Most of us are familiar with the term “hot commodities,” but who would have guessed exactly how hot they would become? COVID-19 has taken commodity prices and availability on a roller coaster ride that is only in the nascent stages of its journey. At the beginning of the pandemic in early spring 2020, a run on toilet paper and flour left Americans reeling. As the crisis unfolded, so did a daily drama involving shortages of backyard trampolines, fire pits, swimming pools, bicycles, and more.
Which shortage had the most impact? Opinions are varied. The New York Times claims in a headline, “Computer Chips Are the New Toilet Paper.” Diana Haytko, professor and chairperson of the department of marketing and supply chain management at the East Carolina University College of Business, declares in The Daily Reflector that “[l]umber became the toilet paper of 2021.” Haytko has a point. Lumber prices have tripled in the past year, adding $24,000 to the average price of a new house in the U.S. and wreaking havoc on even tangentially related industries. For example, insulated, concrete homes suddenly seem more affordable to build in comparison to wood. As dwelling-seekers look for more cost-effective alternatives, soaring demand in the industry might make concrete “the new toilet paper” of the future.
Experts list several reasons for soaring wood prices, which are mainly blamed on lack of supply due to a Canadian beetle infestation, California wildfires, labor and trucking shortages, and more. Oddly, however, just a few days after that Reflector article was published, The New York Times ran the headline, “As Lumber Prices Fall, the Threat of Inflation Loses Its Bite.” This whiplash in circumstance left analysts scratching their heads. However, for reference librarians, one thing is certain: We need to learn how to find, analyze, and interpret this data.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Interestingly, in the case of bicycles, the increase in sales continues. For example, data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shared by Statista shows that in 2020, Americans spent $6.9 billion on bicycles and bicycle accessories, in contrast with the $6.1 billion spent in 2019. Although pre-pandemic spending on bicycle equipment held steady at approximately $6 billion for several years, after analyzing quarterly trend data, the BEA forecasted that consumers would spend around $8.2 billion on bicycling equipment in Q1 2021. Taken at face value, this uptick can be easily explained by an interest in outdoor exercise and safe transportation options during the pandemic, along with global supply chain issues that limited inventory as demand soared. The follow-up questions are: What explanations have been given for other commodity scarcity issues, and which products will be in short supply going forward?
As with most complex economic issues, there are myriad factors working in tandem to produce multiple pressures on a global scale. An April 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal asked, “After Face Masks, Should We Worry About Food?” as experts became increasingly concerned about the logistics of a fragile global supply chain—and the role it plays in the ability to provide critical nutrition by getting fresh produce out of the fields and onto trucks.
Fast-forward 15 months, and although 44.6% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated as of the week of June 14, 2021, commodity prices were at record levels. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, consumer prices hit a 13-year high, with meat and baked goods leading the way to prices that are 5% greater than in 2020. According to Statista, May 2021 saw overall food and drink purchases exceed pre-pandemic levels, and as Americans returned to in-person dining in restaurants, this sudden increase put pressure on suppliers. For example, according to a June 2021 Insider article, price hikes are being seen at restaurants such as Chipotle, which increased prices across the menu by 4%, citing an uptick in the cost of ingredients such as corn and avocados. Indeed, less than 2 weeks after the Chipotle story ran, The Wall Street Journal had a front-page feature (“Thieves Find Money That Grows on Trees: ‘Avocados Are the Green Gold’ ”) that detailed avocado thievery in exporting countries and told the tale of an unusual pandemic pivot—anti-rhinoceros-poaching security agencies in South Africa are now providing services to combat organized crime networks that work in tandem with willing participants to steal thousands of pounds of avocados from trees per night, which the syndicates then sell to European markets. These heists have caused disruption to the supply chain and have driven up the market price of avocados, which currently is hovering around $2 per pound. This is also occurring in the U.S., in great enough numbers that the California Avocado Commission has instituted a theft-reporting hotline.
According to Insider, the prices of gasoline and automobiles, along with increased demand, supply chain glitches, a national labor shortage, and drought in countries such as Argentina and Brazil—which are major figures in the corn, coffee, and soybean markets—all play a role in the surge in the cost of food. It also blames a shipping container shortage, which is causing ships to wait at ports, sometimes for weeks at a time, to unload.
