The era of uncomfortable inflation is here and it's already changing the US economy
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One of the biggest problems with inflation right now is not the ships stuck at the Port of Los Angeles or the price of a pack of chicken thighs or even how difficult it is to nab a reasonably priced rental car, but what's happening in Americans' minds as their expectations shift about how much goods will cost going forward.
News this week that U.S. inflation is running at a 13-year high of 5.4% confirmed what many Americans already know as they juggle their own budgets: food, energy and shelter costs are all rising rapidly, adding to the strain they were already dealing with, from high costs of hard-to-find goods such as cars, dishwashers and washing machines.
While policymakers debate how long higher prices will last – what "transitory" inflation means – the real question is how American families and businesses are going to react to this new era of uncomfortable inflation. What is the psychological impact of this jump in so many prices after years of low inflation? Are people's behaviours going to shift?
Atlanta Federal Reserve President Raphael Bostic said this past week his main concern is that the longer inflation remains high, the more likely it is that businesses and workers begin to believe that inflation will not come back down. Then they begin to alter their habits.
Workers are demanding pay increases since they can see their wages aren't buying as much with so many everyday necessities costing more, including rent. That leads companies to hike prices more, and then workers turn around and demand another pay raise. Economists call this phenomenon a "wage-price spiral." It often leads to sustained high inflation that forces the Fed to step in to stop it. Alternatively, consumers could pull back on spending as they fear high prices, another scenario that is harmful to the economy and could lead to a recession.
Already, there are signs of a psychological shift starting to occur. Numerous polls and consumer sentiment surveys show inflation has become a top concern for many Americans. And people are predicting inflation will stay high.
"During the past five months consumers have become much more concerned about rising inflation and slower wage growth and their negative impact on their living standards," the University of Michigan Consumer Survey reported in September. And this week, the New York Fed's consumer survey showed Americans now predict 4% inflation for the next year and 3.4% for the next three years – the highest levels since the survey began in 2013.
Businesses large and small are now openly predicting higher inflation will stick around, signaling new assumptions about the future.
FedEx recently announced one of its heftiest price increases in years. Pepsi said this month the company expects "to be able to price through the inflation that we're facing," meaning they can largely pass it along to customers.
Food and spice company McCormick & Co. called this the "highest inflationary period of the last decade or even two." The company's chief financial officer Michael R Smith warned, "While we continue to expect a mid-single digit increase in inflation for the year, it has moved higher and is now approaching a double-digit increase in the fourth quarter."
Housewares and beauty product company Helen of Troy, with brands like OXO storage containers, Drybar hair dryers and Hydro Flask water bottles, signalled more price increases are coming during an earnings call last week.
"We're assuming that the inflation is not going to be transitory, and we're positioning ourselves accordingly," said Chief Executive Officer Julien Mininberg.
There are also early signs of wage-price spirals building, especially in the restaurant sector.
Fuzzy's Taco Shop in Wichita, Kansas, is about to raise menu prices for the second time this year. Operating Partner Whitney Reitz said she had no choice. Over the summer, she raised starting pay from about $8 to $10 an hour to attract workers, prompting a menu price hike. Then she bumped pay up again, adding 50 cents to $1 more for workers who stay a month. By the fall, starting pay was up to $12 an hour. Now another price hike is coming on the menu.
"We're working to finalise a third round of price increases since June 2020," Reitz said. "A local restaurant just posted: Now hiring! Starting hostess at $20 an hour. Just seeing that in writing put a little fear in me."
Reitz has worked hard to retain current employees with bonuses and special perks. Over the summer, they shut the shop down entirely and took everyone to the zoo. But there is little to indicate the hiring and retention pressures will ease any time soon. She's also faced some frustration from customers, especially from regulars who notice when their orders suddenly cost more.
"We just went through a 5% price increase and we're getting pushback on it," she said.
Across the country, restaurant prices are up nearly 5% over a year ago, the Labor Department reported Wednesday. Rising food and housing costs accounted for more than half of the inflation jump in the past year, a sign that supply chain glitches and worker shortages are spreading to more parts of the economy with little sign of easing soon.
Fred Rosenthal, the long-time owner of Jasper's Restaurant in Largo, Maryland, is facing the twin problems right now of supply shortages of key foods and a difficult time getting the waiters and cooks, calling it the hardest hurdle he's faced in 50 years in the restaurant business.
About the only certainty for Rosenthal is costs keep rising. He used to pay staff $13 an hour. This year he is guaranteeing $20 an hour. The wage hike attracted a rush of applicants, but also contributed to costing him $100 000 to reopen the restaurant, he estimated. On top of that, he fields daily calls from his suppliers telling him certain items aren't available or have shot up in price.
Rosenthal prides himself on running a moderately-priced restaurant for families, but in the past six months, he's already hiked prices more than he ever has, about 5%.
"We'll probably have to raise prices again, maybe twice," he said. "We try not to raise things $3 or $4. Instead we go up 40 or 50 cents on an item. But a family of four, when they leave the restaurant, their check is up a few more dollars. They feel that."
Rising food, gas and rent costs hit the budgets of low and middle-income Americans hard. While wages have been rising at the fastest pace in decades, the gains have been eaten up entirely by rising costs, Labor Department data show. This prompts workers to ask for more pay.
"The wage-price spiral has already begun," said economist Sung Won Sohn of Loyola Marymount University and SS Economics. "In the financial markets and the economy, the biggest long-term problem we have is inflation. You can't turn the inflation rate on and off."
And some economists see these widespread price increases as a sign that the psychological dynamics are already shifting.
One clear sign that consumers are getting spooked by higher prices is Americans' plans to buy houses and cars are at the lowest levels since the early 1980s, according to the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers. There's concern about whether that pullback will also spill into other industries.
However, other economists argue that what is occurring now is still largely related to the pandemic where a surge in demand for goods has caused supply bottlenecks and the need to rehire workers much faster than anyone expected. They argue these pressures will subside in the coming months. They point to used cars and lumber prices which, while still high, have come back down from their peaks a few months ago.
"It's similar to a hurricane hitting," said Dartmouth economist Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. He predicted a "period of adjustment" and then prices would come back down. He urged the Federal Reserve not to overreact by swiftly raises interest rates, a move that typically triggers a recession.
As these debates play out on Wall Street and among policymakers, small business owners are altering their routines and shifting their expectations.
"It's painful. This is truly psychological. Diesel is near $4 a gallon now, which means truckers are paying $1 000 a fill up a tank. It takes three fill ups to drive from the East to West coast. That really eats into your profits," said Lee Klass, one of many independent truck drivers who owns and operates his own truck. Before the pandemic, it used to cost about $750 to fill up.
Klass said diesel prices are the dominant topic of conversation at truck stops. Despite the need for more truck drivers, some independent truckers are starting to hesitate to take certain loads with gas prices so high and fuel surcharges not yet adjusting.
"If the rates aren't good enough, people just won't do it," Klass said.
Across the country, families and business owners have already adjusted their thinking for an extended period of uncomfortable inflation.
"We're going to see inflation that is meaningfully higher than the Fed wants through 2022 and maybe into 2023," said Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "All it takes is a little bit of wage pressure to get you inflation that lasts longer than six to nine months."
It's hard to reverse psychological and behavioural shifts.