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May 2021 Consumer Price Index Shows Fastest Inflation Since 2008

The discussion could shape the path ahead for economic policy, helping to determine how much support President Biden has for infrastructure spending proposals and how patient the Fed can be in removing emergency monetary policy supports.

“This is the largest year-over-year increase in prices since the Great Recession, and massive stimulus spending is a contributing factor,” Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho, wrote on Twitter. “Proposals for further federal spending, coupled with job-killing tax hikes, are not the remedy for economic recovery.”

The White House has been focused on alleviating bottlenecks where it can, reviewing the supply chain for semiconductors and critical minerals used in all sorts of products. But controlling inflation falls largely to the Fed.

The data comes less than a week before the central bank’s June meeting, which will give the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, another opportunity to address how he and his colleagues plan to achieve their two key goals — stable prices and full employment — in the tricky post-pandemic economic environment.

“The Fed has never said how big a reopening spike it expected, but we’re guessing that policymakers have been surprised by the past two months’ numbers,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note following the release.

The big policy question facing the Fed is when, and how quickly, it will begin to slow its $120 billion in monthly government-backed bond purchases. That policy is meant to keep borrowing of all kinds cheap and stoke demand, and because it bolsters stock prices, markets are very attuned to when central bankers will taper it.

Mr. Powell and his colleagues have repeatedly said that they need to see “substantial” further progress toward maximum employment and stable inflation that averages 2 percent over time before they pull back from that policy.

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Farewell, Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy

A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.

Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.

Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePass into bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.

tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.

“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”

Some of these companies have been tightening their belts for years. But the pandemic seems to have emptied what was left of the bargain bin. The average Uber and Lyft ride costs 40 percent more than it did a year ago, according to Rakuten Intelligence, and food delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub have been steadily increasing their fees over the past year. The average daily rate of an Airbnb rental increased 35 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared with the same quarter the year before, according to the company’s financial filings.

set up a $250 million “driver stimulus” fund — or doing away with them altogether.

I’ll confess that I gleefully took part in this subsidized economy for years. (My colleague Kara Swisher memorably called it “assisted living for millennials.”) I got my laundry delivered by Washio, my house cleaned by Homejoy and my car valet-parked by Luxe — all start-ups that promised cheap, revolutionary on-demand services but shut down after failing to turn a profit. I even bought a used car through a venture-backed start-up called Beepi, which offered white-glove service and mysteriously low prices, and which delivered the car to me wrapped in a giant bow, like you see in TV commercials. (Unsurprisingly, Beepi shut down in 2017, after burning through $150 million in venture capital.)

These subsidies don’t always end badly for investors. Some venture-backed companies, like Uber and DoorDash, have been able to grit it out until their I.P.O.s, making good on their promise that investors would eventually see a return on their money. Other companies have been acquired or been able to successfully raise their prices without scaring customers away.

Uber, which raised nearly $20 billion in venture capital before going public, may be the best-known example of an investor-subsidized service. During a stretch of 2015, the company was burning $1 million a week in driver and rider incentives in San Francisco alone, according to reporting by BuzzFeed News.

But the clearest example of a jarring pivot to profitability might be the electric scooter business.

Remember scooters? Before the pandemic, you couldn’t walk down the sidewalk of a major American city without seeing one. Part of the reason they took off so quickly is that they were ludicrously cheap. Bird, the largest scooter start-up, charged $1 to start a ride, and then 15 cents a minute. For short trips, renting a scooter was often cheaper than taking the bus.

But those fees didn’t represent anything close to the true cost of a Bird ride. The scooters broke frequently and needed constant replacing, and the company was shoveling money out the door just to keep its service going. As of 2019, Bird was losing $9.66 for every $10 it made on rides, according to a recent investor presentation. That is a shocking number, and the kind of sustained losses that are possible only for a Silicon Valley start-up with extremely patient investors. (Imagine a deli that charged $10 for a sandwich whose ingredients cost $19.66, and then imagine how long that deli would stay in business.)

Pandemic-related losses, coupled with the pressure to turn a profit, forced Bird to trim its sails. It raised its prices — a Bird now costs as much as $1 plus 42 cents a minute in some cities — built more durable scooters and revamped its fleet management system. During the second half of 2020, the company made $1.43 in profit for every $10 ride.

“DoorDash and Pizza Arbitrage,” about the time he realized that DoorDash was selling pizzas from his friend’s restaurant for $16 while paying the restaurant $24 per pizza, and proceeded to order dozens of pizzas from the restaurant while pocketing the $8 difference, stands as a classic of the genre.)

