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July 16, 2013

Commodity Prices and Inflation: The Perspective of Firms

We’ve been thinking a lot about commodity prices lately. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been falling. And with inflation already tracking well under the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) longer-term objective of 2 percent, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the modest downward tilt in commodity prices is likely to put even more, presumably unwanted, disinflation into the pipeline.

We take some comfort from research by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and coauthor Jonas Fisher, vice president and macroeconomist, also of the Chicago Fed. They conducted a statistical analysis of commodity prices and core inflation and found no meaningful relationship between the two in the post-Volcker era of the Fed. According to the authors,

[I]f commodity and energy prices were to lead to a general expectation of a broader increase in inflation, more substantial policy rate increases would be justified. But assuming there is a generally high degree of central-bank credibility, there is no reason for such expectations to develop—in fact, in the post-Volcker period, there have been no signs that they typically do.

We took this bit of good news to our boss here at the Atlanta Fed, Dennis Lockhart, who hit us with a question we wish we had thought to ask. To paraphrase: Is the response of inflation different for commodity price increases compared to commodity price decreases? The idea here is that, for a time at least, firms will pass commodity price increases on to their customers but simply enjoy higher margins when commodity prices decline.

So we reached out to our business inflation expectations (BIE) survey panel and put the question to them. Of the 209 firms who responded to the survey in July, half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent increase in the costs of raw materials, and the other half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent decrease. What we learned was that the boss was on to something.

For the half of the panel given the raw materials cost increase, about 52 percent indicated they would mostly push the materials costs on to their customers in the form of higher prices, compared to only 18 percent who indicated they would decrease their margins. But of the half of our sample that was given a decline in raw materials costs, 43 percent indicated they would mostly take their good fortune in the form of better margins and only 25 percent indicated that the drop in raw materials costs would induce them to drop their prices.

Of course, what a firm thinks it will do and what the marketplace will allow are not necessarily the same. But this got us thinking back to the earlier work at the Chicago Fed. Does this sort of “asymmetric” response to commodity prices appear in the data?

Following (roughly) the procedure that Evans and Fisher used, we computed the influence of a positive “shock” of one standard deviation (about 5 percent) to commodity prices on core inflation. (Our sample runs from 1954 to 2013.) As did Evans and Fisher, we confirmed that commodity price increases had a significant positive influence on core inflation, spread out over a period of several years. But we were surprised to see that when businesses were hit with a similar-sized decrease in commodities prices, the opposite didn’t occur. Commodity price declines did not produce any downward pressure on core inflation.

As in Evans and Fisher, focusing in on just the post-Volcker era (from 1982 forward), we found that the influence of positive commodity price increases on core inflation was significantly diminished (although it appears to be just a little stronger than what they had reported). However, the influence of commodity price decreases on core inflation remained the same—nada.

For many of you, this result probably doesn’t strike you as pathbreaking. There are many macroeconomic models where prices are “sticky” going down but pretty flexible on the way up. But if the question is whether we think the recent slide in commodity prices is likely to put added downward pressure on core inflation, we’re likely to echo Evans and Fisher with a bit more emphasis: the decline in commodity prices isn’t likely to have an influence on core inflation unless it leads to a general expectation of a broader disinflation. And there is no evidence in the data that suggests this is likely—post-Volcker era or not.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department


July 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Pricing | Permalink

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Good analysis.

Does this same dynamic apply to wages? Recent trends in real wages and corporate profits support the idea that when wages fall, firms use it to expand margins. So if we ever get wages to rise again in line with productivity, maybe we'll see firms pass on the costs to their customers. In a consumer-driven economy, wouldn't this create a self-reinforcing cycle of economic growth?

Posted by: Tom in Wisconsin | July 17, 2013 at 10:47 PM

Ha Ha! Tom! Good one!

Dude, increasing wages is the very definition of inflation!

lol!

As for Mr. Bryan's analysis: really, who did not already know this, but for him & a few others at the Atlanta Fed?

Posted by: Edward Ericson Jr. | July 28, 2013 at 08:40 AM

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July 08, 2013

Let’s Talk about Oil

Given its role in touching nearly every aspect of life across the globe and given the higher and volatile prices over the past half-decade, oil supply has been an incessant topic of conversation for much of our recent memory. Yet the tone of the conversation has dramatically pivoted recently from arguments about whether peak oil or sky-high oil prices could spur a global economic meltdown (anyone remember 2008?) to the shifting energy balance as a result of rapidly growing oil production from North America.

Chip Cummins and Russell Gold recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing how new supply from U.S. shale oil and Canadian oil sands is helping to steady global oil prices.

Crude prices have remained remarkably stable over the past year in the face of a long list of supply disruptions, from Nigerian oil theft to Syrian civil war to an export standoff between Sudan and South Sudan. The reason in large part is a thick new blanket of North American oil cushioning the markets.

This chart helps demonstrate how quickly the oil landscape in the United States has indeed changed. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects national crude oil production to exceed net oil imports later this year, marking a rapid turnaround from the trend of ever-increasing reliance on imports.



However, despite the increase in U.S. oil production, global oil prices have stabilized at relatively high levels, as the chart below shows.



