The overall cost of gas, food and other everyday items is increasing at its fastest rate in more than 40 years. And experts cannot say with confidence whether price increases will speed up or slow down in the coming months.
Rising gas prices drove more than half of the March increase, largely because of the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russia, a major oil and gas producer. But costs for other goods, including housing, increased significantly in March, too.
The problem is the same as it has been for the past year: Supply chains are failing to keep up with elevated consumer demand. “It is really a broader imbalance between supply and demand,” my colleague Jeanna Smialek, who covers the economy, told me.
American life is subsequently more expensive, with increases in prices so far outpacing gains in wages.
In response, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, is raising interest rates to increase the cost of borrowing money. The goal is to slow down the economy and, therefore, inflation.
But some experts worry that the Fed is moving too slowly and that its approach could force it to take more drastic steps to tame prices down the line. The nightmare scenario: The Fed has to tank the economy, as it did in the 1980s by aggressively raising interest rates, to end stubbornly high inflation.
Given these stakes, today I want to walk through the reasons that inflation might stay high, and the reasons it might not, over the next few months.
Why it might get worse
The Federal Reserve aims for an inflation rate of roughly 2 percent a year, trying to strike a balance of high employment levels without runaway price increases. But inflation is running much higher right now, and is also greater in the U.S. than in Europe and other developed countries. There are reasons to believe this will remain a problem for some time.
Unexpected events have disrupted supply lines for the past few years and could again. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already caused gas prices to spike. Because Ukraine is a major food producer, the war has also increased food prices and may continue to do so.
Covid has distorted supply lines since 2020, and future variants and outbreaks could do the same. That is already happening in China, where some places are locking down to try to contain new outbreaks — potentially interrupting the flow of goods from the world’s biggest manufacturer.
“Covid is the root of all evil,” Claudia Sahm, an economist at the Jain Family Institute, told me. “It has been extremely disruptive and tragic in people’s lives. It has also been disruptive in their livelihoods.”
The longer these disruptions go on, the longer Americans may come to expect inflation to become a regular part of life — and the worse inflation could get as a result.
Consider wages: If people expect high inflation, they will demand higher pay. But to pay higher wages, employers are likely to pass that cost to consumers by charging them higher prices. Higher wages could also mean elevated demand, because people will have more money to spend. This “wage-price spiral,” as economists call it, was a major contributor to high inflation in the 1970s.
Why it might get better
Some experts are optimistic. They believe that inflation could start coming down later this year. “The Fed is very capable of bringing down inflation,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group. “That said, I think there is a lot of risk.”
One positive hint, from yesterday’s report: The core inflation index, which measures prices excluding more volatile food and energy costs, increased at a slower rate in March than it did in previous months. That could suggest that inflation is peaking.
Gas prices are also already down a bit from a peak in March. Some of that is driven by China’s lockdowns, keeping many potential consumers home. Over time, the world may also adjust to the Ukraine war’s shock to oil and gas markets. The West, for example, could find alternatives to Russian oil and gas, like more U.S. drilling or clean energy sources, to fill current gaps in supply.
And the war could end, reducing any further impact on global markets.
Meanwhile, Covid cases are declining worldwide. If potential future waves do not cause major disruptions, inflation could cool as supply lines get back to normal.
The Biden administration is separately taking some actions, like releasing oil from strategic reserves and allowing summertime sales of ethanol-based gas. But the effects of those moves are expected to be small.
Consumer demand could drop as well. Higher prices could discourage some spending. And extra cash from the economic stimulus packages of the past few years, which some experts argue helped fuel inflation, is drying up, leaving Americans with less money to spend.
All of that, along with the Federal Reserve’s actions, could put the economy in a better balance between supply and demand in the coming months.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
A Renaissance music primer
In “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love …,” The Times asks musicians, critics and experts to recommend a song in a certain musical style. The latest edition explores a lesser-known area: Renaissance music.
“We wanted to shine a light on music you’re most likely not going to hear at your local symphony,” Zachary Woolfe, The Times’s classical music critic, told us. “There’s an incredible variety in the compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, but this selection focuses on some of the most beautiful choral writing ever made.”
The songs on the list evoke the listener’s imagination of life centuries ago. In many of them, celestial harmonies sound as though they are echoing in a cathedral. Others are fun and surprising: “Come, sirrah Jack, ho,” a jaunty ode to drinking and smoking, is like a night in a tavern. Listen to that one, and many more.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
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