Vaccination may be keeping COVID-19 at bay, but the pandemic’s fallout lives on in supply shortages and labor scarcity, the Federal Reserve said Friday.
March stimulus, vaccination, and the reversal of pandemic restrictions allowed businesses to reopen and unleashed a wave of consumer demand through the first half of the year, but these combined to make inflation the new specter looming over the US. Prices climbed at their fastest rate since 2008 in May, and much of this overshoot is linked to supply bottlenecks and the nationwide labor shortage, the Fed said in a new report.
“Shortages of material inputs and difficulties in hiring have held down activity in a number of industries,” the central bank said. Still, accommodative fiscal and monetary policy helped the US achieve “strong economic growth” through the first half of the year, the Fed added.
The Friday report sheds more light on just how high the Fed is willing to let inflation run before taking action. Recent measures of nationwide price growth are “in a range that is broadly consistent” with policymakers’ long-term goal of inflation averaging 2%, according to the report. Bottlenecks affecting products like used vehicles and appliances can provide “more lasting but likely still temporary upward pressure” on prices, the Fed added.
The Fed also provided new detail on how it expects the labor market to reach its goal of maximum employment. Unemployment remains elevated, and labor force participation has been flat in recent months as Americans remain on the sidelines. It’s possible the COVID-19 recession and the resulting worker shortage will have “long-term effects on the structure of the labor market,” the Fed said.
“The pandemic seems to have accelerated the adoption of new technologies by firms and the pace of retirements by workers. The post-pandemic labor market and the characteristics of maximum employment may well be different from those of early 2020,” the central bank added.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell is scheduled to present the report to Congress on Wednesday and Thursday.
The price of air-conditioning units has shot up thanks to a shortage of key components – and a lack of installers means some customers are waiting longer for their units, Fox Business reports.
Over the past few months, multiple manufacturers have announced rising equipment costs for units of between 3% and 9%. Brad Dunn, vice president of marketing and sales at United CoolAir, told Fox Business that air-con unit prices had risen 15% since the start of this year, and that he expected them to rise further.
AMHAC, a New York air-con company, told Fox Business that it had a long waiting list for new units, but was struggling to source key parts, such as circuit boards, motors, and engines.
Some companies were also struggling to find staff to install units, it said. “Our industry is booming, but unfortunately we don’t have enough tradesmen to come on board,” Natalie Llyod, AMHAC’s general manager, told Fox Business. “We’re hiring, and we have a lot of demand and we’re ready to go to get the season off right.”
The comments come as a heatwave rips through parts of America, and companies continue to return to offices.
Equipment shortages have also delayed construction projects: Nearly 70% of builders reported shortages of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment in May, according to a National Association of Home Builders report published June 2, cited by Fox News.
Some car dealers have sold used trucks for more than the original sticker price thanks to rocketing demand and a global shortage of chips needed to make new cars, Fox Business reported.
Used vehicle prices have risen by an average of 30% over the past year, according to automotive data site Black Book, per Fox Business.
Alex Yurchenko, Black Book’s senior vice president of data science, told Fox Business that he had found 73 models of vehicles between one and three years old that were being sold to dealers at auctions for more than their original price.
“The market is very strange right now,” Yurchenko told Fox Business. “Dealers need the inventory, so they are paying lots of money for their vehicles on the wholesale market.”
A vehicle’s sticker price is the manufacturer’s recommended price for retailers.
While many of the models were high-value trucks and SUVs, such as the Ford F-150 Raptor pickup, Yurchenko told Fox Business that he found modestly priced vehicles sold above their sticker price, too. For example, Yurchenko found a 2019 Toyota Tacoma SR double cab pickup, originally priced at $29,000, going for nearly $1,000 more in 2021, Fox Business reported.
“Before we get through this, prices for many mainstream vehicles will get closer to their manufacturer’s suggested retail price,” Yurchenko told Fox Business.
And used vehicle prices have also soared across the Atlantic – the UK’s Vehicle Remarketing Association (VRA) reported double-digit price increases over the past few months, and predicted that prices will rise further.
“We are in a kind of ‘perfect storm’ where stock is in very short supply, demand is high, and buyers are ready to spend freely,” VRA chair Philip Nothard said. Nothard said that dealers are also happy to sell older vehicles than they would’ve done previously.
The increase in used vehicle prices in the US has started to slow, with used cars climbing 0.75% last week – the lowest weekly rise in 17 weeks, Black Book told Fox Business.
