Inflation, Supply Chain Disruptions, and the Peculiar Process of Purchasing a Car

Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from the same month in the previous year was 7.9 percent in February 2022, the highest rate since January 1982—near the end of the Great Inflation that began in the late 1960s. The following figure shows inflation in the new motor vehicle component of the CPI.  The 12.4 percent increase in new car prices was the largest since April 1975.

The increase in new car prices was being driven partly by increases in aggregate demand resulting from the highly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies enacted in response to the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and partly from shortages of semiconductors and some other car components, which reduced the supply of new cars.

As the following figure shows, inflation in used car prices was even greater. With the exception of June and July of 2021, the 41.2 percent increase in used car prices in February 2022 was the largest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing these data in 1954. 

Because used cars are a substitute of new cars, rising prices of new cars caused an increase in demand for used cars. In addition, the supply of used cars was reduced because car rental firms, such as Enterprise and Hertz, had purchased fewer new cars during the worst of the pandemic and so had fewer used cars to sell to used car dealers. Increased demand and reduced supply resulted in the sharp increase in the price of used cars.

Another factor increasing the prices consumers were paying for cars was a reduction in bargaining—or haggling—over car prices.  Traditionally, most goods and services are sold at a fixed price. For example, some buying a refrigerator usually pays the posted price charged by Best Buy, Lowes, or another retailer. But houses and cars have been an exception, with buyers often negotiating prices that are lower than the seller was asking.

In the case of automobiles, by federal law, the price of a new car has to be posted on the car’s window. The posted price is called the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), often referred to as the sticker price.  Typically, the sticker price represents a ceiling on what a consumer is likely to pay, with many—but not all—buyers negotiating for a lower price. Some people dislike the idea of bargaining over the price of a car, particularly if they get drawn into long negotiations at a car dealership. These buyers are likely to pay the sticker price or something very close to it.

As a result, car dealers have an opportunity to practice price discrimination:  They charge buyers whose demand for cars is more price elastic lower prices and buyers whose demand is less price elastic higher prices. The car dealers are able to separate the two groups on the basis of the buyers willingness to haggle over the price of a car. (We discuss price discrimination in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.)  Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of car dealers to practice this form of price discrimination had been eroded by the availability of online car buying services, such as Consumer Reports’ “Build & Buy Service,” which allow buyers to compare competing price offers from local car dealers. There aren’t sufficient data to determine whether using an online buying service results in prices as low as those obtained by buyers willing to haggle over price face-to-face with salespeople in dealerships.

In any event, in 2022 most car buyers were faced with a different situation: Rather than serving as a ceiling on the price, the MSRP, had become a floor. That is, many buyers found that given the reduced supply of new cars, they had to pay more than the MSRP. As one buyer quoted in a Wall Street Journal article put it: “The rules have changed so dramatically…. [T]he dealer’s position is ‘This is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.’” According to the website, in January 2021, only about 3 percent of cars were sold in the United States for prices above MSRP, but in January 2022, 82 percent were.

Car manufacturers are opposed to dealers charging prices higher than the MSRP, fearing that doing so will damage the car’s brand. But car manufacturers don’t own the dealerships that sell their cars. The dealerships are independently owned businesses, a situation that dates back to the beginning of the car industry in the early 1900s. Early automobile manufacturers, such as Henry Ford, couldn’t raise sufficient funds to buy and operate a nationwide network of car dealerships. The manufacturers often even had trouble financing the working capital—or the funds used to finance the daily operations of the firm—to buy components from suppliers, pay workers, and cover the other costs of manufacturing automobiles.

The manufacturers solved both problems by relying on a network of independent dealerships that would be given franchises to be the exclusive sellers of a manufacturer’s brand of cars in a given area. The local businesspeople who owned the dealerships raised funds locally, often from commercial banks. Manufacturers generally paid their suppliers 30 to 90 days after receiving shipments of components, while requiring their dealers to pay a deposit on the cars they ordered and to pay the balance due at the time the cars were delivered to the dealers. One historian of the automobile industry described the process:

The great demand for automobiles and the large profits available for [dealers], in the early days of the industry … enabled the producers to exact substantial advance deposits of cash for all orders and to require cash payment upon delivery of the vehicles ….  The suppliers of parts and materials, on the other hand, extended book-account credit of thirty to ninety days. Thus the automobile producer had a month or more in which to assemble and sell his vehicles before the bills from suppliers became due; and much of his labor costs could be paid from dealers’ deposits.

