US inflation rates are flying up and worries about an acceleration in prices ranging from airline tickets to energy have knocked stocks off their record highs, but those fears are unlikely to derail the overall rally in equities, wealth manager UBS said Thursday.
The “latest volatility does not come as a surprise. But we also don’t see it as signaling an end to the bull market,” Mark Haefele, chief investment officer of global wealth management at UBS, wrote to clients.
The arrival of April’s Consumer Price Index confirmed months of caution from economists who said stronger inflation was on the way, a reflection of ongoing economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The higher-than-expected headline and core inflation readings drove stocks sharply lower Wednesday.
Market pricing of the inflation outlook also stepped higher, said UBS, noting the US 10-year breakeven rate moved to imply an average inflation rate of 2.56%, close to the highest level since 2013 and up from 2% when 2021 got underway.
“The latest rise in inflation, in our view, reflects year-over-year comparisons, which will fade,” he said. “While raw material prices may climb further, we believe the bulk of the rise in commodity prices is now over. In addition, labor supply headwinds should ease in the next few months once schools fully reopen, vaccinations continue to rise, and supplemental unemployment benefits expire.”
The UBS wealth management chief said it was important to note that major central banks have indicated they will not tighten policy in response to a temporary increase in prices. He outpointed that Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said Tuesday the Fed will be “patient” as an inflation surge looks transitory.
“As inflation uncertainty persists, and as economic reopening remains on track, we think that the reflation trade has further to run. Our preferences include small-caps, financials, energy stocks, commodities, and emerging markets,” said Haefele.
Investors on Thursday appeared to set aside inflation worries, with Wall Street’s key stock indexes riding up roughly 1% each after weekly jobless claims hit another pandemic-era low.
The data highlights that relaxed lockdown measures, stronger demand, and widespread supply shortages converged to boost price growth. More recent headlines, particularly news of a cyberattack crippling a key oil pipeline, suggest inflation will accelerate further in May.
But for many economists, the unexpectedly large April jump isn’t a reason to worry, and those with the greatest influence over inflation seem unperturbed.
The Federal Reserve has said for months that, while reopening will likely accelerate price growth, the pickup will likely be temporary. In February, Fed Chair Jerome Powell noted the decades-long trend of weaker-than-hoped price growth isn’t likely to be permanently overridden by months of reopening.
“Inflation dynamics do change over time, but they don’t change on a dime,” he said, adding stimulus passed during the pandemic is also unlikely to change the predominant trend.
Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida echoed his colleague’s remarks after Wednesday’s report. The inflation data was a “surprise,” but inflation should still cool and trend near the Fed’s long-term goal of 2% by next year, he said in remarks to the National Association for Business Economics International Symposium.
“We have pent-up demand in the economy. It may take some time for supply to rise up to demand,” Clarida added.
Addressing backlogs and lifting supply should help inflation cool over the summer, JPMorgan economists said in a recent note. Robust economic growth and continued policy support will drive more Americans into the workforce and bottlenecks, by their nature, will fade as businesses rush to service outsize demand, the team led by Bruce Kasman said.
In a separate note published Wednesday, the bank sais “temporary pressures” were lifting inflation, citing “commodity prices, bottlenecks, and price level normalization.” Once the economy returns to its full potential and shortages are alleviated, price growth should slow, the team added.
Even the nature of the inflation bounce suggests the price growth won’t last. One-third of the 0.8% boost was linked to a record-high increase in used vehicle prices as demand ran up against an inventory shortage. The rest of the increase was largely powered by other reopening-related expenses including airline tickets, recreation, and lodging.
It’s logical to expect demand for travel and leisure to normalize after booming through the reopening. Powell illustrated the limitation in March, noting one “can only go out to dinner once per night.” If long-shuttered businesses continue to drive faster price growth, it’s likely inflation will weaken once the country enters a new normal.
And the April report, while surprising, only shows one month of hot inflation. It would likely take a few more stronger-than-expected readings to worry Fed officials, Edward Moya, senior analyst at Oanda, said Wednesday.
“If the inflation numbers continue to surge at the end of the summer, that might be what could force Powell to pivot that pricing pressures might not be transitory.”
