- Some kinds of inflation are stickier than others. That risks trapping the US in everlasting price surges.
- Prices for things like housing rarely, if ever, decline, as people spend on them no matter what.
- Such sticky price growth could make the pandemic inflation entrenched and spark a new economic crisis.
Inflation is running white-hot throughout the US economy, but not all price growth is the same. Some prices, like for electronics, are prone to reverse course as technology progresses and once-pricey features become commonplace. Inflation for other goods and services is less likely to turn negative, meaning they rarely, if ever, see their prices drop.
The Fed is betting that, as it raises interest rates through 2022, higher borrowing costs will rein in Americans’ spending spree. Weaker spending will then help close the gap between supply and demand and leave businesses with less pressure to raise prices.
Yet the stickier form of inflation could throw a wrench in the Fed’s efforts. Price rallies for things like housing are less likely to slow or reverse course, as demand for them tends to hold strong no matter how high interest rates are.
Insider looked at what categories may be considered sticky based on monthly Personal Consumption Expenditures data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. While some categories have seen prices fluctuate, others haven’t seen a monthly drop in several years.
Looking at data since 2012, there are some categories that have seen price indexes increase month after month. The following chart looks at three categories that have had no month-over-month price declines between 2012 and 2022 and the percent increases each month since January 2012:
As seen in the above chart, rent for apartments has increased every month for a decade. In fact, this kind of rent is almost 40% higher than where it sat in January 2012.
Imputed rent for owner-occupied housing — the BEA’s main measure for housing costs for homeowners — also had a 10-year streak of rising prices, according to the data. It wasn’t just housing costs that kept skyrocketing; prices for purchased meals and drinks at restaurants and other places outside the home never declined over the past decade.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell raised concerns around stickier-than-expected inflation while testifying to the Senate Banking Committee in late November. The central banker told lawmakers that supply-chain strains were among the biggest drivers of inflation through the end of 2021, and that closing the supply-demand gap was key to easing price growth. Still, with the virus situation still highly uncertain, some kinds of inflation run the risk of becoming more entrenched, he added.
“It is difficult to predict the persistence and effects of supply constraints, but it now appears that factors pushing inflation upward will linger well into next year,” Powell said then.
That’s so far been the case. The PCE price index soared 6.1% in the year through January, according to the Friday report. That’s the fastest pace since February 1982. The month-over-month increase of 0.6% also showed price growth accelerating through January, signaling the inflation problem isn’t fading anytime soon.
Sticky inflation is also intensifying. The Atlanta Fed’s sticky inflation index — which focuses on items that change price relatively slowly — rose at an annualized rate of 7.5% in January, sharply accelerating from the 4.3% pace seen in December. The gauge now sits 4.2% above its year-ago reading, roughly double the year-over-year pace seen before the pandemic.
To be sure, interest rates still sit at record lows, and it’s unclear just how much rate hikes will affect both broad and sticky inflation. Yet with the latter quickly accelerating, the Fed might have to work harder to pull inflation back to earth.