Falling producer price index fans fears of deflation

Mitchell Hartman May 13, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
A warehouse in China. Producer prices have softened as economic activity has slowed. Wang He/Getty Images

Falling producer price index fans fears of deflation

Mitchell Hartman May 13, 2020
A warehouse in China. Producer prices have softened as economic activity has slowed. Wang He/Getty Images

There’s more evidence Wednesday of the extreme weirdness and volatility of this economy — an economy that’s under the influence of COVID-19 right now.

A key measure of inflation, the producer price index, fell 1.3% in April. This is wholesale prices — the prices grocery chains and places like Amazon pay to stock their shelves with goods they sell to us, the prices hospitals pay to supply their ICUs. 

This inflation measure fell the most since 2009, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking producer prices at the peak of the Great Recession. And it comes on top of Tuesday’s report that consumer prices fell in April too, by 0.8%.

When prices keep falling, that’s deflation, not a nice word for economists.

Now, not everything is going down in price. 

If you’re selling masks or hospital gowns, you can charge top dollar these days. Ditto anything that’s flying off the grocery shelves.

But for most items — from clothes to cigarettes to used cars — prices are going down. 

“This is the very definition of a fire-sale situation,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute. He said right now, people only want to buy what they absolutely need. For retailers, that’s a problem.  

“Well, what do you do? Lower the prices very dramatically and basically give people an offer they will find it difficult to refuse,” Kirkegaard said.

Though, is deflation really so bad? It’s hard to argue with gas under $2 a gallon. 

But Karen Petrou, co-founder and managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics, said that’s not a huge help. 

“Gas is cheaper, but people are using whatever dollars they’re able to save to handle their economic shock, to try to pay the rent,” Petrou said.

For consumers who still have jobs and money in the bank, once they start to expect lower prices, they can stop spending too, according to Eric Freedman, chief investment officer at U.S. Bank. 

“It can become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will,” Freedman said. “People hold off on making purchases because they think that potentially prices will fall in the not-too-distant future.”

Which will make restarting the economy after the pandemic even harder. 

All these worries are for persistent deflation — prices falling month after month after month, said Columbia University economist and former Federal Reserve Gov. Fred Mishkin.

“It’s really not a serious problem as long as it’s only very temporary,” Mishkin said. He added that the Fed stopped a brief bout of deflation during the Great Recession, and its asset purchases, low interest rates and Main Street lending can be effective in reversing deflation again. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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