U.S. Inflation: Which Categories Have Been Hit the Hardest?
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U.S. Inflation: Which Categories Have Been Hit the Hardest?

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u.s. inflation 2021

The Briefing

  • The inflation rate in the U.S. has seen its fastest annual increase in over 30 years
  • Fuel, transportation, and meat products are seeing some of the steepest increases

Prices have been going up in a number of segments of the economy in recent months, and the public is taking notice. One indicator of this is that search interest for the term “inflation” is higher than at any point in the past decade.

inflation search interest

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights rising costs across the board, and shows that specific sectors are experiencing rapid price increases this year.

Where is Inflation Hitting the Hardest?

Since 1996, the Federal Reserve has oriented its monetary policy around maintaining 2% inflation annually. For the most part, U.S. inflation over the past couple of decades has typically hovered within a percentage point or two of that target.

Right now, most price categories are exceeding that, some quite dramatically. Here’s how various categories of consumer spending have fared over the past 12 months:

CPI CategoryOne-Year Change
Energy commodities49.5%
Used cars and trucks26.4%
Energy services11.2%
New vehicles9.8%
Tobacco and smoking products8.5%
Food at home5.4%
Food away from home5.3%
Transportation services4.5%
Apparel4.3%
Shelter3.5%
Alcoholic beverages2.2%
Medical care services1.7%
Medical care commodities-0.4%

Of these top-level categories, fuel and transportation have clearly been the hardest hit.

Drilling further into the data reveals more nuanced stories as well. Below, we zoom in on five areas of consumer spending that are particularly hard-hit, how much prices have increased over the past year, and why prices are rising so fast:

1. Gasoline (+50%)

Consumers are reeling as prices at the gas pump are up more than a dollar per gallon over the previous year.

Simply put, rising demand and constrained global supply are resulting in higher prices. Even as prices have risen, U.S. oil production has seen a slow rebound from the pandemic, as American oil companies are wary of oversupplying the market.

Meanwhile, President Biden has identified inflation as a “top priority”, but there are limited tools at the government’s disposal to curb rising prices. For now, Biden has urged the Federal Trade Commission to examine what role energy companies are playing in rising gas prices.

2. Natural Gas (+28%)

Natural gas prices have risen for similar reasons as gasoline. Supply is slow to come back online, and oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was adversely affected by Hurricane Ida in September.

Compared to the previous winter, households could see their heating bills jump as much as 54%. An estimated 60% of U.S. households heat their homes with fossil fuels, so rising prices will almost certainly have an effect on consumer spending during the holiday season.

3. Used Vehicles (+26%)

The global semiconductor crunch is causing chaos in a number of industries, but the automotive industry is uniquely impacted. Modern vehicles can contain well over a thousand chips, so constrained supply has hobbled production of nearly a million vehicles in the U.S. alone. This chip shortage is having a knock-on effect on the used vehicle market, which jumped by 26% in a single year. The rental car sector is also up by nearly 40% over the same period.

4. Meats (+15%)

Meat producers are facing a few headwinds, and the result is higher prices at the cash register for consumers. Transportation and fuel costs are factoring into rising prices. Constrained labor availability is also an issue for the industry, which was exacerbated by COVID-19 measures. As a top-level category, inflation is high, but in specific animal product categories, such as uncooked beef and bacon, inflation rates have reached double digits over the past 12 months.

5. Furniture and Bedding (+12%)

This category is being influenced by a few factors. The spike in lumber prices along with other raw materials earlier in the year has had obvious impacts. Materials aside, actually shipping these cumbersome goods has been a challenge due to global supply chain issues such a port back-ups.

How Inflation Could Influence Consumer Spending

Rising prices inevitably impact the economy as consumers adjust their buying habits.

According to a recent survey, 88% of Americans say they are concerned about U.S. inflation. Here are the top five areas where consumers plan to cut back on their spending:

Money saving action% of respondents
Cut back on restaurant / take-out meals48%
Keep my current technology (e.g. phone, tablet) instead of upgrading30%
Budget food and cut back on grocery buying29%
Purchase less clothing / accessories29%
Put off home repairs, renovations, or home upgrades23%

Will Inflation Continue to Rise in 2022?

Many experts believe that U.S. inflation will decelerate going into 2022, though there’s no consensus on the matter.

Improved semiconductor supply and an easing of port congestion around the world could help slow inflation down if nothing goes seriously wrong. That said, if the last few years are any indication, unexpected events could shift the situation at any time.

For the near term, consumers will need to adjust to the sticker shock.

Where does this data come from?

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Consumer Price Index (November 10, 2021)
Data Note: The Consumer Price Index (CPI) measures the change in prices paid by consumers for goods and services. The CPI reflects spending patterns for each of two population groups: all urban consumers and
urban wage earners and clerical workers, which represent about 93% of the total U.S. population. CPIs are based on prices of food, clothing, shelter, fuels, transportation, doctors’ and dentists’ services, drugs, and other goods and services that people buy for day-to-day living.

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Visualizing Congestion at America’s Busiest Port

The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest port in America. It’s also at the center of a massive container backlog.