An ongoing computer-chip shortage has affected cars, iPads, and dog-washing technology alike. Chipmakers like Intel had already seen production issues pre-pandemic, but as with many industries, COVID-19 brought a variety of new supply-chain issues. The chip shortage is a problem for consumers wanting basically anything with a computerized component, which is much of the economy. Take cars as an example.
The semiconductor shortage has hit automakers the hardest. In January, the consulting firm Alix Partners estimated the automotive industry would lose $61 billion in revenue from the shortage this year. As Insider’s Katie Canales reported, demand for chips has gone up as consumers scrambled to buy cars and other technologies that use them.
But as more cars went into production, chip competition went up. Since then, many carmakers have been forced to shut down plants and prioritize which models they produce, while car prices at dealerships have continued to go up.
Buyers are still looking for vehicles, creating a competitive used-car market. As USA Today reported, used-car prices are on the rise as the aforementioned chip shortages affect new-car production, and buyers have turned to older ones instead, while Axios reported the average price of a used car has hit $17,609.
A UBS note estimated that in April, used cars saw their largest monthly price increase in 68 years of tracking, with prices rising between 8.2% and 9.3%.
If you’re looking to rent, you might also be out of luck: Insider’s Brittany Chang reported on the “perfect storm” hitting rental cars right now, with prices surging and demand increasing. Americans are itching to go on vacation this summer, as more people are vaccinated and some restrictions loosen. That’s leading to far more demand — but rental-car companies had sold off parts of their fleets early into the pandemic, leaving fewer cars to go around.
It’s not all bad news for used-car lovers, though: As USA Today reports, the trade-in market is hot, too, meaning your old car could be worth more right now.
Gas prices have skyrocketed in recent months, jumping 22.5% in March from the previous year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. Much of the surge in gas prices started with the extreme Texas freeze, which halted a fifth of the country’s oil-refining capacity in its tracks for weeks at a time.
Plastics and palm oil
The devastating winter storms in Texas also left their mark on the plastics industry. As Insider’s Natasha Dailey reported, the state is a key plastics exporter — and the storms made many plants, which are difficult to reactivate, press pause.
According to the Financial Times, rising plastic prices have led to an increase in packaging costs. Citing data from Mintec, the Financial Times reported that those costs have increased by nearly 40% from the start of 2020, marking “historic highs.”
Palm oil, which is in a majority of those packaged products, also saw its prices climb, according to the Financial Times. That’s due to yet another labor shortage; the industry had already been contending with finding more sustainable production methods.
In September, Insider’s Rachel Premack reported that pay for truck drivers was on the rise, coming in at “record-smashing levels.” But the pay hike — and increased demand — comes after an exodus of drivers in 2019; Premack reported at the time on what some called a “trucking bloodbath,” as trucking companies saw profits fall, with some even going bankrupt.
Now demand is surging, according to The Journal, and if everything continues as is, that gap could deepen.
Homes and vacation houses
The US was facing a shortage of 3.8 million homes as of April, according to Freddie Mac. Home builders have been struggling to keep up with demand as remote work fuels interest in spacious housing, with house prices rising at their fastest pace in 15 years, The Wall Street Journal reported. Lumber prices are also driving the cost of new homes even higher.
Even vacation-home rentals are at an all-time high. A house in the Hamptons rented for $2 million this summer, and 85% of vacation rentals in popular destinations like Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, and the Jersey Shore are booked through August, according to the rental site VRBO.
If you’re wondering why the houses around you are getting more expensive, look to their component parts. No, seriously: Lumber prices have soared, and, as Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey and Libertina Brandt reported, builders are even increasing house prices in an attempt to offset demand.
It’s due to another pandemic disruption, as lumber mills were forced to temporarily close for safety concerns. When they reopened, they couldn’t keep up with a scorching-hot housing market, goosed by a work-from-home economy, record low mortgage rates, and the need for personal space during the pandemic.
According to an April analysis from the National Association of Home Builders, soaring lumber prices added $36,000 to the cost of a new home. Lumber prices “remain stubbornly high,” according to the report, due to mills shutting down, unexpected demand from big-box retail and DIY-ers, and tariffs imposed on Canadian lumber.
