Inflation has surged worldwide as countries have come out of their COVID-19 lockdowns. The increases in prices combined with supply-chain problems has raised questions of what will happen to future prices and whether it will feed further inflation cycles.
Inflation is a key contributor to instability in an economy. It measures the rate of increases in prices over a given period of time and indicates what will happen to the cost of living for households. Because of its importance, many central banks aim to keep inflation low and steady by setting a target. The Bank of England, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank all aim to keep inflation low at a target rate of 2 per cent.
Inflation-rate targeting has been successfully practised in a growing number of countries over the past few decades. However, measures to combat rising inflation typically contract the economy through reducing real aggregate demand (or at least its rate of growth). This is a concern when the economy is not experiencing a strong economic performance.
Globally, rising inflation is causing concern as a surge in demand has been confronted by supply bottlenecks and rising prices of energy and raw materials. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, global financial markets have been affected in recent months by concerns around inflation. They have also been affected by the prospect of major central banks around the world being forced into the early removal of pandemic support measures, such as quantitative easing, before the economic recovery from the coronavirus is complete.
The Chief Economist at the Bank of England has warned that UK inflation is likely to rise ‘close to or even slightly above 5 per cent’ early next year, as he said the central bank would have a ‘live’ decision on whether to raise interest rates at its November meeting. Although consumer price inflation dipped to 3.1 per cent in September, the Bank of England has forecast it to exceed 4 per cent by the end of the year, 2 percentage points higher than its target. UK banks and building societies have already started to increase mortgage rates in response to rising inflation, signalling an end to the era of ultra-low borrowing costs and piling further pressure on household finances.
In the USA, shortages throughout the supply chains on which corporate America depends are also causing concern. These issues are translating into widespread inflationary pressure, disrupting operations and forcing companies to raise prices for customers. Pressure on every link in the supply chain, from factory closures triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks to trouble finding enough staff to unload trucks, is rippling across sectors, intensifying questions about the threat that inflation poses to robust consumer spending and rebounding corporate earnings. Reflecting concern over weaker levels of global economic growth despite rising inflationary pressures, US figures published at the end of October showed the world’s largest economy added just 194 000 jobs in September, far fewer than expected.
There are also fears raised over high levels of corporate debt, including in China at the embattled property developer Evergrande, where worries over its ability to keep up with debt payments have rippled through global markets. There are major concerns that Evergrande could pose risks to the wider property sector, with potential spill-overs internationally. However, it is argued that the British banking system has been shown in stress tests to be resilient to a severe economic downturn in China and Hong Kong.
Central bank responses
The sharpest consumer-price increases in years have evoked different responses from central banks. Many have raised interest rates, but two that haven’t are the most prominent in the global economy: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. These differences in responses reflect differing opinions as to whether current price increases will feed further inflation cycles or simply peter out. For those large central banks, they are somewhat relying on households keeping faith in their track record of keeping inflation low. There is also an expectation that there are enough underutilised workers to ensure that wage inflation is kept low.
However, other monetary authorities worry that they have not yet earned the record of keeping inflation low and are concerned about the risk of wage inflation. In addition, in poorer countries there is a larger share of spending that goes on essentials such as food and energy. These have seen some of the highest price increases, so policy makers are going to be keen to stamp down on the inflation.
The Federal Reserve is expected to announce that it will start phasing out its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme (quantitative easing) as it confronts more pronounced price pressures and predictions that interest rates will be lifted next year. However, no adjustments are expected to be made to the Fed’s main policy rate, which is tethered near zero. Whilst financial markets are betting on an rise in Bank Rate by the Bank of England as early as next month, spurred by comments from Governor Andrew Bailey in mid-October that the central bank would ‘have to act’ to keep a lid on inflation.
Outlook for the UK
The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Huw Pill, has warned that high rates of inflation could last longer than expected, due to severe supply shortages and rising household energy bills. He said inflationary pressures were still likely to prove temporary and would fall back over time as the economy adjusted after disruption caused by COVID and Brexit. However, he warned there were growing risks that elevated levels of inflation could persist next year.
The looming rise in borrowing costs for homeowners will add further pressure to family finances already stretched by higher energy bills and surging inflation. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is expected that households will face years of stagnating living standards, with predictions showing that households would on average be paying £3000 more each year in taxes by 2024/25, with the biggest impact felt by higher earners.
Investors are also reacting to concerns and have pulled $9.4bn out of UK-focused equity funds this year after hopes that a COVID-19 vaccination drive will fuel a vigorous economic recovery were overshadowed by questions about slow growth and high inflation. It is suggested that there is a general sense of caution about the UK when it comes to investing globally, driven by monetary, fiscal and trade uncertainties.