But it’s hard to fault these investors for wanting their companies to turn a profit. And, at a broader level, it’s probably good to find more efficient uses for capital than giving discounts to affluent urbanites.

Back in 2018, I wrote that the entire economy was starting to resemble MoviePass, the subscription service whose irresistible, deeply unprofitable offer of daily movie tickets for a flat $9.95 subscription fee paved the way for its decline. Companies like MoviePass, I thought, were trying to defy the laws of gravity with business models that assumed that if they achieved enormous scale, they’d be able to flip a switch and start making money at some point down the line. (This philosophy, which was more or less invented by Amazon, is now known in tech circles as “blitzscaling.”)

There is still plenty of irrationality in the market, and some start-ups still burn huge piles of money in search of growth. But as these companies mature, they seem to be discovering the benefits of financial discipline. Uber lost only $108 million in the first quarter of 2021 — a change partly attributable to the sale of its autonomous driving unit, and a vast improvement, believe it or not, over the same quarter last year, when it lost $3 billion. Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to become profitable on an adjusted basis this year. Lime, Bird’s main electric scooter competitor, turned its first quarterly profit last year, and Bird — which recently filed to go public through a SPAC at a $2.3 billion valuation — has projected better economics in the years ahead.

Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.

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Apple’s Fortnite Trial Ends With Pointed Questions and a Toast to Popeyes

Tim Cook took the stand for the first time as Apple’s chief executive. The billionaire creator of one of the world’s most popular video games walked a federal judge through a tour of the so-called metaverse. And lawyers in masks debated whether an anthropomorphic banana without pants was appropriate to show in federal court.

For the past three weeks, Apple has defended itself in a federal courtroom in Oakland, Calif., against claims that it abused its power over the iPhone App Store, in one of the biggest antitrust trials in Silicon Valley’s history. Epic Games, the maker of the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple last year seeking to allow apps to avoid the 30 percent commission that the iPhone maker takes on many app sales.

On Monday, the trial — which covered esoteric definitions of markets as well as oddball video game characters — concluded with Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California pressing the companies on what should change in Apple’s business, if anything. The decision over the case, as well as the future of the $100 billion market for iPhone apps, now rests in her hands. Judge Gonzalez Rogers has said she hopes to issue a verdict by mid-August.

Yet even in an era of antitrust scrutiny of the world’s biggest tech companies, the trial showed how difficult it was to take on a $2.1 trillion corporate titan like Apple.

more than $1 billion in sales — from the App Store. Epic also spent millions of dollars on lawyers, economists and expert witnesses. Yet it still began the trial at a disadvantage because antitrust laws tend to favor defendants, according to legal experts who tracked the case.

While Judge Gonzalez Rogers signaled openness to Epic’s arguments during the trial, a ruling in favor of the video game maker might not lead to momentous changes in the market for mobile apps. Any verdict is also likely to be tied up in appeals for years, at which point rapid change in the technology industry could leave its effects obsolete.

“To mount a credible antitrust campaign, you need to have a significant war chest,” said David Kesselman, an antitrust lawyer in Los Angeles who has followed the case. “And the problem for many smaller companies and smaller businesses is that they don’t have the wherewithal to mount that type of a fight.”

The case focused on how Apple wields control over the iPhone App Store to charge its commission on app sales. Companies big and small have argued that the fee shows Apple is abusing its dominance, while Apple has responded that its cut of sales helps fund efforts to keep iPhones safe. Regulators and lawmakers have homed in on the issue, making it the center of antitrust complaints against the company.

Tim Sweeney, Epic’s chief executive and a longtime antagonist to big tech companies, has said he is “fighting for open platforms and policy changes equally benefiting all developers.”

30 percent number has been there since the inception. And if there was real competition, that number would move. And it hasn’t,” she said of Apple’s commission on app sales. She also said that it was anticompetitive for Apple to ban companies from telling customers that they could buy items outside of iPhone apps.

At other times on Monday, she appeared reluctant to force Apple to change its business. “Courts do not run businesses,” she said.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers also suggested that Epic’s requested outcome in the case would require a significant change in Apple’s business and questioned whether there was legal precedent for that. “Give me some example that survived appellate review where the court has engaged in such a way to limit or fundamentally change the economic model of a monopolistic company?” she asked Epic’s lawyers.

ripe for a legislative fix. Apple also faces two other federal lawsuits over its app fees — one from consumers and one from developers — which are both seeking class-action status. Judge Gonzalez Rogers is also set to hear those cases.