The franchise system had some drawbacks for car manufacturers, however. A car dealership benefits from the reputation of the manufacturer whose cars it sells, but it has an incentive to free ride on that reputation. That is, if a local dealer can take an action—such as selling cars above the MSRP—that raises its profit, it has an incentive to do so even if the action damages the reputation of Ford, General Motors, or whichever firm’s cars the dealer is selling.  Car manufacturers have long been aware of the problem of car dealers free riding on the manufacturer’s reputation. For instance, in the 1920s, Ford sent so-called road men to inspect Ford dealers to check that they had clean, well-lighted showrooms and competent repair shops in order to make sure the dealerships weren’t damaging Ford’s brand.

As we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3, consumers often believe it’s unfair of a firm to raise prices—such as a hardware store raising the prices of shovels after a snowstorm—when the increases aren’t the result of increases in the firm’s costs. Knowing that many consumers have this view, car manufacturers in 2022 wanted their dealers not to sell cars for prices above the MSRP. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it: “Historically, car companies have said they disapprove of their dealers charging above MSRP, saying it can reflect poorly on the brand and alienate customers.”

But the car manufacturers ran into another consequence of the franchise system. Using a franchise system rather than selling cars through manufacturer owned dealerships means that there are thousands of independent car dealers in the United States. The number of dealers makes them an effective lobbying force with state governments. As a result, most states have passed state franchise laws that limit the ability of car manufacturers to control the actions of their dealers and sometimes prohibit car manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers. Although Tesla has attained the right in some states to sell directly to consumers without using franchised dealers, Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers still rely exclusively on dealers. The result is that car manufacturers can’t legally set the prices that their dealerships charge. 

Will the situation of most people paying the sticker price—or more—for cars persist after the current supply chain problems are resolved? AutoNation is the largest chain of car dealerships in the United States. Recently, Mike Manley, the firm’s CEO, argued that the substantial discounts from the sticker price that were common before the pandemic are a thing of the past. He argued that car manufacturers were likely to keep production of new cars more closely in balance with consumer demand, reducing the number of cars dealers keep in inventory on their lots: “We will not return to excessively high inventory levels that depress new-vehicle margins.” 

Only time will tell whether the situation facing car buyers in 2022 of having to pay prices above the MSRP will persist. 

Sources: Mike Colias  and Nora Eckert, “A New Brand of Sticker Shock Hits the Car Market,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2022; Nora Eckert and Mike Colias, “Ford and GM Warn Dealers to Stop Charging So Much for New Cars,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2022; Gabrielle Coppola, “Car Discounts Aren’t Coming Back After Pandemic, AutoNation Says,”, February 9, 2022;; Lawrence H. Seltzer, A Financial History of the American Automobile Industry, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

New 1/25/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss inflation, inflation, inflation.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they talk about the leading economic issue of early 2022 – inflation! They discuss the resurgence of inflation to levels not seen in 40 years due to a combination of miscalculations in monetary and fiscal policy. The role of Quantitative Easing (QE) – and its future – is discussed in depth. Listen today to gain insights into the economic landscape.

Sticker Shock in the Market for Used Cars

The term “sticker shock” was first used during the 1970s to describe the surprise car buyers experienced when seeing how much car prices had risen.  Because inflation during that decade was so high, anyone who hadn’t bought a car for several years was unprepared for the jump in car prices. During 2020 and 2021, sticker shock returned, particularly to the used car market. Prices were increasing so rapidly that even people who had purchased a car a year or two before were surprised by the increases. 

The following graph shows U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on inflation in the market for used cars in the months since January 2015. Inflation is measured as the percent change from the same month in the previous year in the used cars and trucks component of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI is the most widely used measure of inflation. Used car prices began rising in August 2020, peaking at a 45 percent increase in June 2021. Inflation at such rates over a period longer than a year is very unusual in any of components of the CPI. 

