The central fact of the American economy in mid-2021 is that demand for all sorts of goods and services has surged. But supplies are coming back slowly, with the economy acting like a creaky machine that was turned off for a year and has some rusty parts.
The result, as underlined in new government data this week, is shortages and price inflation across many parts of the economy. That is putting the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve in a jam that is only partly of their own making.
Higher prices and the other problems that result from an economy that reboots itself are frustrating, but should be temporary. Still, the longer that the surges in prices continue and the more parts of the economy that they encompass, the greater the chances that Americans’ psychology about prices and inflation could shift in ways that become self-sustaining.
For the last few decades, companies have resisted raising prices or paying higher wages because they felt that doing so would cost them too much business. That put a damper on inflation across the economy. The question is whether current circumstances are evolving in a way that could change that.
shortage of limes, their prices spike and people use more lemons.
after a cyberattack shut down a major pipeline, are truly random events that tell us virtually nothing about underlying supply and demand or future inflation.
Some other sectors seem poised to experience price rises. Restaurants, for example, are complaining of severe labor shortages that are forcing them to curtail service or sharply raise pay for line cooks and dishwashers. If they try to reflect those higher costs in their prices, it will cause the price of food away from home to start rising faster than the (already fairly high) 3.8 percent figure over the last year.
Professional inflation-watchers are on close watch for signs that these forces might be unleashing a form of thinking about price dynamics unseen since the early 1980s, when prices rose in part because everyone expected them to.
The Fed is betting that won’t happen — that even if there are several months of surging prices, it will be at worst a one-time adjustment, and potentially something that reverses as old spending patterns return and workers return to their jobs.
“If past experience is any guide, production will rise to meet the level of goods demand before too long,” the Fed governor Lael Brainard said in a speech this week. “A limited period of pandemic-related price increases is unlikely to durably change inflation dynamics.”
For now, movements in key financial markets mostly align with the Fed view.
Futures contracts for major commodities like oil and copper, for example, suggest that traders expect prices to fall slightly in the years ahead, not rise further.