However, the two seemingly opposing narratives—that of high oil prices and that of an emerging oil and gas abundance—are fundamentally linked. In fact, if it hadn’t been for such high oil prices, this new surge in North American oil production may not have happened. It is much more difficult to rationalize drilling activity in deep offshore areas, hard shale, or tar sands—from which, by nature, oil is expensive to produce—without high oil prices. (West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, oil averaged $31 per barrel in 2003, which, even in real terms, is only about 2/5 of today’s prices.) Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that the break-even point for Bakken (North Dakota) crude oil is about $70 per barrel and that even a price of $85 per barrel could squeeze out many of the unconventional producers.

What does all this mean for prices? Well, keep in mind that oil is a global commodity. So the roughly two million barrels of oil per day that have entered the market from the U.S. fracking boom represent a big shift domestically but only just over 2 percent of global oil consumption.

And while the United States is seeing growing oil supplies and moderating demand, a different trend is taking place globally, with rising demand from China and other emerging economies coupled with declining supply from older fields and OPEC efforts to keep prices higher through production limits.

However, not everyone believes that higher prices are here to stay. Some analysts have begun to warn that a price crash may be looming. Paul Stevens, an energy specialist with Chatham House, argues that we may be headed for a replay of the price crash in 1986 when high prices triggered demand destruction while bringing new, more expensive sources of supply to the market from the North Sea and Alaska.

Only time will tell where global oil prices will ultimately shake out, but for now, the larger supply cushion has certainly been a welcome development in the United States. Back to the Wall Street Journal article:

The new supply...is acting as a shock absorber in a global supply chain that pumps 88 million barrels of oil to consumers each day. That helps everyone from manufacturers to motorists, by steadying fuel prices and making budgeting easier.

Photo of Laurel GraefeBy Laurel Graefe, Atlanta Fed REIN director, and

Photo of LRebekah DurhamRebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

Authors’ note: We didn’t touch on the difference between WTI and Brent oil prices in this post, despite the fact that the changing global oil production landscape has undoubtedly contributed to that spread. For those interested, we recommend some recent analysis from the Energy Information Administration on the narrowing spread between WTI and Brent.


July 8, 2013 in Economics, Energy, Pricing | Permalink

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A useful distinction is between the equilibrium price and the spot price which is notoriously volatile, in part, because of geopolitical risks in the Middle East. Increased production sourced in N. America reduces those risks and by adding 'spare capacity' also reduces overall costs by obviating the need for contingency arrangements.

Posted by: van schayk | July 09, 2013 at 12:42 PM

You only briefly mention moderating demand in the US, but the change in demand is about the same as the change in supply (US production). There has been lots of talk about increased production, but very little at the decreased domestic demand. Some of this is due to decreased miles driven, while some is due to higher CAFE standards prompting many new models to have significantly higher mileage than prior models (20% better for Altimas, Mazdas & others). Increased production is important, but reduced demand is equally important, and will be a better long-term solution as we will continue to see improvements as the nationwide fleet improves its mileage.

http://www.eia.gov/countries/country-data.cfm?fips=US#pet

Posted by: JimC | July 10, 2013 at 09:48 AM

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July 05, 2013

A Quick Independence Day Weekend, Post-Employment Report Update

From what I gather, a lot of people took notice of this statement, from Chairman Bernanke’s June 19 press conference:

If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year. And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear. In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains, a substantial improvement from the 8.1 percent unemployment rate that prevailed when the Committee announced this program.

That 7 percent assessment to which the Chairman was referring comes, of course, from the outlook summarized in the Summary of Economic Projections, published following the June 18–19 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.

Here are the unemployment forecasts specifically:

Macroblog_2013-07-05A

The highlighted numbers represent the “central tendency” projections for the average fourth quarter unemployment rate in 2013, 2014, and 2015 (in blue) and the “longer run” (in green). Naturally enough, getting to a 6.5 percent to 6.8 percent unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2014 is pretty likely to imply the unemployment rate crossing 7 percent sometime around roughly the middle of next year.

So, how do things look after the June employment report? As is our wont, we turn to our Jobs Calculator to answer such questions, and come up with the following. If the U.S. economy creates 191,000 jobs per month (the average for the past 12 months), and the labor force participation rate stays at 63.5 percent (its June level), and all the other important assumptions (such as the ratio of establishment survey to household survey employment) remain the same, then the economy’s schedule looks like this:

Macroblog_2013-07-05B

Note also the implication of this statement...

[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent , inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.

...which certainly aids in understanding this information, from the last Summary of Economic Projections:

Macroblog_2013-07-05C

I will leave it to the principals to articulate whether today’s report materially changes anything contained in last month’s projections. In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed


July 5, 2013 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Labor Markets | Permalink

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The analysis describing the decline in the unemployment rate to 6.25-percent in July 2015 assumes that "the labor force participation rate stays at 63.5 percent."

Other than spring 2013, the last time the LFPR was lower than 63.5-percent was in May 1979 ... 34 years ago.  So I don't challenge your arithmetic, but find it highly improbable that the LFPR will stabilize at current levels as the economy expands. People flood into the labor market when jobs become easier to find.

The last time the unemployment rate was at (about) 6.25-percent was in October 2008, at which time the LFPR stood at 66-percent.  In the previous business cycle, the LFPR remained above 67-percent for an extended period between 1997 and 2001.

According to the Jobs Calculator, monthly job growth of 190,000 and a LFPR of 66% would bring the unemployment rate down to 6.25-percent about 94 months from now ... in mid-2021.

Posted by: Thomas Wyrick | July 08, 2013 at 09:33 PM

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