Rising prices in the US could rattle other countries amid uneven global recovery
Rising prices in the United States are offering a glimpse of the white-knuckle recovery that is in store for the global economy, as surging demand for everything from machined parts to restaurant meals collides with supply bottlenecks and product shortages.
Despite the highest inflation since the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve is continuing the easy-money approach it adopted last year to avert a pandemic depression. Officials say the unprecedented policy experiment will bring millions of Americans back into the labor force and allow minorities and disadvantaged workers to share in renewed prosperity.
But some notable critics warn that bubbling inflation could instead feed on itself, ultimately forcing the Fed to slam on the brakes by raising interest rates. That might cool rising prices but only at the cost of plunging the U.S. into a new recession and destabilizing the global economy by forcing many foreign investors and borrowers to absorb punishing losses.
Either way, the jump in prices for cars, food and rent that has many Americans spooked is becoming a global issue. Producer prices in China this week hit a nearly 13-year high; the European Central Bank raised its inflation forecast for the next two years; and Canadian officials insisted that recent price increases would peter out before year’s end.
“The inflation pressures we’re seeing in the U.S. are echoed and paralleled by developments in the rest of the world,” said Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income. “Given the strength of the U.S. economy — and the stimulus we’ve put in here — the U.S. is leading the way on this. But similar dynamics are at work elsewhere.”
Amid the unsettling inflation news, President Joe Biden on Friday attended his first Group of 7 leaders summit, in Cornwall, England, with administration officials crowing that the U.S. is leading the world out of its pandemic morass. Indeed, global growth is accelerating; a worldwide composite indicator of business activity earlier this month hit its highest mark since April 2006.
After four years of former president Trump’s “America First” policies, Biden’s promise to repair strained allied ties has helped the G-7 regain from the more unwieldy Group of 20 nations its traditional role as the chief forum for global economic cooperation.
The leaders of the world’s advanced democracies are expected this weekend to endorse a U.S. proposal for a global minimum corporate tax and to unveil shared strategies on covid vaccination, infrastructure, and climate change.
“The G-7 is much more important again,” said Douglas Rediker, chairman of International Capital Strategies, a financial advisory firm.
Yet if the allies are more harmonious, their economies remain out of sync.
U.S. leaders stumbled in their initial pandemic response. But they did flood the economy with several trillion dollars, powering through the worst of the health scare and quickly resuming growth.
Europe provided less direct relief to its citizens and has seen weaker results. By the end of June, U.S. output should be slightly above its pre-pandemic level while the European Union will still be about 4% below its starting point, said Sheets.
Still, the U.S. rebound has been anything but smooth. Labor market progress has disappointed and an uneven reopening has led to widespread shortages, including of semiconductors, resin, ketchup, and lumber.
Those supply chain headaches are going global. An increasing number of countries are suffering supply disruptions, shipping problems and delivery delays, forcing companies to raise prices to compensate, said Robin Brooks, chief economist for the Institute of International Finance, an industry group.
“The world has never seen the kind of global supply disruptions we are seeing now,” Brooks wrote this week.
The Federal Reserve insists that May’s 5% annual inflation reading — the highest since August 2008 — represents a temporary fever. The supply of goods will improve as more companies resume normal operations while consumer demand will ease as government stimulus payments taper off, it says.
Fed officials insist they will stay the course even as rising prices draw attacks from Republican lawmakers and high-profile economists such as Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, a former Democratic treasury secretary.
In Summers’ view, the Biden administration’s lavish multitrillion dollar spending plan coupled with the Fed’s near-zero interest rates mean “overheating is now the largest risk” to the U.S. economy.
Summers took to Twitter this week to warn that if the Fed or financial markets ultimately push rates higher in response to galloping inflation, “there will be enormous risks to an already fragile and over leveraged global economy.”
There is no doubt that pricing pressures are increasing.
G-III Apparel Group, which distributes clothing under brands such as DKNY, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, told investors this week it plans “to selectively raise prices to largely offset higher freight costs.”
Rising raw material and shipping costs likewise prompted Donaldson Co., a maker of filtration systems, to raise prices this year and to draw up plans to do so again, the company said earlier this month.
