May 2021 Consumer Price Index Shows Fastest Inflation Since 2008

The Consumer Price Index showed the strongest year-over-year reading since 2008, and a core index popped the most since 1992.


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Consumer prices jumped 5 percent in May from year earlier, faster than expected.

Demand for cars is outpacing supply, an example of bottlenecks driving inflation.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

June 10, 2021, 4:59 a.m. ET

Consumer prices rose at the fastest annual rate since 2008 in May, a bigger jump than economists had expected and one that is sure to keep inflation at the center of political and economic debate in Washington.

The Consumer Price Index surged 5 percent in May from a year prior, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists had expected an increase of 4.7 percent. The price index rose 0.6 percent from April to May, compared with forecasts for a 0.5 percent gain.

Core C.P.I., which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose 3.8 percent from a year earlier, the briskest pace since June 1992.

Prices are rising for everything from airfares to used cars, and the data released on Thursday offers policymakers and investors another chance to assess whether that pickup is likely to be short-lived — or is poised to be the kind of lasting inflation that officials would worry about.

As prices have climbed in recent months, government officials and many economists have said the jump is likely to fade with time. Part of the increase is coming from supply bottlenecks and other shortages as the economy reopens. Plus, the annual number is getting a boost from what’s called a base effect: The year-ago number was depressed by pandemic-driven shutdowns, so the current figures look large by comparison.

But the strong monthly figure for May, which came on the heels of a sharp rise in April, showed that prices have been moving up quickly for more than just technical reasons. The critical question is whether that is a transient trend tied to reopening or something more persistent.

The stakes are high. Inflation can erode purchasing power if wages do not keep up. A short-lived burst would be unlikely to cause lasting damage, but an entrenched one could force the Federal Reserve to cut its support for the economy, potentially tanking stocks and risking a fresh recession.

Outside of the base effect, the recent pop in prices has been driven by two trends. The economy is reopening from a global pandemic shutdown for the first time ever, and some materials are in short supply as manufacturers try to ramp up production. Also, some households are flush with cash to spend after multiple stimulus checks and months in lockdown, which has been goosing consumer demand.

Where’s the inflation?

Price increases are coming heavily from categories affected by supply disruptions and the pandemic reopening, including cars and airfares.

Percent Change, May 2021 from May 2020

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index

By The New York Times

The 29.7 percent annual increase in used car prices reported for May is among the more striking examples of how bottlenecks are driving inflation. Demand for cars — used and new — is outpacing supply in part because of a global shortage of semiconductors that has hobbled vehicle production.

That chip shortage, which arose from factory shutdowns during the pandemic and one-off problems like a drought in Taiwan, could take time to resolve — but it should prove temporary. In a sign that companies are finding a way to adjust to the global shortage, General Motors said earlier in June that would start to increase shipments of pickup trucks and other vehicles to dealers.

But economists including are parsing the data for signs that the price increases will prove longer lasting. For example, rent and owners’ equivalent rent, two components that make up a big share of inflation and which move slowly, are important to watch, Laura Rosner-Warburton, a founding partner at MacroPolicy Perspectives, said ahead of Thursday’s report.

Economists are also closely watching inflation expectations, which have moved up since the start of the year but which remain within historically normal ranges. If consumers and investors expect prices to rise, that can give companies the wherewithal to charge more — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Regardless, the fresh inflation figures are likely to spur continued debate in Washington, where the White House and Fed have been playing down the recent run-up as temporary as Republicans have used the price gains as ammunition in their critiques of Democrats’ spending.

The data was released less than a week before the central bank’s June meeting, which will give the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, another opportunity to address how he and his colleagues plan to achieve their two key goals — stable prices and full employment — in the tricky post-pandemic economic environment.

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