What explains the extraordinary burst of inflation in used car prices during 2020 and 2021? Three factors seem to have been of greatest importance:

  1. A decline in the supply of new cars resulting from a shortage in semiconductors caused an increase in new car prices. Rising new car prices led some consumers who would otherwise have bought a new car to enter the used car market, increasing the demand for used cars.
  2. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some people became reluctant to ride buses and other mass transit, increasing the demand for both new and used cars.
  3. As the pandemic increased in severity in the spring of 2020, most rental car companies decided to purchase fewer new cars for their fleets. After keeping a car in its fleet for one year, rental car companies typically sell the car to used car dealers for resale. Because rental car companies were selling them fewer cars, used car dealers had fewer cars on their lots. So the supply of used cars declined. 

We can use the demand and supply model to explain the jump in used car prices. As shown in the following figure, the demand curve for used cars shifted to the right from D1 to D2, as some consumers who would otherwise have bought new cars, bought used cars instead, and as some people swithced from public transportation to driving their cars to work. At the same time, the supply of used cars shifted to the left from S1 to S2 because used car dealers were able to buy fewer used cars from rental car companies. The result was that the price of used cars rose from P1 to P2 at the same time that the quantity of used cars sold fell from Q1 to Q2.

Sources: Yueqi Yang, “U.S. Used-Car Prices, Key Inflation Driver, Surge to Record,”, October 7, 2021; Nora Naughton, “Looking to Buy a Used Car? Expect High Prices, Few Options,”, May 10, 2021; Cox Automotive, “13-Month Rolling Used-Vehicle SAAR,”, October 15, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

New 10/17/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss economic impact of infrastructure spending & the supply-chain challenges.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impact of the recent infrastructure bill and what role fiscal policy plays in determining shovel-ready projects. Also, they explore the vast impact of the economy-wide supply-chain issues and the challenges companies face. Until the pandemic, we had a very efficient supply chain but now we’re seeing companies employ the “just-in-case” inventory method vs. “just-in-time”!

Some links referenced in the podcast:

Here’s Alan Cole’s blog:

Neil Irwin wrote a column referencing Cole here:

Here’s a Times article on the inefficiency of subway construction in NYC:

A recent article on the state of CA’s bullet train:

A WSJ column on goods v. services:

Coming Attractions: Hubbard and O’Brien Principles of Economics Updated

It’s customary for textbook authors to note that “much has happened in the economy” since the last edition of their book appeared. To say that much has happened since we prepared our last edition in 2019 would be a major understatement. Never in the lifetimes of today’s students and instructors have events like those of 2020 and 2021 occurred. The U.S. and world economies had experienced nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. economy suffered an unprecedented decline in the supply of goods and services as a majority of businesses in the country shut down to reduce spread of the virus. Many businesses remained closed or operated at greatly reduced capacity well into 2021. Most schools, including most colleges, switched to remote learning, which disrupted the lives of many students and their parents.

During the worst of the pandemic, total spending in the economy declined as the unemployment rate soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reduced spending and closed businesses resulted in by far the largest decline in total production in such a short period in the history of the U.S. economy. Congress, the Trump and Biden administrations, and the Federal Reserve responded with fiscal and monetary policies that were also unprecedented.

Our updated Eighth Edition covers all of these developments as well as the policy debates they initiated. As with previous editions, we rely on extensive digital resources, including: author-created application videos and audio recordings of the chapter openers and Apply the Concept features; figure animation videos; interactive real-time data graphs animations; and Solved Problem whiteboard videos.

Glenn and Tony discuss the updated edition in this video:

Sample chapters will be available by October 15.

The full Macroeconomics text will available in early to mid December.

The full Microeconomics text will be available in mid to late December.

If you would like to view the sample chapters or are considering adopting the updated Eighth Edition for the spring semester, please contact your local Pearson representative. You can use this LINK to find and contact your representative.

New 09/03/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report, Fed comments, and financial stability!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report falling short of expectations. They also discuss the comments of Fed Chairman Powell’s comments at the Federal Reserve’s recent Jackson Hole conference. They also get to some of the recommendations of a Brookings Task Force, co-chaired by Glenn Hubbard, on ways to address financial stability. Use the links below to see more information about these timely topics:
Powell’s Jackson Hole speech: 

The report of Glenn’s task force: 

The most recent economic forecasts of the FOMC:

WELCOME BACK! New 08/20/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien return to discuss delta variant & inflation!

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!