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

Corina Diehl is eager for more sedans and pickup trucks to sell her customers in and around the Pittsburgh area, but as the pandemic enters its third year, cars remain in short supply and the squeeze on inventory shows no sign of abating.

“If I could get 100 Toyotas today, I would sell 100 Toyotas today,” Ms. Diehl said. Instead, she said, she’s lucky to have three. “It’s the same with every brand I have.”

Dealerships like Ms. Diehl’s are wrestling with inventory shortages — the result of a dearth of computer chips, production disruptions and other supply chain snarls. That’s not a problem just for car buyers, who are paying more; it’s also a problem for economic policymakers as they try to wrestle the fastest inflation in four decades under control.

Car prices have helped push inflation sharply higher over the past year, and economists have been counting on them to level off and even decline in 2022, allowing the rising Consumer Price Index to moderate markedly.

But it is increasingly unclear how much and how quickly car prices will slow their ascent, because of repeated setbacks that threaten to keep the market under pressure. While price increases are showing some early signs of slowing and used car costs, in particular, are unlikely to climb at the same breakneck pace as last year, continued shortfalls of new vehicles could keep prices elevated — even rising— longer than many economists expected.

“We’ve stumbled into another pattern of a series of unfortunate events,” said Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist at Cox Automotive, an industry consulting firm. Shutdowns meant to contain the coronavirus in China, computer chip factory disruptions tied to a recent earthquake in Japan, the aftereffects of the trucker strike in Canada and the war in Ukraine are adding up to slow production.

Mr. Smoke expects new car prices to keep rising this year — perhaps even at nearly the same pace as last year — and used cars to begin to depreciate again, but said the shortage of new cars could spill over to blunt that weakening. And used cars may not fall in price at all if rental companies begin to snap them up as they did in 2021.

“If the supply situation gets worse, it’s still possible that we repeat some of what we had last year,” he said.

Mr. Smoke’s predictions — and worries — are more grim than what many economists are penciling into their forecasts.

Alan Detmeister, a senior economist at UBS and former chief of the Federal Reserve Board’s wages and prices section, said he expected a 15 percent decline in used car prices by the end of the year, with new car prices falling 2.5 to 3 percent.

Those estimates are predicated on an increase in supply.

“This is a huge wild card in the forecast,” Mr. Detmeister said. But even if production doesn’t pick up, “it is extremely unlikely that we’ll see the kind of increases we saw last year,” he added, referring to prices.

Omair Sharif, founder of Inflation Insights, a research firm, said he was still expecting improved supply and slower demand to help the used car market come into balance. While used car prices may rise for a few months as households spend tax refunds on automobiles, he expects the increase to be modest in part because they already nearly match new car prices.

“I would be shocked if the used car market really accelerated,” he said. New car prices are a more complicated story, he added: “There, we have legitimately serious inventory problems.”

Automakers are struggling to ramp up production. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created shortages in electrical components needed for cars, prompting S&P Global Mobility to cut its 2022 and 2023 forecasts for U.S. production. More critically, the chips needed to power everything from dashboards to diagnostics remain in short supply. Ford Motor and General Motors temporarily shut down some U.S. factories last week because of supply issues, and the industry broadly cannot ship as many cars as customers want to buy.

In cars, “production remains below prepandemic levels, and an expected sharp decline in prices has been repeatedly postponed,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a speech last month. He noted that while supply chain relief in general seemed likely to come over time, the timing and scope were uncertain.

Cars loaded in Kansas City, Kan., for transport to a dealership in Wichita, Kan. Automakers are struggling to ramp up production as repeated shocks rock the industry.Credit…Chase Castor for The New York Times

Analysts had been hoping that chip shortages, in particular, would ease up, but “we’ve got at least another year, if not more,” for the supply chain to heal, said Chris Richard, a principal in the supply chain and network operations practice at the consulting firm Deloitte.

While smaller electronics producers may be able to find enough semiconductors, he said, cars contain hundreds or even thousands of chips — often different kinds — and many auto companies do not have direct and close relationships with their providers.

The earthquake in Japan temporarily shut down chip plants that supply the auto industry, costing a few weeks of production at one. Making chips requires neon, and much of it comes from Ukraine. Lockdowns in Shanghai may reduce chip production at some Chinese factories.

At the same time, demand is booming. Ford reported record retail vehicle orders in March, including for its F-series trucks, which remained in demand even as gas prices jumped.

Car buying could begin to slow as the Fed raises interest rates, making car loans more expensive, but so far there is little sign that is happening. In fact, demand has been so strong that automakers have been cracking down on dealers that charge above list price, threatening to withhold fresh inventory.

“I don’t see the prices subsiding. You don’t need them to subside,” said Joseph McCabe at AutoForecast Solutions, an industry analyst, explaining that dealer costs are increasing and companies want to protect their profits. “Prices will go up, and there will be less negotiating space for consumers, because there’s high demand and no availability.”

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 learner 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.

Her customers are hungry for trucks, electric vehicles and whatever else she can get her hands on. When one of her dealerships lists a new car on its website in the evening, a buyer will show up first thing in the morning, she said. Her dealerships have a backlog of 400 to 500 parts to fix cars, up from 10 to 20 before the pandemic.

“It’s absolute insanity at its finest,” Ms. Diehl said. “I don’t see an abundance of inventory before 2023 and 2024.”

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