Economist Diane Swonk sees continued inability to pass along price increases to consumers

CNBC’s Lori Ann LaRocco interviewed Diane Swonk, Chief Economist at Mesirow Financial, about the status of the economy.

Swonk noted that most of her clients are worried about inflation. However, she sees inflation as a two-sided coin. On one side, inflation is squeezing producers, but companies that deal with consumers cannot pass on price increases:

“I remind [my clients] of how little pass through inflation that we have experienced in the last decade.

When I ask them how much they have passed along to consumers and you see a fairly substantial break. There are those who can pass along some of the increase in costs if their clients are other businesses. Those who deal with consumers can’t pass along the increases as easily or are paying the price in volume if they do.”

Swonk also notes that rising oil prices will be destructive for all economies. In particular, higher oil prices will further increase food prices and magnify the suffering of poorer nations, leading to yet more social unrest.

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7.5B pounds of investment targeting UK residential development

The Financial Times is reporting that investment interest is pouring into residential real estate in the United Kingdom and putting upward pressure on prices. The push is particularly strong in London which is attracting 71% of the 7.5B pounds targeting residential real estate. This adds up to pre-recession levels of investment activity in the London market. For more, see “Interest soaring in London land.”


Fidelity notes stocks are benefiting from an inflationary boom

Great piece from Fidelity considering the implications of the inflationary boom that seems to be driving stocks skyward (“Is this bull unstoppable? The key is how—and when—the Fed exits its historic stimulus program.”)

I highly recommend reading the article as it contains excellent charts showing the relationships amongst monetary policy, earnings, stock prices, and commodity prices.

Here are some key quotes:

“I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that stocks are following the playbook of an inflationary boom. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) January 2011 manufacturing survey is the highest in years, earnings are strong, and now money supply growth is picking up steam. Ultimately, I fear this inflationary boom scenario may be followed by an inflationary bust (or stagflation), but perhaps that day is farther away than I have been anticipating.”

“Food and energy prices have moved sharply higher in recent months and appear to be trending higher rather than mean-reverting. If this remains the case, I believe the Fed could misstep by focusing on core inflation rather than the perhaps more relevant headline inflation. After all, for most of the world, food and energy inflation are critical matters.”

“How long can this go on before the “rubber band snaps,” either by commodities plunging in a deflationary crash (like in 2008) or the Fed being forced (by the bond market) to tighten and thereby undermine the recovery? Or what if the Fed does nothing and the dollar falls further and sends inflationary expectations skyward?”


High cotton prices drive up linen and towel costs

In “As Cotton Prices Rise, So May the Cost of Hotel Rooms“, CNBC cites the soaring costs of linens and towels as a potential contributor to higher hotel prices. I was most fascinated with the incredible price hikes since last summer.

Prices are from 2010 to 2011 as paid by hotels.

  • Queen-sized sheets: $72/dozen to $116/dozen (+61%)
  • Pillows: $8.80 to $9.56 (+9%)
  • Bath towels: $41/dozen to $64/dozen (+56%)

Cotton prices have been the main driver for skyrocketing costs.

Using BAL as an example, cotton has risen at least 162% since the end of 2010.

Using BAL as an example, cotton has risen at least 162% since the end of 2010.

http://plus.cnbc.com/rssvideosearch/action/player/id/1811372910/code/cnbcplayershare


Inflationary concerns rising amongst ECB members

In “Mersch Says ECB May Warn of Upside Inflation Risks Next Week”, Bloomberg reports that European Central Bank (ECB) council member Yves Mersch has added his concerns over inflation to a growing list of worried voices:

“Mersch is the fourth policy maker this week to signal increased unease about inflation. Executive Board member Juergen Stark said last night that the ECB is “prepared to act decisively and immediately if needed” to maintain price stability. Fellow board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi said the bank may need to reassess its policy stance.”

Most importantly, Mersch indicated:

“I would not be surprised at most colleagues concluding that we have upside risks to price stability”

The biggest concern seems to be that increased food and energy prices will motivate labor unions to press for wage increases, thus stoking general inflationary pressures. Strong economic growth in Germany is also increasing the need for higher rates but lingering issues with sovereign debt in the periphery countries may yet prevent rate hikes.


Will corporate margins be the next victims of inflationary pressures?

Corporate profit margins have hit record levels, but it seems inflationary pressures are waiting in the wings to send those margins back toward the mean. Zero Hedge summarizes the latest Philly Fed report, pointing out that prices paid less prices received has not been higher since 1979.

Doug Kass presents two possible outcomes from these pressures:

  1. businesses try to increase prices, can’t, and see their margins cut;
  2. or

  3. businesses do raise prices, people buy less, and revenue gets hit.

The stubbornly high unemployment rate has convinced many that resistance to price increases is a foregone conclusion. However, I would like to layer on a more nuanced scenario here. Given that increasing employment is the Federal Reserve’s stated goal of its latest quantitative easing program, we should assume that the Fed’s response to either of the above scenarios will be more quantitative easing. If profits or revenues fall, companies will not hire more workers in response. If anything, companies will fire more workers. In other words, even with inflationary pressures building in the economy, especially in scenario #2, the Federal Reserve could actually find more reason to continue adding to those pressures. We may not get a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop, but it will feel close!

The Bank of England already faces this conundrum of accomodative monetary policies even in the face of stubbornly high inflation – but governor Mervyn King has found a lot of comfort in the United Kingdom’s current output gap and a conveniently tame outlook for inflation.

So, what if quantitative easing actually works and increases employment? Well, there should be a lot of increased prices waiting to eat into those newly minted paychecks.

It seems everywhere we look, inflationary pressures are inescapable. Corporate margins may be the last canary in the coal mine…


AK Steel wastes no time increasing prices again

When AK Steel (AKS) reported earnings for the latest quarter, the company made it clear that it would drive for more pricing power with its customers. True to form, AKS has already announced three separate price hikes in the past in less than three weeks:

February 1
AK Steel Announces March 2011 Surcharges For Electrical And Stainless Steels
AKS announces “…a $430 per ton surcharge will be added to invoices for electrical steel products shipped in March 2011.”

February 10
AK Steel Announces Price Increase For Carbon Steel Products
AKS announces it “…will increase current spot market base prices for all carbon flat-rolled steel products, effective immediately with new orders. Base prices for carbon flat-rolled products will increase by $50 per ton.”

February 18
AK Steel Announces Stainless Steel Price Increase
AKS announces “…it will increase base prices for all 200, 300 and 400 series flat rolled stainless steel products, effective with shipments on February 27, 2011….Base prices of automotive exhaust grades will increase by $.04 per pound. In addition to the base price increases, AK Steel will increase the price for its bright anneal finish extra by $.05 per pound.”

Disclosure: author is long AKS stock