Feels so normal, it’s abnormal… walking to the restaurant bathroom unmasked. We thought “back to normal” was happening this winter, until Omicron. But now that cases have waned and proved less severe, a national reopening mania has started… for real. Anticipation is growing:
- Restrictions are falling daily. Half of US states have ditched mask mandates over the past month, and even the CDC wants to give people a break. Lots of Super Bowl fans were unmasked at a sold-out stadium, and Coachella and Stagecoach say they won’t have Covid-related restrictions when their festivals return in April.
- Spending is up. January saw the strongest monthly gain in retail sales since March 2020, when the first stimulus checks hit. Retail sales were up 4% from December.
- Travel is rebounding, and Marriott , Hilton and Airbnb expect global travel to surpass pre-Covid levels this year.
But there’s a dark cloud… over reopening. Consumer prices were up 7.5% in January from a year earlier, the fastest increase in 40 years. While retail sales jumped, it’s partly due to higher prices— not more purchases. Wages are rising, but pay bumps haven’t kept up with inflation.
- Consumers are feeling it — especially low-income Americans. Food prices are up 7% from a year ago, and gas is up 40%. Walmart the consumer bellwether, says shoppers are on edge about grocery bills. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment is at a decade low.
- Companies are passing on rising costs to consumers, as inflation starts to dent profits. Still: Profit at the 500 largest companies were up 50% last year as consumers proved willing to pay more. Coke, Pepsi and Procter &Gamble reported strong sales despite upping prices.
Prices are spoiling the party… Literally: booze giant Constellation wants to raise prices as much as buyers can absorb. But there’s medicine in sight. Last summer, the Fed wasn’t expected to raise rates until next year. Now at least three hikes are expected this year. Rising rates could hurt stocks and spending short term, but help consumers and the economy long term by curbing inflation.