And home builder Hovnanian Enterprises said it will follow suit. “We plan to continue to raise prices to keep up with rising material and labor costs, align sales pace with our ability to start homes and improve our margins,” CEO Ara Hovnanian said this month.
But amid Summers’ alarms, financial markets yawned. The S&P 500 index hit a record high on Thursday while the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds continued a month-long decline, reflecting investor comfort with the outlook.
The Fed’s patience has been rewarded. Lumber, one of the suddenly scarce commodities that saw prices spike, has fallen by one-third over the past month with the return of more sawmills to normal operations. Despite talk of a labor shortage, the three-month moving average of median hourly wage growth is lower today than at the start of the year, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta gauge.
That means individuals’ expectations of future inflation are not yet driving demands for higher pay, a key component of an unbridled price rise.
Central bankers elsewhere are mimicking the Fed. In Canada, where inflation jumped to 3.4% in April, the Bank of Canada on Wednesday opted to leave its benchmark lending rate unchanged.
“We expect inflation to stay around 3% through the summer and then to ease later in the year as remaining slack in the economy pushes inflation down,” said Tim Lane, deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, in a speech to a group of financial advisers.
In Europe, consumer prices in May breached the European Central Bank’s policy goal for the first time since 2018, rising at an annual rate of 2%. On Thursday, the ECB said it would continue its bond purchases to support the economy while raising its inflation forecasts for this year and next to 1.9% and 1.5%, up from 1.5% and 1.2%.
Much of the rise in European inflation is due to developments that are unlikely to be repeated: a doubling in oil prices since October and the reinstatement of a German value-added tax that had been suspended during the pandemic, ECB President Christine Lagarde said.
In China, producer prices in May rose 9% from one year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday. Surging global commodity costs — copper is up 80% over the past year — were largely to blame for the highest jump since September 2008.
Chinese factories so far are largely absorbing the costs. People’s Bank of China Gov. Yi Gang said this week that consumer price growth this year will be below 2% percent, lower than the government’s 3% annual goal.
History offers support for the Fed’s sanguine stance. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the Bank of England held its fire while the inflation rate more than doubled to 4.5% percent in about a year and a half. Ultimately, the increase fizzled and the authorities were vindicated.
Indications that there remains enormous slack in the labor market, even as the unemployment rate has dropped from 14.8%in April 2020 to 5.8 percent today, also explains the Fed’s patience.
The share of the population aged 16 and above that is working or looking for work remains near its lowest point since women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s.
Just 61.6% percent of the population is in the labor force today, down from more than 66% percent in 2007. Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell wants to run the economy hot enough, long enough, to lure many of them back to productive work. If that means enduring a year or more of fast-rising prices, it’s a bargain the Fed is willing to take.
The Fed says it won’t raise rates for three years. But if it’s forced to act sooner, a sudden rate hike would slow the economy and lead to a stronger dollar. That could trigger destabilizing capital flows from developing nations and make repaying dollar loans more expensive for foreign businesses that earn local currency from their operations.
Foreign investors and borrowers at the end of last year held $12.8 trillion in dollar-denominated loans and bonds, according to the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland.
“Any large unexpected movement in rates is likely to create stress somewhere in the financial system, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. I do not think that risk is enormous, as the financial system is in rather solid shape, but it is there. Some borrowers will be in trouble,” Olivier Blanchard, former IMF chief economist, said via email.
The Fed’s crisis response may have lulled foreign investors into believing their dollar-denominated debt and investments were especially safe, said David Beckworth, a former Treasury Department international economist. In March 2020, the Fed agreed with nine foreign central banks to swap dollars for their currencies if financial markets ran short.
But the period of greatest risk of an inflation breakout may last for only several more months, as the U.S. aims to become the first major economy to complete its pandemic rebound. By 2022, the same forces that kept inflation low for years — an aging population, weak global demand and fierce competition among global producers — will reassert themselves, Beckworth said.
“We’re getting to the other side first,” he said. “But there’s some discomfort in breaking through.”