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From cars to gas to groceries, prices are rising everywhere. Is it time for Utahns to panic about inflation?

The pandemic and trillions of dollars in federal funds are driving prices higher, but will the sticker shock last or fade?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People pump gas in the Salt Lake Valley on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Gas prices are on the rise along with just about every other consumer good.

There’s lots of talk about the 1970s right now, but it’s not nostalgia for disco music and the leisure suit. There’s rising concern that inflation is starting to take hold in the economy.

Prices are up across most U.S. sectors right now. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of everything is up 5% over the past 12 months. Energy has jumped a whopping 28.5% in the past year, while food is up a little more than 2%.

The cost of everything else has also risen nearly 4%. In the West, prices have jumped 4.7% in the past year. There were big bumps for gasoline, up 3.9%, and for new and used cars, which rose 3.7%.

That 5% inflationary rate is the largest in more than a decade, which is prompting fears that the U.S. might be headed for a repeat of what happened in the 1970s, when inflation skyrocketed from 6.2% in 1973 to 11% the next year and all the way up to 13.5% by 1980.

While that scenario remains a possibility, it’s not the most likely outcome. So, what is going on?

There are a lot of different components at work. The first is the economy is coming out of last year’s pandemic-induced recession. That means there’s more demand for goods and services, which is driving up costs.

“People are going back to work and going on vacation and going out to restaurants,” said Zions Bank senior economist Robert Spendlove.

Utah’s economy weathered the pandemic much better than other states, emerging with low unemployment and net-positive job gain. The state’s budget saw revenue surpluses at the end of the 2021 legislative session and the economy is projected to grow by more than 6% this year.

Ups and downs of lumber

Still, the pandemic disrupted a huge part of the U.S. economy, and it’s just beginning to shake off those effects. Supply chains were stopped or slowed as consumer demand fell. A perfect example is the price of lumber. When the pandemic started, demand for lumber fell off a cliff, and many sawmills shut down or slashed back production. Demand surged due to a boom in construction and home renovations. Prices rose as much a 300%. Now, supply is starting to meet demand, causing prices to drop significantly.

The price of used cars has shot up in recent months. Some used vehicles are now selling for more than their original list price, which can be attributed to the pandemic’s impact on microchip manufacturing. New car manufacturers scaled back their production and canceled orders for microchips used in today’s modern cars. They’re having trouble ramping up again because they’re now at the back of the line for those orders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says prices for new and used vehicles are up 14.3% over the past year in the West.

“That one shortage of microchips is causing distortions in several very different areas,” said Spendlove, who also serves as a Republican legislator in the Utah House from Sandy. “It affected the ability to build new cars. That increased the price of used cars and the price of rental cars. It just kind of flows through the whole economy.”

The rental car crunch may become more acute in Utah. The new Salt Lake City International Airport shut down the car-sharing service Avail in May, which will further reduce the available rental inventory just as post-pandemic travel is taking off.

As pandemic restrictions ease, the demand for oil across the globe is rising. That’s one reason gasoline prices are up. Couple that with the usual increase in consumption that accompanies the summer driving season, and the pain at the pump won’t subside anytime soon. The average per-gallon price in Utah is $3.47. That’s $1.20 more than it was a year ago.

Wages are rising, too

Economist Phil Dean, a research fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, sees a lot of uncertainty in the post-pandemic economy.

“The big question is how many of these are going to be ongoing issues and how many are temporary that will work through the system in a matter of months,” Dean said. “We really don’t know how long this will last or how bad it will get.”

A post-pandemic labor shortage is also contributing to rising costs as businesses boost wages to attract workers. A McDonald’s restaurant in Moab was offering $18 per hour to entice job seekers.

Spendlove said one lesson that came out of the inflation from the 1970s is that wage hikes are locked in.

“It’s very difficult for employers to reduce wages once prices start to go down,” he said. “In the 1970s, you had wages chasing prices, which fed higher levels of inflation.”

Chipotle recently announced it was raising menu prices to cover the cost of higher wages. The popular chain restaurant has raised hourly wages to an average of $15.

Another factor adding to rising costs is an excess amount of money sloshing around in the system. The federal government pumped in a ton of cash to help individuals and businesses during the pandemic and to keep interest rates low.

“The Federal Reserve is creating $120 billion out of thin air every month,” Spendlove said, “to keep those interest rates down.”

All of that federal spending is not sustainable, warned Derek Miller, CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.

“When you talk about the Fed putting in over $6 trillion of new money into the economy,” Miller said. “Couple that with the fact that during the pandemic, the government spent another $6.5 trillion, and I worry we won’t be able to get our hands around that.”

One warning sign that the excess liquidity could cause inflation is what Spendlove calls an “asset bubble” in which a particular sector of the market heats up quickly. The astronomical rise of cryptocurrency during the pandemic offers an example. Prices for crypto rose dramatically in the second half of 2020 but have cratered recently, dropping as much as 40% in a 24-hour period for some.

A big worry: housing prices

Spendlove said the big asset bubble worry is housing.

“It’s not a big deal if we see a big drop in crypto or wood. But when we see a big drop in housing, that’s when it really starts to hurt individuals and families,” he said. “A 20% to 30% drop in housing prices could really hurt a lot of people.”

Housing prices in Salt Lake County have skyrocketed over the past year. The median home price is $128,000 higher than in 2020.

Loftier prices have an impact on everyone, but they don’t feel the pain equally.

“Inflation is like a hidden tax. It’s a regressive tax that hurts those who can least afford it,” Miller said. “Some people may be able to go to a grocery store and pay an extra 50 cents for a gallon of milk. But there are a lot of people that really hurts.”

Inflation is certainly on the minds of many Americans. A March survey from the data firm CivicScience found more than three-quarters of consumers worry about inflation.

Whether those higher prices are here to stay is the subject of some debate.

“It’s still a muddled picture about the future trajectory of inflation,” Dean said. “The Federal Reserve thinks it’s a temporary thing as we work through some of these supply-chain issues, but it’s just so unclear where we’re headed.”

In the short term, Americans can expect to see much more volatility in the stock market as markets try to find an equilibrium in the economy. They should also see interest rates start to creep back up in the next few years as the Federal Reserve said it will stop actively managing the economy to stave off recession. That means mortgages will be more expensive,

But there’s no need to panic. At least not yet.

“Inflation is an important thing we really need to be paying attention to right now. I’m not sure it’s a permanent thing yet,” Dean said. “We just kind of have to ride it out and see what happens. That’s the fun thing about the economy, right?”

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