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Truck price dynamics are, naturally, driving US inflation.
Image copyright: Reuters/Rebecca Cook
Truck price dynamics are, naturally, driving US inflation.

Don’t fret about inflation

There are a lot of things to be stressed about these days: ransomware, climate change, cicadas, the existence of Balenciaga Crocs. But for now, US inflation isn’t one of them.

US consumer prices shot up 5% year-on-year in May, according to data released this week—the steepest such increase since May 2008. Economists had already been predicting prices would surge by around 4.7%, so the actual figure is feeding anxieties that the US is settling into a sustained (and not “transitory”) period of inflation.

Just one hiccup: Details in the data suggest otherwise.

At the heart of the inflation calculation is what is known as the “base effect”—the effect of computing the year-on-year inflation numbers for the past three months by comparing them to the March-April-May period in 2020. In those three months, when the pandemic was sinking its teeth into the US economy, states were locked down, businesses were shut, and supply chains were tangled and knotted. As a result, prices either fell or stayed abnormally low: April 2020, for instance, witnessed a 0.7% drop in prices from the prior month. A year later, those bottomed-out prices are throwing off year-on-year comparisons in March, April, and May 2021.

It’s also worth noting that a third of the overall price rise in May was due to the surge in used car prices: 29.7% as compared to May 2020, the largest such year-on-year increase in nearly half a century. The reason is the same as it was in April: lagging production of new cars because of supply and transportation bottlenecks. Other areas that saw strong price increases, like air travel and hotel bookings, also had abnormally depressed levels last year. Meanwhile in less pandemic-hit sectors, such as food at home or rent, the rise in prices was more tempered.

Unfortunately, you only get to snooze the anxiety for a few more weeks. By June 2020, as the US’s enormous economic stimulus took hold, prices began to rise again. So in early July, when we’re able to compare June 2021 prices to those from last year, we’ll have a fuller, truer picture of inflation—and of how “transitory” it promises to be. —Samanth Subramanian 

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