QE2, Inflation and the Great Margin Squeeze

Don’t confuse speculation with inflation

Global food prices are soaring. Market speculation fueled by QE2 as well as one-off events like the Great Queensland Floods in Australia and US subsidies for ethanol have driven up prices from coffee beans to prime beef, from coal to corn, and just about everything else. The WSJ reports that eateries have little pricing power, so they have to scramble to avoid a big margin squeeze.

Mish takes it a step further, noting how commodity prices have increased across most industries, especially driven by oil and energy prices. Finished goods prices rose 1.1% in December, driven primarily by a 3.7% increase in energy inputs. Finished food rose 0.8% while wholesale inputs rose 23%. Mish concludes that “every step of the way, a decreasing portion of costs are passed along.”

  • prices are up 15.5% for crude goods
  • prices are up 6.5% for intermediate goods
  • prices are up only 4% for finished goods

Even less gets to consumer prices. The great margins squeeze is on. And the rise in oil could scuttle the recoveryless recovery.

This is NOT inflation. Inflation is a general rise of prices, whereas this is a rise among commodities but not end prices or wages.

Let me use an analogy. A while back I discussed “good” deflation vs “bad” deflation. The steady drop in HDTV or PC prices is an exemplar of good deflation – price drops due to the ruthless pursuit of productivity and efficiency. A general drop in prices is a symptom of bad deflation – the rise in the purchasing power of the currency. Good deflation can continue for years in certain factors of production – such as oil in the 1890s, autos in the 1910s, PCs in the 1990s and HDTVs in the 2000s – without in any way presaging or sparking bad deflation.

Similarly, a rise in classes of prices, such as commodities, is not the same as a general rise in prices. The commodities rise is likely to spill over into inflation gauges, such as the CPI, as energy and food prices tend to get passed through. But the core CPI – excluding food and energy – is unlikely to budge much. This commodities bubble echo (an echo of 2008) can continue for months without causing or presaging any general inflation.

When it bursts, it might paradoxically accelerate deflation. In our economy, debt creates money, and commodities speculation that uses margin piles on more debt. As the positions unwind, the margin is paid off and money disappears. If the effect is large enough, it can lead to deflationary pressure.

This is not to downplay very real inflation outside the US. China in particular is seeing the inflation monster threaten to swallow their economic miracle. Some argue this Godzilla is caused by Bernanke and QE2, and certainly the commodities bubble contributes to inflationary pressure inside of China, but the source of Chinese inflation is much more prosaic: their money supply is growing too fast, fueled by a credit bubble from Chinese banks, not the Fed. Chinese M2 is up 55% in two years, and its PPI is up 5.5% year over year. Chinese steps to quell inflation have been tentative so far, as they seek that elusive “soft landing.” If inflation crests double digits, they may need to find their own Chairman Volcker to slay the inflation beast. Andy Xie, one of the best observers of Chinese financial markets, suggests that China may need to devalue the Yuan, slowing capital inflows and likely causing internal interest rates to rise.

What the Great Margin Squeeze means going forward is pressure on domestic US profits, headwinds from rising oil prices, and the possibility of a bursting Chinese credit bubble shocking world markets.

About Duncan Davidson 228 Articles

Affiliation: NetService Ventures

Duncan is an advisor to NetService Ventures, where he focuses on digital media and the mobile Internet.

Previously he was at four start-ups: Xumii, a mobile social service based on a Social Addressbook; SkyPilot Networks, the performance leader of wireless mesh systems for last-mile access, where he was the founding CEO; Covad Communications (Amex: DVW, $9B market cap at the peak), the leading independent DSL access provider, where he was the founding Chairman; InterTrust Technologies ($9B market cap at the peak), the pioneer in digital rights management technologies, now owned by Sony and Philips, where he was SVP Business Development and the pitchman for the IPO.

Before these ventures, Duncan was a partner at Cambridge Venture Partners, an early-stage venture firm, and managing partner of Gemini McKenna, a joint venture between Regis McKenna's marketing firm and Gemini Consulting, the global management consulting arm of Cap Gemini.

He serves on the board or is an adviser to Aggregate Knowledge (content discovery), Livescribe (digital pen), AllVoices (citizen journalism), Xumii (mobile social addressbook), Verismo (Internet settop box), and Widevine (DRM for IPTV).

Visit: Duncan Davidson's Blogs

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