Let’s Talk About Inflation

You’ve probably seen the headlines. Corn prices are double what they were a year ago. Lumber prices are triple. You can find all kinds of other scary examples. Is runaway inflation just around the corner? Is it already here?

And yet, measures of prices that consumers pay are much more stable. The most widely tracked measure, the CPI-U, is up 4.2% over the past year. That’s through April — and keep in mind that it’s starting from a low base since March-May 2020 saw falling prices). The Personal Consumption Expenditures index, often preferred by economists, is up just 2.3% (though that’s only through March).

So what gives? Do these consumer measures understate inflation in some way? Or is the increase in commodity prices telling us that consumer prices will increase soon?

Let’s take that second question first. Do higher commodity prices necessarily lead to higher consumer prices? The answer is a clear no. First, we can see that in the data. The producer price index for all commodities (such as corn and lumber) is up 12% over the year (through March, with April data coming out tomorrow). That’s a big increase. But as the chart below suggests, that probably will not lead to 12% increases in consumer prices. It probably won’t even lead to a 5% increase in consumer prices.

Notice two things about this chart. First, commodity prices (the red line) are much more volatile than consumer prices, both on the upside and downside. Second, there really isn’t much of a lag, if any. The direction of change is similar in both indexes, almost to the month. When producer commodity prices go up, consumer prices also go up, that very same month, but not by the same amount. So all of that 12% increase in producer prices is probably already reflected in consumer prices.

Why might this be? Simple supply and demand analysis (hello Econ 101 critics!) can tell us why.

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