Price tags on consumer goods have risen over 10% from a year ago, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, citing NielsenIQ. Demand for home improvement items caused by the work-from-home boom has pushed prices to new highs and these price hikes are not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The computer-chip shortage has made home appliances difficult to find
The global semiconductor shortage has impacted most electronics, from dishwashers and refrigerators to washing machines. And panic buying of products like freezers during the pandemic has only made the problem worse.
Last month, Consumer Reports announced freezers had sold out across the country, citing data from top retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s. The product is not expected to be available until mid-summer, according to the publication.
Freezers are just one of many home appliances in short supply. National Housing Board (NHAB) Chief Economist Robert Dietz told Insider about 90% of appliance-delivery dates have been delayed and prices have skyrocketed in recent months.
Prices for home appliances have been climbing every week, according to the Josh Wiener, founder of home-improvement firm Silver Lining Inc. He told Insider he’s seen delivery dates for refrigerators that have been pushed into October.
Steve Cunningham, the CEO of Cunningham Contracting and the chair of the NHAB’s Remodelers Council, said there’s been times when entire remodeling projects have been delayed weeks just for dishwasher deliveries.
In March, Jason Ai, the president of Whirlpool in China, told Reuters that the company was facing difficulty sourcing the processors that power more than half of its product lineup, including washing machines, microwaves, and refrigerators.
The shortage has been going on for months and is only getting worse. Executives from Swedish appliance giant Electrolux said on a conference call in October that it had entered the quarter with “unusually low inventory levels,” despite higher production levels.
“The increased time spent at home during the pandemic has resulted in more intensive use of appliances and higher share of household budgets allocated to home improvement,” executives said at the time.
Wiener told Insider that his company has been working to order the items well ahead of time, but they have also seen shortages of the tools needed to hook the appliances up.
The Texas freeze made paint, windows, and vinyl siding more expensive
Anything that includes resin – vinyl windows, PVC boards, plumbing pipes, and electrical conduits – has become increasingly valuable since the Texas storms. The February deep freeze in the state shut down resin plants and has made windows and vinyl siding increasingly expensive.
The storm also led to a hike in prices of plumbing fixtures, as the storm caused a spike in the repair of burst pipes, Dietz said.
The Texas storm reduced the nation’s capacity to refine petroleum, which means a reduced ability to manufacture nearly all paints. It can be hard to predict which latex paint products will be out of stock and prices are continually fluctuating, Wiener told Insider.
“A lot of it is hit or miss,” he said. “Most of the places we would normally buy from are sold out. Lately we have been forced to pivot and find new vendors.”
Lumber prices have pushed flooring, cabinets, and deck prices higher
Lumber accounts for about 20% of a home, according to John Bitely, president of Sable Homes. He told Insider the record lumber prices have forced his company to raise their home-building prices.
Lumber prices are adding about $36,000 to new single-family homes, according to Dietz.
“As a company, there’s nothing we can do but pass those prices through to the customer,” Bitely said.
Any item that is made out of wood is facing significant price hikes and shortages, Dietz told Insider. From cabinets to flooring, decking, and doors, the products’ prices are skyrocketing along with lumber prices, which Dietz expects won’t slow down until well into 2022.
Price tags on outdoor gear are also spiking
Increased interest in stay-at-home options, including staycations, has created a renewed interest in outdoor home improvement. Dietz told Insider that one unusual shortage is a lack of cushions for outdoor furniture.
Lawn and garden-care products have also had price hikes in recent months. Last week, Scotts Miracle-Gro announced during its quarterly earnings call it would increase prices by single-digit percentages, after record sales in 2020.
“I don’t think we have a choice here,” the company’s CEO Jim Hagedorn said. “Every raw material we’re buying right now is at a materially higher cost than we had planned.”
It has been difficult for companies to adapt.
“The biggest problem is the shortage is random so it’s very difficult to fix or nail down,” Bitely told Insider. “Because it’s impacting nearly every facet of the supply chain, it will be difficult to make it go away.”
Dietz told Insider he doesn’t see a clear end in sight for the supply-chain issues.
“The advice I give builders and remodelers is that at least for the duration of this year we are going to see an increase in the pricing for our materials,” Dietz said. “It’s an unsustainable trend and it’s imperative for policy makers to improve these supply chains.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday faulted the Biden administration for approving stimulus benefits, and claimed they are hurting the nation’s economic recovery.