These conditions are more than just a news interest for research librarians. In industries as varied as automotive, pharmaceutical, chemistry, economics, and others, requesters may look to librarians for both historical and current inflation rates and commodity pricing data. It is important that we are able to understand and use credible sources so that we are prepared to provide datasets when asked. What follows are some suggestions for locating free, easily packaged data from quality sources.
FINDING THE DATA
The universal reference question for which we should prepare is this: What is the current rate of inflation? Inflation rates are calculated by analyzing the percent change in the consumer price index (CPI) over time. Which CPI should we retrieve? One of the most common is the CPI for all items, all U.S. urban consumers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has the data available on a monthly frequency from 1913 to 2021. BLS CPI data is also available for broader product categories such as pharmaceuticals and food and by region and select cities.
Commodity spot-price data can be a little trickier to find at low cost on a historical basis. Most categories are broken down into specific variations and unit sizes, so it helps to conduct a basic reference interview with the requester in order to understand exactly which datapoints will meet their needs. For example, there are many different types of wood and wood pricing, but for the general purpose of understanding the role of housing construction and its contribution to the overall health of the economy, Nasdaq offers downloadable daily lumber (indicated as LBS) pricing data from June 2011 to the present. The price displayed appears to be for 1,000 board feet. This is not stated on the website or in the spreadsheet of downloaded data, but it appears to be a standard unit of hardwood lumber price measurement, according to a Yahoo article: “Lumber is reported as price per 1,000 board feet, as this is the typical size used in the construction of homes and other buildings, and serves as an appropriate market gauge.”
Which other commodities and their prices are common indicators of either economic stability or instability? One way to look at this is to revisit questions asked of politicians running for president. Those of us of a certain age might remember George H.W. Bush being forced to admit that he didn’t know the price of a gallon of milk in a debate with Ross Perot and Bill Clinton in 1992; it was a critical question on what Kelly A. Greene of the Orlando Sentinel terms the “Earth-to-politician” quiz. According to Greene, the cost of a dozen eggs is also a common question. The BLS has that data available going back to 1980, along with prices for many other food products, including different varieties of milk by the gallon and half gallon. If earlier data is needed, the BLS states in a fact sheet that it has data going back to 1890, which can be obtained for free by filling out a website form.
An increase in the price of retail gasoline is also often cited as a reason for a rise in the prices of other goods. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has historical weekly, monthly, and annual prices for regular conventional gasoline going back to 1990. It also has data going back to the mid-1990s for other types of gasoline (such as midgrade, premium, and diesel), as well as the reformulated grades required in certain areas of the U.S.
So, what is “the new toilet paper”? As we’ve seen with the conflicting views expressed regarding the price of lumber, it seems to be anyone’s guess. The Recent Headlines sidebar reveals declarations from soothsayers of all stripes. Since almost everything—from soup to nuts, literally—has taken a turn in the spotlight, a plausible explanation could be that reporters are just reacting to a brief period of outlying datapoints and then writing stories with hyperbolic headlines. However, if we have learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that anything is possible. The task for librarians is clear—be ready to locate, evaluate, and curate pricing data for “the new toilet paper,” whatever it might be. Commodities are hot!
NPR: “Plastic Is the New Toilet Paper for Scientists”
Business Insurance: “Ketchup Packets Are 2021’s Toilet Paper”
Forbes: “Are Homes the New Toilet Paper? How Scarcity Has Buyers Taking Extreme Steps”
WVXU: “As Pandemic Continues, Bikes Are the New Toilet Paper: They’re Hard to Find”
The Lowell Sun: “‘Chlorine Is the New Toilet Paper’—Shortage Throws Water on Pools”
The Daily Sun: “Is Gas the New Toilet Paper?” (subscription required)
MotorBiscuit: “Is Car Buying the New Toilet Paper Crisis?”
KUOW: “Why Antacids Are Flying Off the Shelves Like They’re the New Toilet Paper”
The Wall Street Journal: “The Great American Cleanup: Deoderant, Teeth Whitener Fly Off the Shelves” (subscription required)