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A Different Inflation Issue
Global helium supplies are running low. Again.
University of Nebraska football fans have a decades-long tradition of selling out their stadium for home games and releasing red balloons once their team scores its first touchdown of the game. While the sellout streak has been threatened before, the balloon streak has officially been discontinued due to a nationwide helium shortage. The University’s athletic director announced that university leadership has requested that university-purchased helium be reserved for the medical center. Global helium supplies are running low. Again. The US National Weather Service is cutting back on weather balloon observations, scientists are pausing their experiments, and event planners are rethinking their design ideas.
This is the fourth worldwide helium shortage since 2006, and Gasworld estimates that Helium Shortage 4.0 dates back to July 2021 because of a maintenance outage at the US Bureau of Land Management’s crude helium enrichment unit. Helium was previously considered an important national resource during World War II and throughout the space race. Until the 1990s, the US maintained a strategic reserve of helium, similar to the strategic oil reserve. That reserve, however, was expensive to maintain. The US Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which required the government to sell off its reserve below market price.
At the time, private companies didn’t see any economic incentive to expand production while the US government was flooding the market with cheap helium. Meanwhile, explosive growth in consumer electronics led to increased helium demand to be used for semiconductor manufacturing. By 2006, demand had increased fast enough to create Helium Shortage 1.0. Since then, the global economy has faced multiple helium shortages as private companies struggle to meet growing demand. The final sale of the US government helium is scheduled for September. Afterward, the government will sell its helium facilities and the global helium supply will be fully privatized.
A shortage occurs when the quantity demanded of a particular item is larger than the quantity sellers are able to provide at a particular price. In most markets, shortages would lead to an increase in prices. The new higher prices would reduce the quantity people want to buy and incentivize sellers to increase production. Outside of an economics classroom, analysts generally refer to sudden price increases as evidence of a shortage.
These new higher helium prices can impact other markets as well, depending on their relationship with helium. In some markets, other gasses could be used as substitutes. Higher prices in the helium market should reduce helium consumption, but it might increase demand in markets like argon, which can be used for welding purposes in place of helium. There haven’t been any recent announcements about how the blimp industry will be impacted, but fans of history will remember why we don’t fill airships with an alternative gas like hydrogen.
When helium is used as an input in the final production of a product, like graduation party balloons, the demand for those final products will likely decrease as the final price increase. Dollar Tree officials mentioned they were “once again” facing a helium shortage during its quarterly earnings call last week, and Party City officials mentioned the shortage earlier this month. If fewer people are stopping by to pick up balloons, they may also see decreased spending on other party accessories. If you’re planning a graduation party this summer and want to purchase some balloons, be sure to call ahead!
Nebraska football has the longest sellout streak in NCAA history. Dating back to 1962, the team has sold every ticket to the past 382 home games [The Business Download]
Twice a day, every day of the year, weather balloons are released simultaneously from almost 900 locations worldwide! 92 of those balloons belong to the US National Weather Service [US National Weather Service]
In FY2021, the US government auctioned helium for $100 per thousand cubic feet while the estimated private industry price was about $210 per thousand cubic feet [US Geological Survey]
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there only 128 people qualified to fly airships in the U.S. [Washington Post]
The consensus is that about 25 blimps still exist and about half of them are used for advertising purposes [Reader’s Digest]