What Are the Causes of Inflation?

Cost-push and demand-pull explained

Woman shopping in supermarket
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There are two main causes of inflation: demand-pull and cost-push. Both are responsible for a general rise in prices in an economy, but they each work differently. Demand-pull conditions occur when demand from consumers pulls prices up, while cost-push occurs when supply costs force prices higher.

You may find some sources that cite the third cause of inflation as expansion of the money supply. The Federal Reserve explains that it's a type of demand-pull inflation, not a separate cause of its own.

Key Takeaways

  • There are two major types of inflation: demand-pull and cost-push.
  • Demand-pull inflation occurs when consumers have greater disposable income. Having more money to spend allows people to want more products and services.
  • Expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, consumer expectation of future price increases, and marketing or branding can increase demand. 
  • Cost-pull inflation happens when supply decreases, creating a shortage. Producers raise prices to meet the increasing demand for their goods or services.
  • An increase in wages, monopoly pricing, natural disasters, government regulations, and currency exchange rates often decrease supply vis-à-vis demand.  

Demand-Pull Inflation

Demand-pull inflation is the most common cause of rising prices. It occurs when consumer demand for goods and services increases so much that it outstrips supply. Producers, meanwhile, can't make enough to meet demand and may not have time to build the manufacturing needed to boost supply. They also may not have enough skilled workers to make it, or the raw materials might be scarce.

If sellers don't raise the price, they will sell out and eventually come to realize they now have the luxury of hiking up prices. If enough sellers do this, they create inflation.

There are several circumstances that create demand-pull inflation. For example, a growing economy affects inflation because when people get better jobs and become more confident, they spend more.

As prices rise, people start to expect inflation. That expectation motivates consumers to spend more now to avoid future price increases. That further boosts growth. For this reason, a little inflation is good. Most central banks recognize this. They set an inflation target to manage the public's expectation of inflation. The U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has set a target of 2% as measured by the core inflation rate. The core rate removes the effect of seasonal food and energy cost increases.

Another circumstance is discretionary fiscal policy, which is when the government either spends more or taxes less. Putting extra money in people's pockets increases demand and spurs inflation.

Factors of Demand-Pull

There are a few key factors that can play roles in causing demand-pull inflation, as outlined below.

Marketing and New Technology

These factors create demand-pull inflation for specific products or asset classes. The asset inflation that results in can drive widespread price increases. Asset and wage inflation are types of inflation. For example, Apple uses branding to create demand for its products, which allows it to command higher prices than the competition. New technology also occurred in the form of financial derivatives. These new products, for instance, created a boom-and-bust cycle in the housing market in 2005.

Over-Expansion of the Money Supply

This factor can also create demand-pull inflation. The money supply is not just cash, but also credit, loans, and mortgages. When the money supply expands, it lowers the value of the dollar. When the dollar declines relative to the value of foreign currencies, the prices of imports rise. That increases prices in the general economy.

The money supply can increase through expansionary fiscal policy or expansionary monetary policy, which is enacted by the federal government. These policies expand the money supply through deficit spending by pumping money into certain segments of the economy, creating demand-pull inflation in those areas. The policies can delay the offsetting taxes and add them to the debt. This government action has no ill effect until the ratio of debt to gross domestic product approaches 90%.

Occasionally, the government can create inflation simply by printing more cash. Venezuela did this between 2013 and 2019, creating hyperinflation and the money effectively became worthless.

How to Address Money Supply Issues

The Federal Reserve controls expansionary monetary policy. It expands the money supply by creating more credit with the use of its many tools. One tool is lowering the reserve requirement, the amount of funds banks must keep on hand at the end of each day. The less the banks have to keep on reserve, the more they can lend.

Another tool is lowering the Fed funds rate. That's the rate banks charge each other to borrow funds to maintain the Federal Reserve requirement. This action also lowers all interest rates, which allows borrowers to take out a bigger loan for the same cost. Lowering the fed funds rate has the same effect, but it can be a lot easier and, as a result, is done much more often. When loans become cheap, too much money chases too few goods and creates inflation. The prices of everything increase, even though neither demand nor supply has changed.

Cost-Push Inflation

The second cause is cost-push inflation. It only occurs when there is a supply shortage combined with enough demand to allow the producer to raise prices.

There are several contributors to inflation on the supply side. For example, global supply chain disruptions, like the one caused by the pandemic in 2020, can lead to cost-push inflation.

In November 2021 (the most recently available data), the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which covers gas, food, and rent among other costs, soared 6.8% from the year prior, the highest increase in over 30 years. This was due in large part to ongoing supply chain issues.

A company with the ability to create a monopoly is also a contributor to cost-push inflation. It controls the entire supply of a good or service. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act outlawed monopolies in 1890.

Natural disasters create temporary cost-push inflation by damaging production facilities. That's what happened to oil refineries after Hurricane Katrina. The depletion of natural resources is a growing cause of cost-push inflation. For example, overfishing has reduced the supply of seafood and driven up prices.

Government regulation and taxation can also reduce supplies. For instance, in 2018, U.S. tariffs reduced supplies of imported steel. That created shortages in manufactured parts, with some producers raising prices. In 2008, meanwhile, subsidies to produce corn ethanol reduced the amount of corn available for food. This shortage created food price inflation.

When a country lowers its currency's exchange rates, it can create cost-push inflation in imports. That makes foreign goods more expensive compared to locally produced goods.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is inflation?

Inflation happens when prices for goods and services that people buy on a regular basis go up. You have less purchasing power when the inflation rate goes up.

What is the difference between inflation and deflation?

Inflation happens when prices go up, and deflation happens when prices go down. Prices going down too much can signal a recession.

How high is inflation?

Inflation is the highest it's been since 1982. For the seven months ending 2021, inflation was 7%.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Inflation - The Economic Lowdown Podcast Series, Episode 4."

  2. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "What Is the Money Supply? Is It Important?"

  3. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to U.S. Economy: Inflation."

  4. United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee. "The Economics of Inflation and the Risks of Ballooning Government Spending."

  5. Michigan Senate. "Consumer Confidence and the Economy."

  6. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Why Does the Federal Reserve Aim for 2 Percent Inflation Over the Longer Run?"

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The U.S. Housing Bubble and Bust: Impacts on Employment."

  8. Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "The 90 Percent Debt-to-GDP Threshold and CBO’s New Debt Estimates."

  9. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. "What Effect Does a Change in the Reserve Requirement Ratio Have on the Money Supply?"

  10. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Effective Federal Funds Rate."

  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Consumer Price Index - November 2021."

  12. OurDocuments.gov. "Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890)."

  13. United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee. "Oil Prices and the Economy—Before and After Katrina & Rita."

  14. World Wildlife Federation. "Overfishing."

  15. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Proposed Steel and Aluminum Tariffs: U.S. GDP Gets a Trim."

  16. U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Corn Prices Near Record High, But What About Good Costs?"

  17. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Does Dollar Depreciation Cause Inflation?" Pages 16-18.

  18. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Consumer Price Index-December 2021."