Given all the elements contributing to this outlook, The IMF has forecast that the UK will recover more slowly from the shocks of coronavirus than other G7 nations, with economic output in 2024 still 3 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets are predicting the Bank of England will lift interest rates as soon as the next MPC meeting. And while supply-chain bottlenecks and rising commodity prices are a global trend, the Bank’s hawkish stance has increased the possibility of a sharper slowdown in Britain than other developed markets, some analysts have said.
Some of the major central banks are poised to take centre stage when announcing their next monetary action, as it will reveal if they share the alarm about surging inflation that has gripped investors. Markets are betting that the Bank of England will begin raising interest rates, with Bank Rate expected to rise to around 1.25 per cent by the end of next year (from the current 0.1 per cent).
It is thought that the Fed will not raise interest rates just yet but will do so in the near future. Markets, businesses, and households globally will be waiting on the monetary decisions of all countries, as these decisions will shape the trajectory of the global economy over the next few years.
- Three Days Will Reveal Global Alert Level on Inflation: Eco Week
Bloomberg, Molly Smith and Craig Stirling (31/10/21)
- Inflation watch: Global food prices hit 10-year high
Al Jazeera (4/11/21)
- Fed sings the ‘transitory’ inflation refrain, unveils bond-buying ‘taper’
ReutersHoward Schneider and Ann Saphir (3/11/21)
- BoE chief economist warns UK inflation likely to hit 5%
Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/10/21)
- Inflation pressure now ‘brutal’ because of supply squeeze, US companies say
Financial Times, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Matthew Rocco, Obey Manayiti and Claire Bushey (23/10/21)
- Rising inflation could trigger global sell-off that would harm UK, says Bank
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/10/21)
- Bank of England chief economist warns high inflation rates may persist in 2022
The Guardian, Richard Partington (7/10/21)
- Bank of England surprises markets by holding rates at record lows
CNBC, Elliot Smith (4/11/21)
- Bank of England resists pressure to raise interest rates as inflation spike looms
Sky News, Ed Conway (4/11/21)
Forecasts and commentary
- What is the definition of inflation?
- How is inflation measured?
- Using a diagram to aid your answers, discuss the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
- What are the demand-side and cost-side causes of the current rising inflation?
- Explain the impact an increase in interest rates has on the economy.
With the bounce-back from the pandemic, many countries have experienced supply-chain problems. For example, the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK and elsewhere (see the blog Why is there a driver shortage in the UK?) has led to empty shelves, fuel shortages and rising prices. The problem has been exacerbated by a lack of stock holding. Holding minimum stocks has been part of the modern system of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) supply-chain management.
JIT involves involves highly integrated and sophisticated supply chains. Goods are delivered to factories, warehouses and shops as they are needed – just in time. Provided firms can be sure that they will get their deliveries on time, they can hold minimum stocks. This enables them to cut down on warehousing and its associated costs. The just-in-time approach to supply-chain management was developed in the 1950s in Japan and since the 1980s has been increasingly adopted around the world, helped more recently by sophisticated ordering and tracking software.
If supply chains become unreliable, however, JIT can lead to serious disruptions. A hold-up in one part of the chain will have a ripple effect along the whole chain because there is little or no slack in the system. When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.
JIT works well when sources of supply and logistics are reliable and when demand is predictable. The pandemic is causing many logistics and warehousing managers to consider building a degree of slack into their systems. This might involve companies having alternative suppliers they can call on, building in more spare capacity and having their own fleet of lorries or warehousing facilities that can be hired out when not needed but can be relied on at times of high demand.
When the ‘bounce back’ subsides, so may the current supply chain bottlenecks. But the rethinking that has been generated by the current problems may see new patterns emerge that make supply chains more flexible without becoming more expensive.
- What Is a Just-in-Time Supply Chain?
The Balance Small Business, Martin Murray (12/10/20)
- Why it’s high time to move on from ‘just-in-time’ supply chains
The Guardian, Kim Moody (11/10/21)
- Logistics Study Reveals Three Potential Cures To Global Supply Chain Problems
Forbes, Garth Friesen (20/9/21)
- Just-in-Time Manufacturing Needs Better Data
Supply & Demand Chain Executive, Paul Lachance (8/10/21)
- Just-in-time supply chains after the Covid-19 crisis
VoxEU, Frank Pisch (30/6/20)
- Plastics industry moves away from just-in-time logistics amid increased volatility
S&P Global, Miguel Cambeiro, Baoying Ng and George Griffiths (8/10/21)
- Just-in-time supply chains have left us dependent and with just-not-enough
CityAM, Tom Tugendhat MP (1/10/21)
- Supply chain havoc is getting worse — just in time for holiday shopping
Vox, Rebecca Heilweil (7/10/21)
- Ever Given and the Suez Canal: A list of affected ships and what delays mean for shippers
Supply Chain Dive, Matt Leonard (25/3/21)
- What are the costs and benefits of a just-in-time approach to logistics?
- Are current supply chain problems likely to be temporary or are there issues that are likely to persist?
- How might the JIT approach be reformed to make it more adaptable to supply chain disruptions?