Similarly, a victory for Apple could deflate those challenges. Regulators might be wary to pursue a case against Apple that has already been rejected by a federal judge.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers may also deliver a ruling that makes neither company happy. While Epic wants to be able to host its own app store on iPhones, and Apple wants to continue to operate as it has for years, she might order smaller changes.

Former President Barack Obama nominated Judge Gonzalez Rogers, 56, to the federal court in 2011. Given her base in Oakland, her cases have often related to the technology industry, and she has overseen at least two past cases involving Apple. In both cases, Apple won.

She concluded Monday’s trial by thanking the lawyers and court staff, who mostly used masks and face shields during the proceedings. Months ago in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it was unclear if the trial could be held in person, but Judge Gonzalez Rogers decided that it was an important enough case and ordered special rules to minimize the health risks, including limits on the number of people in court.

Epic opted to include its chief executive over an extra lawyer, and Mr. Sweeney spent the trial inside the courtroom, watching from his lawyers’ table. Mr. Sweeney, who is typically prolific on Twitter, didn’t comment publicly over the last three weeks. On Monday, he broke his silence by thanking the Popeyes fried-chicken restaurant next to the courthouse.

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Bitcoin Prices Stabilize After Volatile Weekend

Over the weekend, the price of Bitcoin briefly fell to around $31,000, more than 50 percent down from its high last month. It has recovered somewhat and is currently trading at around $37,000.

“About $20 billion of long positions were liquidated last week,” Sam Bankman-Fried, the chief executive of the crypto derivatives exchange FTX, told the DealBook newsletter. “In terms of price movements: the biggest part of it is liquidations,” he said, suggesting the worst is over.

But he also noted news from China late Friday of a crackdown on Bitcoin mining and trading. This added to other news of official scrutiny that has spooked crypto investors in recent days, from Hong Kong, Canada and the United States.

probably isn’t buying, either.

  • MicroStrategy: The business intelligence software company has spent about $2.2 billion on Bitcoin, at an average price of $24,450. The company bought more last week and is still sitting on big gains.

  • Square: The payments company, led by the Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, bought two batches of Bitcoin for its treasury — $50 million in October at a price of about $10,600 per coin and $170 million in February at a price of around $51,000. It took a $20 million impairment on its holdings last quarter. It doesn’t plan to buy any more, its finance chief said this month.

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Defying Critics, Biden and Federal Reserve Insist Economic Recovery Remains on Track

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“We should be on track for a fantastic American comeback summer, full steam ahead,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said this month on the chamber floor. “From vaccinations to job growth, the new Biden administration inherited favorable trends in every direction.”

“But in several important ways, the decisions of elected Democrats have contributed to slowing the return to normalcy,” he added.

Critics have also questioned the wisdom of the Fed’s commitment to keeping interest rates low and buying bonds even as prices begin to rise. Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said last month that while the Fed “maintains that this bout of inflation will be mild and temporary,” it “may be time for the central bank to consider the alternative.”

Mr. Biden’s aides say they continue to monitor the threat that consumer prices could spiral upward, forcing a rapid policy response that could slam the brakes on economic growth. They say that those risks remain low, and that they see no reason to change course on the president’s agenda, including proposed infrastructure and social programs that the president asserts will bolster the economy for years to come. That agenda could prove a more difficult sell, even among congressional Democrats, if job growth continues to disappoint and inflation soars higher than expected.

Fed officials also remain undaunted. They show no sign of raising interest rates soon and are continuing to buy $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month. Officials have given only the earliest hints that they might begin to tiptoe away from that emergency policy setting. They argue that their job is to manage risks, and the risk of withdrawing help early is bigger than the risk that the economy will overheat.

“I don’t think it would be good for the industries we want to see thriving as the recovery continues for us to close off that recovery prematurely,” Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said at a House committee hearing this week as lawmakers pressed him on the threat of inflation. The Fed is independent of the White House, but responsible for keeping prices in check.

Voters give Mr. Biden high marks for his economic stewardship thus far. A solid majority of Americans — including many Republicans — approve of the president’s plans to raise taxes on high earners and corporations to fund new spending on water pipes, electric vehicles, education, child care assistance, paid leave and other programs, according to polling for The New York Times conducted by the online research firm Survey Monkey from May 3 to 9.