Household products like toilet paper and tampons
Many household goods including toilet paper, diapers, and tampons are also facing supply problems.
One of the biggest producers of the pulp used to create toilet paper told Bloomberg that port delays and high shipping costs are causing companies to push delivery dates back months.
The work-from-home lifestyle helped the furniture industry boom but to such an extent that customers are seeing delivery dates that are months out.
In February, La-Z-Boy executives said customers could expect delivery dates that are five to nine months out from their order dates. Other furniture companies like Kasala, a Seattle-based chain, said they don’t expect to get furniture parts until at least December.
The furniture shortage has been exacerbated by a spike in homeownership, as the number of available and unsold homes sits at record lows. In other words, a lot of new homeowners are waiting a long time for their new living-room sets.
Bacon and hot dogs will likely be in short supply this summer.
The pig shortage dates back to the onset of COVID-19 and outbreaks in at least 167 meat-processing plants forcing almost 40 plants to close as of June 2020. As vaccination rates pick up and people prepare for summer vacations and cookouts, analysts told Insider’s Natasha Dailey demand will outstrip supply.
With pork companies still struggling to overcome lower production rates in 2020, the matter only intensified when high instances of disease hit the hog population this past winter.
Some companies are already seeing the impact on their shelves. In March, Costco said its supplies of cheese, seafood, and olive oil were running low.
General Mills said it has been forced to raise prices due to the delays increased shipping costs. Coca-Cola also raised prices to combat the supply-chain crunch. Neither company specified which products would be affected.
Coffee has also been hit by delays, Bloomberg reported in March. Peet’s and JM Smucker, the brands behind Folgers and Dunkin’ coffee, have said they’re facing rising costs. Reuters reported that in February, port delays pushed coffee prices to their highest point in more than a year.
This summer pool owners will see the worst chlorine shortage in US history, according to CNBC.
Supplies of the chemical have been strained since a fire at the chlorine manufacturer BioLab in Louisiana in September. The price for chlorine used in pools has nearly doubled this past year and is expected to rise even more to meet demand this summer.
Corn is a key crop for many products, including fuel and different foods. As supply concerns loom, corn prices are popping off, according to Axios.
There’s a few reasons that demand is so high: After an outbreak of swine fever in China, pig herds were “decimated,” according to Axios, leading to huge corn demand in China. That spike in demand is coupled with corn crops in Brazil and Argentina experiencing both bad weather and pandemic-related labor shortages.
Now corn prices are on a record-setting clip, rising by 16% in April alone.
And, as Fortune reported, there could be a domestic supply issue too. Droughts and a rough winter are both concerning — and if American crops can’t fill in the gaps, prices could rise even more.
Finally, a commodity unlike all the others is in surprisingly short supply: workers.
Major labor shortages are hitting businesses across America. As Insider’s Kate Taylor reported, chains like Dunkin’ and Starbucks are struggling to find workers — leading to reduced hours and hesitance on opening indoor dining back up.
There’s a few possible reasons that unemployed workers are opting not to return, according to Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey. They include workers making more on unemployment benefits than in their prior work as well as continued concerns over COVID-19 and the need to provide childcare at home.
The latest commodity seeing a price squeeze amidst shortages and high demand is used cars.
A note from UBS researchers led by Alan Detmeister found that not only did used-car prices climb in April, but the monthly price increase could be the largest in 68 years of tracking. It looks like prices may have risen by 8.2% to 9.3%.
Used cars have been in high demand due to a few of the factors driving the shortages all over the American economy. The economy is reopening, people are ready to spend money (perhaps from new stimulus checks), and they want cars – especially as more suburban areas boom with wealthy transplants. But new cars are being hit by a computer chip shortage that’s hitting the automotive industry hard.
As Insider’s Grace Kay reported, semiconductor shortages could cost automakers billions, and has already led to lower production rates for new cars. Even Elon Musk has said that Tesla’s suffered from supply chain and semiconductor woes. Cue a used-car boom, with the market heating up and trade-ins fetching higher prices.
According to UBS, prices on used cars may only climb in the coming months, due to a lag in wholesale to retail pricing. New car prices are also likely to pick up, increasing by 1%.
