From Nurses to Chips and Containers, U.S. Sees Shortages Abound


March 5, 2021

The Federal Reserve is seeing a lot more shortages across the U.S. economy, in ways that might be construed as early warning signs of inflation if they persist.

In the Fed’s Beige Book report released this week, the central bank mentions the word “shortage” or “shortages” 31 times, the most going back at least a decade. That’s a jump from 19 in the January edition and more than triple the average number of citations in the eight reports issued since the survey’s first reference of the coronavirus in March 2020.

The thought of shortages struck fear in the minds of American consumers when the pandemic first hammered the economy, prompting panic-induced sprints for lockdown life’s essentials — from backyard pools and bikes, to toilet paper and disinfectants. A year later, the Fed’s mentions are more frequent but in calmer economic terms.

Their latest regional radar is dotted with mentions of crunches in global supply chains for tech equipment. There are nine references to shortages of semiconductors — the memory chips made mostly in Asia that go into everything from cars to home appliances. That’s up from zero such mentions in the January report.

The U.S. economy has contended with pockets of labor shortages for the better part of a decade, and pre-pandemic Beige Books often mentioned the need for more well-trained workers. While that hasn’t changed much — 15 of the 31 mentions of shortages referred to challenges finding labor such as truck drivers and construction workers — the Atlanta Fed observed a need for another skilled position: nurses.

‘Strong Demand’

Apart from the job market, the new Beige Book shows the crisis is still straining supply chains contorted for the past year by hard-to-find raw materials and parts, or workers sidelined by illness — all made difficult to manage given unpredictable new patterns of demand.

The Richmond Fed said “manufacturers experienced a sharp increase in input prices paid, some of which were explained by supply shortages and some by strong demand.”

Fed officials, trying to decide how long to keep stimulating the economy out of a pandemic-induced downturn, are monitoring inflation signals that most see as fleeting, while staying alert in case they become more entrenched.

But the big unanswered question is whether the pressures are going to mean higher prices for consumers.

“Reports on pricing power were mixed, with some retailers and manufacturers affected by input cost increases reporting the ability to pass prices through, while many others were unable to raise prices,” the Fed’s report said. “Several districts reported anticipating modest price increases over the next several months.”