“We have flooded the zone with checks that I’m sure everybody loves to get, and also enhanced unemployment,” McConnell said from Kentucky. “And what I hear from businesspeople, hospitals, educators, everybody across the state all week is, regretfully, it’s actually more lucrative for many Kentuckians and Americans to not work than work.”
He went on: “So we have a workforce shortage and we have raising inflation, both directly related to this recent bill that just passed.”
McConnell’s comments reflect longstanding GOP concerns about disincentivizing people from returning work as a result of issuing direct payments and federal unemployment benefits. Democrats approved a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package in March, arguing many households needed immediate financial aid from the government.
No Republicans voted for the relief package. The unemployment rate has steadily fallen to 6%, and new claims have dropped for four weeks in a row.
But employers are growing alarmed over worker shortages, particularly those in the restaurant sector, while shortages of commodity goods are causing massive price increases in certain pockets of the economy. The trends caused the White House to defend its policies on Thursday. White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said there was “little evidence” that enhanced unemployment insurance was enticing people away from work.
Some economists note that a key feature of a labor shortage – rising wages – is not in evidence, as businesses typically take that step to lure job-seekers from a scarce pool.
“When you don’t see wages growing to reflect that dynamic, you can be fairly certain that labor shortages, though possibly happening in some places, are not a driving feature of the labor market,” Heidi Shierholz, economist and director of policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, wrote on Twitter. “And right now, wages are not growing at a rapid pace.”
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell weighed in on the issue last week at a press conference. He said potential factors that could explain the shortage include a lack of childcare, lingering COVID-19 fears, and school closures.
“We don’t see wages moving up yet. And presumably we would see that in a really tight labor market,” Powell said. “And we may well start to see that.”
An ongoing computer-chip shortage has affected cars, iPads, and dog-washing technology alike. Chipmakers like Intel had already seen production issues pre-pandemic, but as with many industries, COVID-19 brought a variety of new supply-chain issues. The chip shortage is a problem for consumers wanting basically anything with a computerized component, which is much of the economy. Take cars as an example.
The semiconductor shortage has hit automakers the hardest. In January, the consulting firm Alix Partners estimated the automotive industry would lose $61 billion in revenue from the shortage this year. As Insider’s Katie Canales reported, demand for chips has gone up as consumers scrambled to buy cars and other technologies that use them.
But as more cars went into production, chip competition went up. Since then, many carmakers have been forced to shut down plants and prioritize which models they produce, while car prices at dealerships have continued to go up.
Buyers are still looking for vehicles, creating a competitive used-car market. As USA Today reported, used-car prices are on the rise as the aforementioned chip shortages affect new-car production, and buyers have turned to older ones instead, while Axios reported the average price of a used car has hit $17,609.
A UBS note estimated that in April, used cars saw their largest monthly price increase in 68 years of tracking, with prices rising between 8.2% and 9.3%.
If you’re looking to rent, you might also be out of luck: Insider’s Brittany Chang reported on the “perfect storm” hitting rental cars right now, with prices surging and demand increasing. Americans are itching to go on vacation this summer, as more people are vaccinated and some restrictions loosen. That’s leading to far more demand — but rental-car companies had sold off parts of their fleets early into the pandemic, leaving fewer cars to go around.
It’s not all bad news for used-car lovers, though: As USA Today reports, the trade-in market is hot, too, meaning your old car could be worth more right now.
Gas prices have skyrocketed in recent months, jumping 22.5% in March from the previous year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. Much of the surge in gas prices started with the extreme Texas freeze, which halted a fifth of the country’s oil-refining capacity in its tracks for weeks at a time.
Plastics and palm oil
The devastating winter storms in Texas also left their mark on the plastics industry. As Insider’s Natasha Dailey reported, the state is a key plastics exporter — and the storms made many plants, which are difficult to reactivate, press pause.
According to the Financial Times, rising plastic prices have led to an increase in packaging costs. Citing data from Mintec, the Financial Times reported that those costs have increased by nearly 40% from the start of 2020, marking “historic highs.”
Palm oil, which is in a majority of those packaged products, also saw its prices climb, according to the Financial Times. That’s due to yet another labor shortage; the industry had already been contending with finding more sustainable production methods.
In September, Insider’s Rachel Premack reported that pay for truck drivers was on the rise, coming in at “record-smashing levels.” But the pay hike — and increased demand — comes after an exodus of drivers in 2019; Premack reported at the time on what some called a “trucking bloodbath,” as trucking companies saw profits fall, with some even going bankrupt.
