Aug 19, 2022 - Economy

Here are some signs that inflation is calming down

Illustration of a hand stopping an upward traveling arrow

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Prices are falling on a host of important products, and supply chains are starting to sort themselves out, too.

Why it matters: These are two very clear, undeniable pieces of good economic news. High prices and product bottlenecks aren't gone, but they're getting a lot better.

  • For financial markets, unstoppable inflation was the key risk over the last year, since it could lead to sharply higher rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, and the very real chance of a recession — both of which could squash stock prices.

Driving the news: Lately, products that posted some of the most notable price surges last year have seen slumping prices.

  • Lumber: Soaring wood prices were on the leading edge of 2021's inflationary run-up, and even early this year they were still surging. They're now down about 60% since March.
  • Used cars: Icarus-like used vehicle prices — driven by a shutdown of new production due to COVID — were a key driver of inflation in 2021. They're basically flat this year, with leading indicators suggesting a relatively sharp turndown in prices from July to August.
  • Oil: Even before the war in Ukraine ignited a global energy crisis, prices for petroleum and gasoline were up markedly. But since crude oil prices topped out at over $120 a barrel in March, they're down more than 25%.
  • Real estate: The key price category to watch for inflation is housing, which accounts for a massive share of the Consumer Price Index. Even there, a pronounced downtrend in prices has started to emerge.
  • We could go on: steel, grains, gasoline, cobalt, eggs. They're all falling.

And the cost of time, in the form of supply chain snarls, is also easing, as constraints on shipping are quickly getting back to the pre-crisis normals.

U.S. supply chain index
Data: RSM US; Note: The RSM index is compiled using data that includes inventories, delivery times, prices paid and freight traffic, among others; Chart: Nicki Camberg/Axios

The chart above is an index, which means it synthesizes a bunch of different supply chain-related data from various government and private industry economic reports — and combines it all into a single number.

  • It shows a significant improvement in the backlogs, delays and general unpredictability of doing business amid the economic recovery from the pandemic. (Other supply chain indexes — like one from the New York Fed — also show great improvement, though not quite "back to normal" territory.)

Reality check: Just because prices are falling, doesn't mean things are cheap.

  • Overall prices are much higher than before COVID-era inflation hit.
  • Broadly speaking, prices aren't going back to the before times. Ever.

The bottom line: Still, from a straightforward stock market perspective, this is all pretty good news, if it keeps up — as it means the Fed may not have to generate a Volcker-style rate shock.

  • Of course, there's always the chance that some demonic mutation of COVID emerges and we're back to square one. But let's keep our fingers crossed.
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