Few Cars, Lots of Customers: Why Autos Are an Inflation Risk

Melissa M. Taylor

Mr. McCabe does not think that car inventory will ever fully rebound: Dealers and automakers have learned that they make more money by effectively making cars to order and running with leaner inventory. If that’s the case, the permanently restrained supply could have implications for the rental and used car markets.

If car prices keep climbing briskly, it will be hard for inflation overall to moderate as much as economists expect — to around 4 to 4.5 percent as measured by the Consumer Price Index by the end of the year, according to a Bloomberg survey, down from 7.9 percent in February.

That’s because prices for services, which make up 60 percent of the index, are also climbing robustly. They increased 4.8 percent in the 12 months through February, and could remain high or even continue to rise as labor shortages bite.

Of the goods that make up the other 40 percent of the index, food and energy account for about half. Both have recently become markedly more expensive and, unless trends change, seem likely to contribute to high inflation this year. That puts the onus for cooling inflation on the products that make up the remainder of the index, like cars, clothing, appliances and furniture.

While the Fed’s policy changes could tamp down demand and eventually slow prices, policymakers and economists had been hoping they would get some natural help as supply chains for cars and other goods worked themselves out.

“We still expect some deflation in goods,” Laura Rosner-Warburton, an economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives, said of her forecast. She said that she expected fuel prices to moderate, and that her call included some “modest declines” in vehicle prices.

It’s not just economists who are hoping that forecasts for a rebounding supply and more moderate car prices come true. Buyers and dealers are desperate for more vehicles. Ms. Diehl in Pittsburgh sells makes including Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Chevrolet, and companies have told her that inventory may begin to recover toward the end of the year — a reprieve that seems far away.

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