Why there are so many shortages, and which ones may pick up next
It may seem that everywhere you look, a new product is in a shortage. Chicken, diapers, corn, gas, furniture: The list of shortages goes on, and will likely only grow amid economic reopening. That’s due to some of the same factors impacting used and new cars. Supply-chain issues have persisted throughout the pandemic, and factories shuttered for safety reasons need to crank back to life as demand steepens.
The climate crisis also has a role, with several domestic products in the US – such as plastic and gas – impacted by factors including the devastating winter storms in Texas. Droughts are impacting the worldwide corn supply amidst high demand; Insider’s Will Daniel reports that corn prices have jumped 142% in the past year.
UBS projects 12-month headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation rising to 4.3% from 2.6%, “an enormous surge over just the past few months.” Economists’ median estimate for April CPI is 3.6%, per Bloomberg.
UBS projects hotels and airfares will be next to see substantial price increases. Axios reported – in an article aptly titled “Our crazy, booked-up summer” – that summer travel in the US is about to boom, with a particular emphasis on domestic travel.
A recent report from the US Travel Association found 72% of Americans are planning a summer vacation in 2021; that’s compared to 37% last year. That probably won’t help the already intense rental car shortage.
Luxury items became even more expensive last month as the price of goods in the US saw its highest monthly increase in nearly 9 years, according to the US Bureau and Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.
Jewelry and watches were among several items that pushed the overall surge in prices. The cost of jewelry in the US rose 7.4% from the previous year and nearly 6% between February and March, according to the index.
Similarly, the price of watches also rose 4.3% from 2020 and 2.4% in the past month alone.
While the price increase might not seem particularly high on a surface level, they could put a further strain on the wallets of people buying big-ticket items.
If applied to the average price of a Rolex in 2020 – which falls around $12,000, according to Wrist Advisor – rising prices mean buyers can add about $500 to the price tag.
And that’s just for the average buyer. Customers looking to purchase even more pricey watches, like Rolex’s $75,000 model, would have to tack on an additional $3,000 to that price tag.
Similarly, for couples looking to buy a diamond engagement ring – an item with an average price around $5,000, according to Jewelry Wise – buyers can expect to pay an additional $370 this year, or even see a price increase of $285 from the previous month.
Prices in the US are only expected to continue to rise in the coming months, as increased vaccination rates allow the economy to reopen and demand to surge.
The cost of goods has also been impacted by several supply disruptions, including a shipping container shortage, port delays in California, and the impact of the Texas freeze on production in the state. Many companies are also still struggling to meet demand after cutting back on production due to COVID-19 shutdowns last year.
The army of Reddit day traders appears to be moving on, having pumped up everything from cryptocurrencies, to tiny biotech stocks in the last week, now that their firing up of GameStop, AMC, Nokia and co seems to have mostly run its course.
This coming week, we’ll be looking at the future of Ethereum, the pickup in consumer inflation and what the major forecasters are saying about the outlook for oil, now the price is trading around one-year highs.
The dawning of the age of Ethereum
Another week, another cryptocurrency at a record high. Earlier in the year, it was bitcoin, then XRP, then “meme token” DogeCoin, which got swept up in the Reddit-driven trading frenzy and given an extra shout-out on Twitter by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
This time, it’s Ethereum grabbing the headlines. The second-largest cryptocurrency by market value after bitcoin has seen the price soar by more than 25% this week to record highs above $1,600. It’s not just down to the Wall Street Bets guys, either. Exchange operator CME group will launch its first Ethereum futures contract on February 8, another offering in the crypto market alongside its bitcoin futures and options.
At the same time, crypto fund manager Grayscale reopened its Grayscale Ethereum Trust, after having closed the fund to new investors in late December for “administrative purposes.” In this week alone, the trust has seen inflows of nearly 100,000 ETH. Grayscale now manages nearly $5 billion in Ethereum.
JPMorgan estimates that initial volumes in Ethereum futures are likely to be low, much like bitcoin in the early days, but this will change quickly.
