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If you look at the detailed breakdown of April’s consumer price index released Wednesday, you’ll see lots of numbers. But let’s just focus on two for now.
The first is at the very top, which shows the price change for all items since last year — up 4.9%. Then, if you scroll way down past all the goods, you’ll get to “services less energy services.” That’s the price of everything you buy that’s not a physical good, excluding purchases of things like electricity.
That number is significantly higher than the first — up 6.8% since last year. So with overall inflation steadily coming down, why are the prices of services remaining so stubbornly high?
UBS Economist Alan Detmeister has an idea why. But he also has ants, which he was dealing with today. Or, rather, he’d hired someone to deal with them.
“I apologize. I think my exterminator just locked himself out,” he said.
The exterminator’s services would likely fall under what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “household operations” — a category where prices have increased 8% since last year.
Other service areas saw big increases: Veterinary services were up 10%. Motor vehicle insurance was up more than 15%. Inflation for all services tends to be slow to change, Detmeister said, partly because they’re related to how much we pay exterminators, insurers and vet technicians.
“Wages are a big part of services prices,” he said. “And wages often change usually only once a year. Services prices are changed much less frequently than goods prices.”
Core service inflation is starting to decelerate — it was 7.3% year over year in February, which was the highest it had been in more than four decades. But it’s still got a long way to go, said Gargi Chaudhuri, who works in investment strategy for BlackRock.
“If you look at the pre-pandemic world, services inflation was somewhere around 2.5%, give or take,” she said. “So, we’ve certainly moved significantly higher.”
The other big factor keeping service inflation high is housing. (Yes, housing, or shelter, is considered a service, even if you own your home.) And there’s a shortage of it, which has driven up prices.
“We don’t have enough shelters to go around,” said Robert Frick, a corporate economist with the Navy Federal Credit Union. “If we’d known then what we know now, we would have built a lot more houses starting 10 years ago.”
And service inflation isn’t equally distributed, he added; it can hit lower-income households particularly hard.
For example, they’re more likely to own a used car, and if “it’s an older-model car, which requires more repairs, you are paying extremely high rates to get those cars repaired,” he said.
Extremely high is right: Motor vehicle repair prices were up 20% in April from last year.
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