Signs of inflation are roiling asset markets

Hard drive: Employees assemble components of the BMW Series 3 vehicle in Mexico. BMW and other automakers have been forced to halt production due to chip shortages, a factor that could push up inflation. ─ Bloomberg

NEW YORK: Over and over again, United States Federal Reserve (Fed) officials have advised that any pickup in inflation this year was bound to be transitory. Traders in financial markets, however, aren’t so sure.

Investors have become fixated on widespread signs of price pressures as commodities like copper and lumber surge to records, and the bond market’s expectation for inflation over the next decade climbs to an eight-year high.

The focus is triggering swings in the stock market, sending the Cboe Volatility Index to the highest since March on Tuesday. The most-recent round of US corporate earnings calls showed the word inflation was back in vogue, with its usage rising 800% from a year ago, according to Bank of America Corp.

Even last week’s payrolls report, which showed the US added only about a quarter of the jobs economists expected in April, is being viewed as a sign that companies will have to boost wages to entice more unemployed workers into the labour force.

“Inflation risk is what we want to watch here, ” Savita Subramanian, Bank of America’s head of US equity and quantitative strategy, said on Bloomberg Television on Friday. “I don’t know if it’s going to be transitory.”

US inflation data for April will be reported soon, with economists forecasting the consumer price index rising to 3.6% on a year-over-year basis due to base effects from lower prices last year during the start of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Policy makers are standing their ground. Even known Fed hawks have chimed in over recent weeks to say that inflation is unlikely to get out of control despite unprecedented government spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Both Fed chairman Jerome Powell and a top Biden administration economic adviser have said that the inflation now apparent in certain pockets of the economy is “transitory”.

That description raises an important question: Just how long does “transitory” mean? The answer is probably unknowable at the moment, but past recessions provide some clues.

If the latest rise in prices is largely commodity-driven, then it’s a matter of how long those input prices keep rising. Using the 2009 economic rebound as a road map, demand for raw materials – and ergo their prices –soared for two years and pushed up global inflation until commodity markets topped out.

Those price increases were largely driven by a massive Chinese infrastructure package. This time, the US may fill the role that China played more than a decade ago as the Biden administration proposes billions of dollars in spending. By this logic, “transitory” could mean two years.

However, raw materials like lumber and copper aren’t the only factors that potentially will push up inflation. Computer chips used in everything from cell phones to cars and refrigerators are also playing a major role.

Honda Motor Co, BMW AG and other automakers have been forced to halt production due to chip shortages.

Given how crucial they are, it’s no surprise that the 30-member Philadelphia Semiconductor Index has a positive correlation with 10-year breakevens, a bond-market gauge of inflation expectations that’s based on the difference in yields between nominal Treasuries and inflation-protected securities. The two indexes have been trading in tandem over the past year.

Pent-up demand among those who can’t afford big-ticket items can be seen in the surge in prices of used cars in the US, said Sebastien Galy, a senior macro strategist at Nordea Investment Funds SA in Luxembourg.

The Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index, which measures prices at wholesale auctions, shows they’re now 20% higher since the end of last year.

“It shows that if you can’t afford a lot, then replacing your car may be the way to splurge, ” Galy said.

The bond market has sniffed out all the pricing pressure, and the inflation expectations it reflects are influential in setting investor assumptions. ─ Bloomberg

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