“The listing of CME bitcoin futures coincided with all-time highs in bitcoin prices, and researchers at the San Francisco Fed suggested that, by providing a market where bearish positions could be more readily expressed, the listing of these futures contributed to the reversal of bitcoin price dynamics,” JPMorgan analysts led by Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou said in an note last week.
“In a similar vein, it may be that this week’s listing of ethereum futures contracts will be followed by negative price dynamics by enabling some holders of physical ethereum to hedge their exposures,” they said.
The oil price hit its highest in a year this past week, leaving Brent crude futures trading just shy of $60 a barrel. The catalyst for the rally wasn’t the Reddit crowd, but ongoing evidence of the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the UK and US in particular that many hope will pave the way out of lockdowns and into more normal activity.
The futures market shows traders and fund managers are more optimistic about the prospects for oil demand than at any time in the last year. The most recent data on oil inventories shows stocks of unused crude are at their lowest since last April, when a frenzied scramble for storage led to the WTI crude futures price dropping to -$40 a barrel.
This coming week, the three major forecasters will release their most recent assessments of demand and their estimates of demand growth. OPEC, the International Energy Agency and the US Energy Information Administration will release their regular monthly reports.
The EIA, which issues longer-term demand forecasts, expects to see the global crude market tilt into a modest deficit over 2021 as a whole, with consumption forecast at 97.77 million barrels per day, against supply of 97.13 million barrels per day. The IEA expects demand to grow by 5.5 million bpd, following a record contraction of almost 9 million bpd last year, while OPEC is looking for a more optimistic 5.9 million bpd.
OPEC and several partner countries continue to restrict daily oil production to keep a safety net under the price. Investment bank UBS says the group will remain “in full control of the oil market” this year and this, together with the advent of an effective vaccine, means the price of a barrel of crude will continue to rise.
“Given that we target Brent at $63 a barrel in 2H21, we continue to advise investors with a high-risk tolerance to be long Brent or to sell its downside price risks,” UBS strategist Giovanni Staunovo said in a note last week.
Inflation and, more to the point, the market’s expectations for inflation, is creeping up. A combination of increases in the price of things like oil and food, as well as vast amounts of cash flowing through the financial system are slowly translating into a pickup in consumer inflation. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, analysts say.
The oil price is at its highest in a year, while food prices – as measured by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization – rose by more than 4% in January to hit their highest since mid-2014. Central banks generally use inflation measures that strip out food and energy prices when setting monetary policy, but that hasn’t stopped investors from betting on more increases to come.
Pumping up inflation
This coming week brings inflation readings from the US and China, as well as Brazil, India, and Mexico among others. In the US, consumer inflation is forecast to have risen by 1.5% in January, at the same rate as in December. The bond market shows investors believe consumer and producer price pressures are going to continue rising.
Analysts at DataTrek said in a note last week US five-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) have done “a reasonable job” of forecasting the stable rate of inflation seen in both producer and consumer prices over the last decade.
“The most recent move higher for 5-year inflation expectations (2.18%, the highest since 2013) is therefore significant,” DataTrek analyst Nicholas Colas said.
“Importantly, TIPS are NOT saying rampant inflation is just around the bend. The 2.2% forecast embedded in those bond prices is simply a validation of the idea that the US will see a reasonable and lasting economic recovery in the years ahead,” he added.
The so-called breakeven inflation rate – derived by subtracting the yield of the five-year TIP from that of the nominal five-year Treasury note – has risen to 2.25% this week, its highest in almost eight years, having doubled in the space of eight months.
“While the chatter around the inflation outlook is elevated now, we would expect it to become even more intense as we approach mid-year if our CPI forecasts are right,” strategists Ralph Axel and Olivia Lima at Bank of America wrote last week. They forecast a consumer price inflation (CPI) rate of 3.4% by May, which might prompt investors to revise their view on when the Federal Reserve may begin to tighten monetary policy – but they add a caveat.
“History shows that markets tend to overreact to positive developments and price in hikes long before the Fed actually delivers,” they said.
The army of Reddit retail traders is still active, but it would appear most have booked profits on their positions in the likes of GameStop and AMC – GameStop is now worth just over half of what it was at the height of the Wall Street Bets frenzy one week ago.