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The Briefing

  • There are an estimated 540,000 shipping containers waiting in queue at the Port of Los Angeles
  • The port has been unable to keep up with increased shipments from overseas suppliers

The Busiest Port in America: Los Angeles

U.S. e-commerce grew by 32.4% in 2020—the highest annual growth rate in over two decades. Such rapid growth has resulted in many more goods being imported, leaving America’s western ports completely overwhelmed.

To help you understand the scale of this issue, we’ve visualized the number of containers waiting at sea in relation to the Port of Los Angeles’ daily processing capacity.

Stuck at Sea

As of November 2, 2021, the Port of Los Angeles reported that it had 93 vessels waiting in queue. Altogether, these ships have a maximum carrying capacity of roughly 540,000 containers (commonly measured in twenty-foot equivalent units or TEUs).

On the other side of the equation, the port processed 468,059 import containers in September (the most recent data at the time of writing). Because the port does not operate on Sundays, we can conclude that the port can load roughly 18,000 containers each day.

That capacity seems unlikely to reduce the congestion. Over a two-week timeframe in September, 407,695 containers arrived at the Port of Los Angeles, which averages to around 29,000 containers arriving each day.

FigureApproximate Number of Containers
Current backlog540,000
Daily import arrivals29,000
Daily import capacity18,000
Daily increase in backlog11,000

What’s Being Done?

Solutions are needed to prevent the backlog from causing massive economic harm. In fact, analysts believe that up to $90 billion in trade could be delayed this holiday season.

In October, the Biden administration announced a deal to expand operations at the Port of Los Angeles, enabling it to run 24/7. The port also announced it will begin charging carriers for every container that sits idle over a grace period. While only temporary, this plan has drawn criticism for its unclear objective.

“The fee is on the ocean carrier, but the control over when the cargo is to be picked up sits with the cargo recipient. Having the ocean carrier pay more does nothing to encourage the cargo interest to pick up the cargo.” – World Shipping Council

Regardless of the outcome, more permanent solutions will be required as online shopping continues to gain popularity.

Where does this data come from?

Source: Marine Exchange of Southern California, Port of Los Angeles, Freight Waves
Data Note: These figures are based on approximations and should not be interpreted as exact.
10/11/21 Update: This infographic was updated to include the number of import containers loaded by the neighboring Port of Long Beach.

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Why the Demand Outlook for Carbon Credits Is Bright

Carbon credits play a vital role in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Here’s why demand is set to skyrocket 15-fold. (Sponsored Content)

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Carbon Credits

The Briefing

  • Demand for carbon credits (also referred to as carbon offsets) is poised to skyrocket as corporations aim to meet climate goals.
  • By 2050, demand for carbon credits could rise up to 100-fold.

Why the Demand Outlook for Carbon Credits Is Bright

More than ever, carbon credits are playing a critical role in tackling climate change.

Based on demand projections for carbon credits, the voluntary carbon market could grow up to 100-fold by 2050. Voluntary carbon markets are where carbon credits can be purchased by those that voluntarily want to offset their emissions.

In this graphic sponsored by Carbon Streaming Corporation, we show two demand scenarios in voluntary carbon markets:

 NGFS scenarios (GtCO₂)NGFS “immediate action” 1.5°C pathway scenario (GtCO₂)*
20200.1 0.1
2030E1.52.0
2050E<7<13

*With carbon dioxide removal
Source: McKinsey, NGFS = Network for Greening the Financial System

First, one gigaton is equal to one billion metric tons of CO₂— or one trillion kilograms.

According to the forecast from McKinsey, annual global demand for carbon credits could reach up to 1.5 to 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 and up to 7 to 13 billion metric tons by midcentury.

This has steep implications for the voluntary carbon market: McKinsey estimates that in 2020 just a fraction of these totals were retired by buyers, at roughly 95 million metric tons.

How Do Carbon Credits Work?

A carbon credit represents one metric ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As companies contend with time and technological gaps in reducing their emissions, they purchase carbon credits to help offset their emissions. These purchases are facilitated by brokers who connect corporate buyers with project developers.

Project developers create carbon offset projects, such as protecting mangroves or reforestation. These projects, in turn, generate carbon credits.

Some projects also advance multiple United Nation Sustainable Development Goals by providing additional economic, social, educational, or biodiversity benefits.

Here is the transaction volume and value of the voluntary carbon markets.

YearVolume (MtCO₂e)Value (USD)
2021239$748M
2020188$473M
2019104$320M

Source: Ecosystem Marketplace, through Aug 31, 2021

In 2021, the value of the voluntary markets is projected to reach $1 billion— a record high. Driving this demand are corporate net-zero commitments, among other factors.

For instance, 1,565 companies with $12.5 trillion in revenue have set net-zero targets. Not only that, the 128 signatories of the Net-Zero Asset Managers Initiative, that represent $43 trillion in managed assets, are committed to supporting the goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 or sooner.

As bold action is being increasingly expected from shareholders, carbon credits will likely play a greater role in corporate climate strategy.

Where does this data come from?

Source: McKinsey, ‘A blueprint for scaling voluntary carbon markets to meet the challenge,” January 2021.

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