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Pakistan’s Private Vaccinations Draw Criticism

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The coronavirus was ripping through Pakistan, and Muhammad Nasir Chaudhry was worried. Long lines and tight supplies plagued the government’s free vaccine campaign. Newspapers were filled with reports of well-connected people jumping the line for a free dose.

Then Mr. Chaudhry, a 35-year-old government consultant, discovered he could pay to leapfrog the long lines himself. He registered to take two doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine for about $80 from a private hospital. That’s a lot of money in a country where the average worker makes about $110 per month, but Mr. Chaudhry was ready to make the commitment.

Critics have assailed such private sales in Pakistan and around the world, saying that they make inoculations available only to the wealthy. But in Pakistan, like elsewhere, tight supplies have stymied those efforts. The private hospitals are out of supplies, and Mr. Chaudhry still hasn’t been vaccinated.

“I am willing to pay double the price for the vaccine, but I don’t want to wait on and on,” Mr. Chaudhry said.

bought up most of the world’s vaccine supplies to protect their own people, leaving millions of doses stockpiled and in some places unused. Less developed countries scramble over what’s left.

To speed up vaccinations, some countries have allowed doses to be sold privately. But those campaigns have been troubled by supply issues and by complaints that they simply reflect the global disparities.

blocked them over fears that counterfeit vaccines would be sold. In the United States, some well-connected companies, like Bloomberg, have secured doses for employees.

can’t find vaccines to buy. Demand has been strong. The government sets a ceiling on prices but has been locked in a dispute with private importers over how much that should be.

In April, in the city of Karachi, long lines formed when two private hospitals began selling the Sputnik V vaccine to walk-ins. Private hospitals in Islamabad, the capital, and Lahore faced a similar rush of people and ran short within days. Hospitals in the major cities have now stopped taking walk-ins, and online registration has also been put on hold.

Sputnik V isn’t the only vaccine that the government allows to be sold privately. A one-dose shot made by CanSino Biologics of China is priced at around $28. Demand has been weaker because of greater public confidence in the Russian vaccine. Still, supplies sold out quickly after the CanSino doses went on sale last month. The government has said another 13.2 million doses will arrive in June.

AGP Limited, a private pharmaceutical company that has imported 50,000 doses of Sputnik, is urging patience.

“Sputnik V received an overwhelming response in Pakistan with thousands of people being vaccinated in just a few days and an even higher number of registrations confirmed in hospitals across Pakistan,” said Umair Mukhtar, a senior official of AGP Limited. He said the company has placed large orders for more.

The government price dispute could delay further expansion. The drug regulatory authority wants Sputnik V to be sold at a lower price. AGP won an interim court order on April 1 to sell the vaccine until a final price is fixed.

For those who can afford the doses, frustration is growing. Junaid Jahangir, an Islamabad-based lawyer, said several of his friends got private inoculations. He registered with a private lab for Sputnik V but got a text message later saying that the vaccination drive was on hold.

“I am being denied a fair chance to fight this virus if I end up getting infected,” Mr. Jahangir said. “The demand is there, and I don’t see what could possibly be the reason behind the inefficiency in supply.”

Some of the people who paid for private doses justified their decision by citing media reports that some well-connected people were jumping the line to get free, public doses. In May, at least 18 low-level health care workers were suspended by the authorities in Lahore for vaccinating people out of turn after taking bribes.

Iffat Omar, an actor and talk show host, apologized publicly in April for jumping ahead of the line to get the vaccine. “I am sorry,” she said on Twitter. “I am ashamed. I apologise from the bottom of my heart. I will repent.”

Fiza Batool Gilani, an entrepreneur and the daughter of Yusuf Raza Gilani, the former prime minister, said she knows of several young people who jumped the queue and got the free government vaccine in recent weeks.

“I was myself offered out of turn, free vaccine, but I declined as I wanted to avail the private vaccine,” said Ms. Gilani. Wealthy people should pay for their doses, she said, adding that her family would pay for CanSino shots for its household staff.

Many people, like Tehmina Sadaf, don’t have that option.

Ms. Sadaf, 35, lives along with her husband and a seven-year old son in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad. Her husband is a cleric at a mosque. She gives Quran lessons to young children. She said the pandemic had negatively impacted the family’s income of around $128 per month. “After paying the house rent and electricity bill, we are not left with much,” she said.

She had her doubts about the public vaccine, “but the price of the private vaccine is very high,” she said. “It should have been lower so that poor people like us can also afford it.”

