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Supply-chain bubbles will pop—and we’ll have economics 101 to thank

September 30, 2021, 3:48 PM UTC

At its height this spring, lumber was up over 300%. Some in the industry even started wondering if the pandemic-spurred housing and DIY booms would keep wood prices permanently elevated. Of course, we now know the verdict is no: Since peaking in May, lumber prices are down 69%. 

Lumber’s swift correction bolsters Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s argument that these recent price hikes are “transitory”—and will return to normal as supply and demand shocks from the pandemic work through the system.

In this week’s issue of Fortune Analytics, we’re taking a closer look at commodity price data.

Here’s what we found.

The numbers to know 

5.2%

  • The year-over-year rate of inflation in August, based on the most recent consumer price index. The rate is down from 5.3% in June and July, but it’s more than double this century’s average rate (2.2%). The rates this summer were the highest since the 2008 oil shock.

25%

  • The change in the price of lumber since Jan. 1, 2020. Back in May, that figure was up over 300%.

227%

  • The change in the price of steel since Jan. 1, 2020. Unlike lumber, steel is still at its COVID peak. 

34%

  • The change in the price of used cars since Jan. 1, 2020. Similar to steel, the used car bubble has yet to pop.

39%

  • The change in the price of corn since Jan. 1, 2020. Back in May that figure was up 105%

87%

  • The portion of U.S. adults who say they’re concerned about inflation, including 58% who say they are “very concerned.” That’s according to a Fortune-SurveyMonkey poll this summer. 

Big picture

  • We haven’t entered into a new paradigm. At least, that’s what the popped wood and agriculture bubbles suggest. Once the laws of supply and demand were able to work their magic, those bubbles burst. Analysts tell Fortune Analytics that this should happen soon in many metal materials (such as steel) in the coming 12 months. While commodity prices are likely to correct, the jury is still out in terms of the broader economy. After all, once a place like Chipotle or Walmart prices in higher labor costs, that’s nearly impossible to reverse.
  • “Return to the office” delays are likely preventing some bubbles from bursting. Once workers are required to be in the office each week, it could put downward price pressure on things like boats, campers, and second homes—which all sold briskly during the move to remote work. 

A few deeper takeaways

1. For prices to go down, they may need to go higher.  

Simple economics 101 dictates that as prices rise, sellers will attempt to supply more of the good. Meanwhile, as prices rise, some buyers will back off.

Ultimately, that’s what popped the lumber bubble. DIYers and homebuilders alike balked at sky-high prices this spring—while sawmills upped production. Back in March, 57% of material suppliers rated their DIY sale segment as “strong.” By the middle of this summer, that figure was just 3%, according to data provided by John Burns Real Estate Consulting to Fortune Analytics. 

What’s interesting about lumber is that DIYers and homebuilders didn’t flinch in late 2020 or early 2020 when prices were up over 100%. It wasn’t until the big run in April and May when prices were up over 300% that people finally backed off. That suggests that for other bubbles to pop, they may need to go higher until they reach buyers’ breaking points. Once buyers back off, supply will finally have time to catch back up.

2. Greed will help to pop COVID supply-chain bubbles. 

In theory, sawmills could have kept production low and thus kept prices high. However, if a mill didn’t increase supply, another profit-hungry competitor would. That explains why the industry as a whole instead chose to up production and cash in on the bubble. (In aggregate, the five largest publicly traded lumber producers saw their Q2 profits climb 2,000% this year.) Of course, increased supply coupled with falling demand is a perfect recipe for a pullback.

As profit chasing continues, it will help to pull down other commodity prices.

3. COVID bubbles won’t pop at the same time.

Wood prices are back to normal, while metals are near all-time highs.

What’s going on? Some of it is simply because the folks buying metals are bigger players (like auto manufacturers) who can afford to absorb the hikes. Also, unlike the wood industry, metals are far more concentrated. For steel, in particular, it’s completely dominated in the U.S. by Cleveland-Cliffs and United Steel. When there are fewer players, it’s easier to avoid profit grabbing (increasing production) and instead milk it out. 

While recent price bubbles were caused by pandemic-spurred demand and supply shocks, the uniqueness of each market means the bubbles will likely burst differently.  

This is an excerpt from Fortune Analytics, an exclusive newsletter that Fortune Premium subscribers receive as a perk of their subscription. The newsletter shares in-depth research on the most discussed topics in the business world right now. Our findings come from special surveys we run and proprietary data we collect and analyze. Sign up to get the full briefing in your inbox.

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