Now demand is surging, according to The Journal, and if everything continues as is, that gap could deepen.
Homes and vacation houses
The US was facing a shortage of 3.8 million homes as of April, according to Freddie Mac. Home builders have been struggling to keep up with demand as remote work fuels interest in spacious housing, with house prices rising at their fastest pace in 15 years, The Wall Street Journal reported. Lumber prices are also driving the cost of new homes even higher.
Even vacation-home rentals are at an all-time high. A house in the Hamptons rented for $2 million this summer, and 85% of vacation rentals in popular destinations like Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, and the Jersey Shore are booked through August, according to the rental site VRBO.
If you’re wondering why the houses around you are getting more expensive, look to their component parts. No, seriously: Lumber prices have soared, and, as Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey and Libertina Brandt reported, builders are even increasing house prices in an attempt to offset demand.
It’s due to another pandemic disruption, as lumber mills were forced to temporarily close for safety concerns. When they reopened, they couldn’t keep up with a scorching-hot housing market, goosed by a work-from-home economy, record low mortgage rates, and the need for personal space during the pandemic.
According to an April analysis from the National Association of Home Builders, soaring lumber prices added $36,000 to the cost of a new home. Lumber prices “remain stubbornly high,” according to the report, due to mills shutting down, unexpected demand from big-box retail and DIY-ers, and tariffs imposed on Canadian lumber.
Household products like toilet paper and tampons
Many household goods including toilet paper, diapers, and tampons are also facing supply problems.
One of the biggest producers of the pulp used to create toilet paper told Bloomberg that port delays and high shipping costs are causing companies to push delivery dates back months.
The work-from-home lifestyle helped the furniture industry boom but to such an extent that customers are seeing delivery dates that are months out.
In February, La-Z-Boy executives said customers could expect delivery dates that are five to nine months out from their order dates. Other furniture companies like Kasala, a Seattle-based chain, said they don’t expect to get furniture parts until at least December.
The furniture shortage has been exacerbated by a spike in homeownership, as the number of available and unsold homes sits at record lows. In other words, a lot of new homeowners are waiting a long time for their new living-room sets.
Bacon and hot dogs will likely be in short supply this summer.
The pig shortage dates back to the onset of COVID-19 and outbreaks in at least 167 meat-processing plants forcing almost 40 plants to close as of June 2020. As vaccination rates pick up and people prepare for summer vacations and cookouts, analysts told Insider’s Natasha Dailey demand will outstrip supply.
With pork companies still struggling to overcome lower production rates in 2020, the matter only intensified when high instances of disease hit the hog population this past winter.
Some companies are already seeing the impact on their shelves. In March, Costco said its supplies of cheese, seafood, and olive oil were running low.
General Mills said it has been forced to raise prices due to the delays increased shipping costs. Coca-Cola also raised prices to combat the supply-chain crunch. Neither company specified which products would be affected.
Coffee has also been hit by delays, Bloomberg reported in March. Peet’s and JM Smucker, the brands behind Folgers and Dunkin’ coffee, have said they’re facing rising costs. Reuters reported that in February, port delays pushed coffee prices to their highest point in more than a year.
This summer pool owners will see the worst chlorine shortage in US history, according to CNBC.
Supplies of the chemical have been strained since a fire at the chlorine manufacturer BioLab in Louisiana in September. The price for chlorine used in pools has nearly doubled this past year and is expected to rise even more to meet demand this summer.
Corn is a key crop for many products, including fuel and different foods. As supply concerns loom, corn prices are popping off, according to Axios.
There’s a few reasons that demand is so high: After an outbreak of swine fever in China, pig herds were “decimated,” according to Axios, leading to huge corn demand in China. That spike in demand is coupled with corn crops in Brazil and Argentina experiencing both bad weather and pandemic-related labor shortages.
Now corn prices are on a record-setting clip, rising by 16% in April alone.
And, as Fortune reported, there could be a domestic supply issue too. Droughts and a rough winter are both concerning — and if American crops can’t fill in the gaps, prices could rise even more.
Finally, a commodity unlike all the others is in surprisingly short supply: workers.
Major labor shortages are hitting businesses across America. As Insider’s Kate Taylor reported, chains like Dunkin’ and Starbucks are struggling to find workers — leading to reduced hours and hesitance on opening indoor dining back up.
There’s a few possible reasons that unemployed workers are opting not to return, according to Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey. They include workers making more on unemployment benefits than in their prior work as well as continued concerns over COVID-19 and the need to provide childcare at home.