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan. Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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Big Hospital Chains Get Covid Aid, and Buy Up Competitors

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While most of the provider aid has been distributed, the Biden administration is expected to begin doling out the remaining funds, estimated at $25 billion of the original $178 billion, said Kristen O’Brien, a vice president for McDermott+Consulting in Washington, D.C. Hospitals are asking for more time to spend the money.

How the aid was spent has not been fully documented. While the larger hospital networks aggressively sought the funds from the start, smaller organizations, children’s hospitals and those in rural areas or serving large numbers of low-income patients had more difficulty securing the aid because of the way the funding formula was structured.

In a later round of funding decisions, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed applications more closely, and in some cases, reduced or denied requests, Ms. O’Brien said.

Grants given after the initial rush were more targeted, to those hospitals in Covid hot spots or rural areas. A few large chains, including HCA Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic, returned at least some of the money, in the wake of disclosures that wealthier hospitals had received far more aid while reporting healthy profits.

Overall, the aid program did prevent hospital closings, said Ken Marlow, a lawyer with K&L Gates in Nashville, who advises hospitals. “We haven’t seen a real avalanche of these distressed hospitals coming on the market.”

But some may no longer be able to resist takeovers or mergers. “Those providers are potentially more distressed as a result of the stress of the pandemic and will have to be thinking hard about the future, their survival,” said Torrey McClary, a lawyer with Ropes & Gray who also counsels hospitals.

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Existing-Home Sales Declined in April, With a Tight Supply and Record Prices.

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Soaring prices and a shortage of available homes are starting to hold back the blazing U.S. housing market.

Sales of existing homes fell 2.7 percent in April, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. It was the third straight monthly decline after a surge in transactions earlier in the pandemic.

Mortgage rates have crept up since the start of the year, which has likely put a crimp in demand. But the main force holding back sales isn’t a lack of willing buyers. It is a lack of homes for them to buy — especially at prices they can afford.

The median sales price of an existing home was $341,600 in April, up 19.1 percent from a year earlier. Both the price and the increase were record highs. The number of homes on the market rose in April but was down 20.5 percent from a year ago and remained close to a record low.

gone for more than their asking price, up from about a quarter a year ago.

“Even if demand comes down, supply is the issue, and until we see more homes come on the market, that’s going to limit sales,” said Glenn Kelman, Redfin’s chief executive. “When you meet a new buyer you almost say, ‘Good luck.’”

The increase in remote work during the pandemic has led to an increase in demand for homes, particularly outside of city centers. That demand has remained as the economy has begun to reopen, even as millions of millennials are reaching the age when Americans have historically looked to buy homes. But the combination of high prices and limited inventories is making it especially hard for young people to get into the housing market.

“First-time buyers in particular are having trouble securing that first home for a multitude of reasons, including not enough affordable properties, competition with cash buyers and properties leaving the market at such a rapid pace,” Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said in a statement.

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Is It Time to Panic About Inflation? Ask These 5 Questions First.

Typically, these relative price changes are not a problem of macroeconomics — something best solved by the Federal Reserve (by raising interest rates) or Congress (by raising taxes) — but a problem of the microeconomics of those industries.

The core challenge of an economy emerging from a pandemic is that numerous industries are going through major shocks in demand and supply simultaneously. That means more big swings in relative price than usual.

Last year, relative price changes cut in both directions (prices for energy and travel-related services fell, while prices for meat and other groceries rose). But this spring, the overwhelming thrust is toward higher prices. There are fewer goods and services with falling prices to offset the rises.

Still, many of the most vivid and economically significant examples of price inflation so far, like for used cars, have unique industry dynamics at play, and therefore represent relative price changes, not economywide price rises. One important thing to watch is whether that changes — whether we start seeing uncomfortably high price increases more dispersed across the full range of goods and services.

That would be a sign that we were in a period not simply of an economy adjusting itself, but one of too much money chasing too little stuff.

Not all price changes have equal meaning for inflation. Much depends on what happens next.

If the price of something rises but then is expected to fall back to normal, it will act as a drag on inflation in the future. This often happens when there is a shortage of something caused by an unusual shock, like weather that ruins a crop. In an opposite example, in 2017 a price war brought down the price of mobile phone service, pulling down inflation. But when the price war was over, the downward pull ended.

On the other hand, a price that is expected to rise at exceptional rates year after year has considerably greater implications. Consider, for example, the multi-decade phenomenon in which health care prices rose faster than prices for most other goods, creating a persistent upward push on inflation.

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