Wall Street and Main Street are both scared of inflation, and how the US economic recovery will hit their wallets

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Banks large and small, both national and regional, are seeing increased interest in digital and contactless services, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced consumers to rethink the kind of banking interactions they’re comfortable having. Noam Galai/Getty Images
  • Americans of varying backgrounds are growing increasingly concerned of rampant inflation.
  • Google searches for “inflation” reached a record high this week, according to Deutsche Bank.
  • Surveyed fund managers now see high inflation as riskier to markets than the pandemic, BofA found.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Forget the pandemic. Inflation is the new issue haunting Americans, on Wall Street and Main Street alike.

Celebrations over vaccine approvals and falling COVID-19 case counts are giving way to concerns over just how quickly the economy will recover – and what that means for prices.

New stimulus signed earlier this month promises to send hundreds of billions of dollars directly to Americans and supercharge consumer spending. And shortly afterward, the central bank underscored that it will support a strong recovery this year, as the Federal Reserve reiterated that it plans to maintain ultra-easy financing conditions at least through next year.

The potent combination of monetary and fiscal support has many fearing a sharp jump in inflation. The eventual reopening of the US economy is expected to revive Americans’ pre-pandemic spending habits. Yet an overshoot of expected inflation could spark a cycle of increasingly strong price growth that leaves consumers with diminished buying power.

Worries of such an outcome are shared among both the investor class and the general public. Google searches for “inflation” surged to their highest level since at least 2008 last week, according to research by Deutsche Bank Managing Director Jim Reid. Dovish investors might highlight that similar spikes emerged after the financial crisis, but hawks can point to the unprecedented scale of pandemic-era relief for why today’s situation stands out, Reid said in a note to clients.

“Whether or not inflation ever materializes there is a rational reason why this time might be different. That’s reflected in the increased attention on inflation,” Reid added.

The theme that this time might be different was echoed by a UBS team led by Arend Kapteyn, who wrote in a March note that “pandemic price movements have been unusually large … and are historically difficult to model/predict.”

More recently, a survey from data firm CivicScience shows 42% of adults being “very concerned” about inflation, according to Axios. That compares to just 17% saying they’re “not at all concerned.”

Inflation worries investors more than Covid

Also, institutional investors are shifting their focus from the pandemic to the risk of rampant inflation. Higher-than-expected inflation is now the biggest tail risk among fund managers, according to a recent survey conducted by Bank of America, higher even than the pandemic itself. Snags to vaccine distribution fell from the top of the list to third place, while a potential bond-market tantrum was the second most-feared risk.

To be sure, younger Americans seem less perturbed. The gap in inflation expectations between the baby boomer generation and millennials is the widest its ever been, a team of Deutsche Bank economists led by Matthew Luzzetti wrote earlier this month.

The disparity is likely a product of vastly different circumstances, according to the team. Older investors lived through the “Great Inflation,” a period from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s during which inflation surged and forced interest rates to worrying highs.

Younger Americans have only known a quarter-century of inflation landing below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target, and millennial investors could have a massive influence on whether inflation expectations and real price growth trend higher as the economy reopens, the bank’s economists said.

“With memories of the Great Inflation possibly already lifting inflation expectations for older age groups today, a more material drift higher in expectations likely would require a lift from the younger age groups,” they added.

CivicScience’s newer data suggests that gap is quickly closing. More than half of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they’re “very concerned” about inflation, more than any other age group surveyed. By comparison, just 37% of Americans aged 55 and older said they’re “very concerned.”

Respondents aged 35 to 54 were still the most worried overall, with 48% saying they’re “very concerned” and 36% saying they’re “somewhat concerned,” according to CivicScience.

Kapteyn’s note for UBS highlighted that the conversation around inflation closely resembles the one following the Great Recession: “A decade ago, following the global financial crisis, we were having very similar conversations with clients as we are now.”

At that time, fears of a quick recovery fueling an inflation bubble were similarly strong, “but instead we wound up in secular stagnation,” the bank wrote, referencing the phrase made famous by prominent economist Larry Summers to describe prolonged low growth and low inflation.

This suggests that Americans’ worries about future price growth – including warnings from Summers himself – could starve the US economy of healthy growth and rehash the last decade’s plodding recovery.