Inflation Victory Is Proving Elusive, Challenging Central Banks and Markets - Kanebridge News
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Inflation Victory Is Proving Elusive, Challenging Central Banks and Markets

In the U.S. and Europe, underlying inflation has stopped falling or edged higher recently, weakening the case for rate cuts

By TOM FAIRLESS
Wed, Apr 3, 2024 11:06amGrey Clock 4 min

Inflation is proving stickier than expected in the U.S. and Europe, creating a headache for central bankers and sowing doubts on whether investors are too optimistic about the world economy.

The decline in inflation from highs of around 9% to 10% across advanced economies in 2022 represent the easy gains, as supply-chain blockages eased and commodity prices, especially for energy, normalised.

The “last mile” is proving tougher . Underlying inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, slowed to 3% in the second half of last year across advanced economies but has since moved up to 3.5%, according to JP Morgan estimates.

That is forcing investors to rethink bets that inflation would steadily decline to central banks’ targets, generally around 2%. There are even concerns it could surge again, mirroring the second wave that characterised the high inflation of the 1970s.

Economists’ and central banks’ forecasts of sustained falling inflation depend on “strong gravitational forces that are not yet validated in global labor costs, short-term expectations, or in recent signals from commodity markets,” JP Morgan wrote in a note. Services inflation remains elevated while goods prices, which had fallen last year, are now moving higher, it noted.

Waiting on the last mile

Central bankers say they expected the last mile of falling inflation to be bumpy. Yet they are also signaling their willingness to wait before cutting interest rates. Fewer, or no, rate cuts would have sweeping repercussions for the global economy and markets, whose recent rally began after a narrow majority of Federal Reserve officials recently reaffirmed projections to cut interest rates three times this year.

On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that the price index of personal-consumption expenditures, the Fed’s preferred indicator of inflation, rose a relatively tame 2.5% in the 12 months through February, up modestly from 2.4% in January. Beneath the surface, the trend was less comforting. The index excluding food and energy climbed by 3.5% on an annualised basis in the three months through February, up from around 2% late last year.

“These shorter-term inflation measures are now telling me that progress has slowed and may have stalled,” Fed governor Christopher Waller said in a speech Thursday, before the latest inflation data.

“In my view, it is appropriate to reduce the overall number of rate cuts or push them further into the future,” Waller said.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell struck a more balanced note Friday, saying inflation is on a sometimes bumpy path toward 2%, and strong economic growth allows policymakers to wait. “Is progress on inflation going to slow for more than two months?…We’re just going to have to let the data tell us that,” Powell said in an interview at the San Francisco Fed.

Joachim Nagel , president of Germany’s Bundesbank and a member of the European Central Bank’s rate-setting committee said in late February that underlying inflation in the eurozone was still 2 percentage points higher than its 1999 to 2019 average.

“If we reduce interest rates too early or too sharply, we run the risk of missing our target,” and might need to raise interest rates again, he said. He highlighted a recent International Monetary Fund report that found four out of every 10 inflation shocks since the 1970s had yet to be overcome even after five years.

In Italy, underlying inflation climbed to 2.4% in March from 2.3% the previous month, according to data published Friday. French headline inflation cooled to 2.3% in March, but services prices remained sticky, rising by 3% from a year earlier.

Why is inflation proving stubborn?

Despite the sharp interest-rate increases of the past two years, economic growth is resilient, especially in the U.S. The Atlanta Fed said Friday its real-time indicator of first quarter U.S. economic growth ticked up to 2.3% from 2.1%. Consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, increased by around 5% on an annual basis in February, the Commerce Department said.

“The unexpected strength of real consumption” means “there is still no rush to cut interest rates,” said Paul Ashworth , an economist with Capital Economics.

While Europe’s growth has stalled since late 2022, recent business surveys suggest the outlook is brightening. Meanwhile, job creation has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic, and wage growth remains high, partly reflecting tight labor markets. Wages are an important input to services-price inflation in the eurozone, which has been running at a 4% annual rate since November.

March inflation data for the entire eurozone will be published on Wednesday. ECB officials have indicated they could start to cut interest rates in June from the current 4% level, while the subsequent pace of cuts after that is unclear.

Central banks may be part of the problem

Central banks themselves may be inadvertently adding to inflation pressure. By signaling a pivot toward interest-rate cuts last fall, they pushed global borrowing costs down and asset prices up, supporting spending.

Some factors favour inflation declining further. In both the U.S. and Europe, a surge of immigration could help keep a lid on wage increases.

The U.S.—but not Europe—is also seeing big increases in productivity, that is output per worker, which helps to offset high wage growth. It is unclear, however, how long that will last. The pandemic might have changed how Americans work and use technology, but “once we have made those changes, they’re done, so I don’t see this as a driver of sustained productivity growth,” the Fed’s Waller said.

Meanwhile, oil prices have risen recently, which could push up headline inflation.

To offset a slumping property market, China has dramatically boosted manufacturing capacity and exports, which have weighed on global goods inflation. But its export prices have recently started to increase, according to JP Morgan.

If central banks react to stubborn inflation by backing away from rate cuts, that would put pressure on both heavily indebted governments and employers. That could test central banks’ will to finish the last mile and push inflation all the way to target.

Higher government spending on defence and green energy, and geopolitical tensions that crimp global trade, are likely to pressure central banks to tolerate higher inflation over the coming years, according to a Brookings Institution paper published in March.

“A strengthening of central bank independence combined with a more credible public debt policy is likely needed,” said the paper, by economist Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University and three co-authors.



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Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sun, Apr 14, 2024 4 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavourable weather conditions and diseases,” the organisation said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.