to find the cause of inflation is like looking for a car in a big parking lot. Science is a process of ruling out causes. The latest release of the Employment Cost Index (ECIWAG) from the BLS rules out higher wages and salaries as a key driver of rising prices. During the financial crisis wages fell below trend and have stayed below the trendline for 12 years until this past year.

The average pay increase this past year has been 4.0%. Workers who have gained the most in this past year have been those with lower wages. Customer facing workers in leisure and hospitality workers are up 8% and retail workers have gained 6.3%. Other service jobs and whole sales are up over 5%. Industries with the lowest increases are in education 2.5%, state and local government (2.5%), utilities 3.0%, and financial activities 3.2%.

Two times a year the Philadelphia Federal Reserve (2022) surveys a number of economic forecasters and publishes the consensus outlook for inflation over the next decade. The current projection is 2.5%. Expectations for inflation among the public are on a shorter time frame. Once a month the University of Michigan publishes their survey of customer inflation expectations. December’s reading was 4.8%.

Housing costs could be a culprit for rising prices. The vacancy rate is very low at 5.6% and that has helped support a 5.7% increase in housing costs (CPIHOSSL). The growth rate has been swift in the past year, an aftereffect of the pandemic. For several years, the growth rate of housing costs had been about 2.7%, then fell to 2% during the pandemic. This erratic growth of the past months is unlikely to last.

The lack of new car inventory has led to sharp increases in used car prices, with smaller cars leading the pack. When the pandemic hit, auto manufacturers canceled their orders for semiconductors. As the tech factories in Asia resumed production, the auto manufacturers dedicated what chips they could get to larger SUVs and trucks with the highest profit margins. That has left a severe shortage of smaller cars. That has resulted in sharply higher prices for the used models.

The pandemic has been an experiment that would be unethical if done by anyone other than mother nature. For decades economists will try to understand the interlocking price and supply mechanisms. Economists still argue about the causes of the stagflation of the 1970s, almost fifty years ago. Human society and our interactions are at least as complex as the human mind. As economists sort through the dynamics of evolving relationships they can only hope to understand what is not true.


Photo by Evergreens and Dandelions on Unsplash

Federal Reserve. (2022). First quarter 2022 survey of professional forecasters. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://www.philadelphiafed.org/surveys-and-data/real-time-data-research/spf-q1-2022

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