The latest commodity seeing a price squeeze amidst shortages and high demand is used cars.
A note from UBS researchers led by Alan Detmeister found that not only did used-car prices climb in April, but the monthly price increase could be the largest in 68 years of tracking. It looks like prices may have risen by 8.2% to 9.3%.
Used cars have been in high demand due to a few of the factors driving the shortages all over the American economy. The economy is reopening, people are ready to spend money (perhaps from new stimulus checks), and they want cars – especially as more suburban areas boom with wealthy transplants. But new cars are being hit by a computer chip shortage that’s hitting the automotive industry hard.
As Insider’s Grace Kay reported, semiconductor shortages could cost automakers billions, and has already led to lower production rates for new cars. Even Elon Musk has said that Tesla’s suffered from supply chain and semiconductor woes. Cue a used-car boom, with the market heating up and trade-ins fetching higher prices.
According to UBS, prices on used cars may only climb in the coming months, due to a lag in wholesale to retail pricing. New car prices are also likely to pick up, increasing by 1%.
Why there are so many shortages, and which ones may pick up next
It may seem that everywhere you look, a new product is in a shortage. Chicken, diapers, corn, gas, furniture: The list of shortages goes on, and will likely only grow amid economic reopening. That’s due to some of the same factors impacting used and new cars. Supply-chain issues have persisted throughout the pandemic, and factories shuttered for safety reasons need to crank back to life as demand steepens.
The climate crisis also has a role, with several domestic products in the US – such as plastic and gas – impacted by factors including the devastating winter storms in Texas. Droughts are impacting the worldwide corn supply amidst high demand; Insider’s Will Daniel reports that corn prices have jumped 142% in the past year.
UBS projects 12-month headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation rising to 4.3% from 2.6%, “an enormous surge over just the past few months.” Economists’ median estimate for April CPI is 3.6%, per Bloomberg.
UBS projects hotels and airfares will be next to see substantial price increases. Axios reported – in an article aptly titled “Our crazy, booked-up summer” – that summer travel in the US is about to boom, with a particular emphasis on domestic travel.
A recent report from the US Travel Association found 72% of Americans are planning a summer vacation in 2021; that’s compared to 37% last year. That probably won’t help the already intense rental car shortage.
When it rains, it pours, and when there’s a drought, prices go up.
In this case, the drought is in Brazil and it has the US running low on coffee. That means your morning cup of joe is about to get more expensive.
The drought has decreased crop production just as congested shipping ports have caused US coffee stockpiles to hit the lowest they’ve been in six years, Bloomberg reported. So far, roasters have been relying on their inventories instead of hiking prices, but that will only last so long and wholesale prices have climbed.
Potential losses from the drought could affect half of Brazil’s coffee crops next year, soft commodities expert Judith Ganes told Reuters in December. She said it was hard to determine how badly Brazil’s Arabica beans were hit, but “there will be major failure,” she said. “I saw areas with 100% losses, 50% losses, 30% losses.”
Arabica-coffee futures in New York have increased by nearly a quarter since the end of October, per Bloomberg. And Marex Spectron recently upgraded its global coffee deficit forecast from 8 million bags to 10.7 million bags, citing the drought.
Logistic problems have only compounded the shortage brought on by declining crops. Some facilities in Dinamo, Brazil, told Bloomberg don’t have enough containers to ship out coffee. Some containers and charter vessels aren’t currently available, causing back ups and delays at shipping ports.
David Rennie, head of Nestle’s coffee brands, told Bloomberg it could take two to three years for take-away coffee to return to pre-Covid levels.
But coffee isn’t the only goods shortage hitting the global economy as it reopens this year.
US shipping ports have become unusually congested as imports pick up speed due to surging and unpredictable consumer demand, delaying shipments of all types, from sneakers to meat. Companies struggled to estimate demand correctly, partly explaining the pileup, while factory production was halted off and on during the work-from-home economy of 2020.
The shortage is particularly acute in certain spaces, such as in the semiconductor chips needed to make personal electronics and products with electronic components such as cars. Finally, February’s Texas Freeze suspended much of the US oil sector and the manufacturers who rely on it, making gas harder to come by and things refineries produce, like plastics, more expensive.
That’s not to mention the shortage of things like bikes, fitness equipment, and even lumber, the latter of which has added to already high housing prices. As supply dwindles, all of these things become things Americans could end up paying more for.
But you know what they say, when it rains, it pours.