The retail food industry is an oligopoly – a market dominated by a few big firms, with interdependence between them. This means that each firm considers the reaction of all its competitors when making any decision. Pricing is one of those key decisions and this is one of the reasons why price wars tend to break out in this industry.
For consumers, price wars are usually seen as a good thing, as it means prices in the supermarkets get forced downwards, thus reducing the cost of living. Low prices in this case are one of the key benefits of competition. However, there are costs of such fierce competition for suppliers. As final prices to customers are pushed down, small competitors are likely to feel the squeeze and may be forced out of the market. The other losers are suppliers. The big supermarkets are likely to pay lower prices to their suppliers, thus adversely affecting their livelihood. Research suggests that throughout 2014, 146 food producers entered insolvency, which is significantly higher than last year.
Accountancy firm, Moore Stephens, has blamed the supermarket price war for this rise in insolvencies in the food production sector. Duncan Swift from this firm said:
“The supermarkets are going through the bloodiest price war in nearly two decades and are using food producers as the cannon fodder…Supermarkets have engaged in questionable buying practices for years, but it’s getting worse and clearly wreaking havoc on the UK food production sector.”
The British Retail Consortium has said that placing the blame in this way was too simplistic. A commentator suggested that many suppliers have long-standing relationships with the supermarkets they deal with, suggesting that relations were good and sustainable. Furthermore, it was suggested that the demise of these producers may be due to many other factors and the data on insolvencies did not show that those firms affected were suppliers to the supermarkets. There is a Groceries Code Adjudicator in place to ensure that the supermarkets do not abuse their power when it comes to dealing with their suppliers, but the power of this person is limited, leaving suggestions remaining that suppliers are vulnerable. The following articles consider both the good and bad of price wars.
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? Why do price wars tend to break out in oligopolies, such as the supermarket industry?
- Apart from the supply-chain pressure from supermarkets, what other factors could have caused so many small food producers to become insolvent?
- How does the supermarket supply chain work and why have the price wars led to suppliers being squeezed?
- Use a diagram to illustrate the impact of the price war on (a) the supermarkets and (b) the suppliers.
- How important is the Groceries Code Adjudicator and should she be doing more to protect suppliers?
- If supermarkets are cutting prices, is this an indicator of unfair competition or good competition?
The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.
The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:
The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.
Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.
Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.
At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:
Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.
It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.
The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.
Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)
- Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
- Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
- Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
- In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
- Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
- How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
- To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
- To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?
We’ve had numerous examples in recent years of the economic turmoil that natural disasters can have and unfortunately, we have another to add to the list: the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. As Japan tries to take stock of the damage and loss of life, the economic consequences of this disaster will also need considering. The previous Kobe earthquake cost the economy an estimated 2% of GDP, but this did hit a key industrial area. The economic consequences of the 2011 earthquake were originally not thought to be as bad, but the economy will undoubtedly suffer.
The Japanese economy, like the UK, shrank in the final quarter of 2010, but was expected to return to growth. The devastation of the earthquake and tsunami is now likely to delay this economic recovery. Many car companies are based in Japan and are expected to take some of the biggest hits. Nomura analysts suggested that annual operating profits of companies such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda would be dented by between 3% and 8%. You only have to look at some of the footage of the disaster to see why this is expected. Supply chains will undoubtedly be disrupted, many of whom are located in the exclusion zone and financial markets across the world have fallen, as the possibility of a nuclear disaster threatens. As Louise Armistead writes:
‘By lunchtime in Britain £32bn had been knocked off the value of the FTSE-100 dropped, which fell by more than 3pc in early trading but recovered later to close down 1.38pc at 5,695.28. Germany’s DAX plunged 3.19pc, recovering from a 4.8pc fall, and France’s CAC ended the day 3.9pc lower, while on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Index dropped 2pc shortly after opening.’
A key question will be whether Japanese reconstruction will push the economy out of its deflationary spiral or make it even worse.
GDP measures the value of output produced within the domestic economy, but it is by no means an accurate measure of a country’s standard of living. Whilst it will take into account new construction that will be required to rebuild the economy, it doesn’t take into account the initial destruction of it. As output and growth are expected to fall in the immediate aftermath, we may see a boost to growth, as reconstruction begins.
The problem of scarcity is becoming more and more apparent to many survivors, as they begin to run short of basic necessities, which has led to various rationing mechanisms being introduced. Despite the devastating conditions which survivors now find themselves in, when supplies are delivered, the efficiency of Japan is still very evident. As noted by BBC Radio 4 coverage, as soon as the supplies arrived, a line was in place to unload the van in minutes. Teams have been set up to help everyone get through the tragedy. Even in the most devastating of times, Japanese efficiency still shines through and undoubtedly this will be a massive aid in the huge re-construction projects that we will see over the coming months and even years. Analysts say that there will be short term pain, but that the investment in construction will boost the economy later in the year.
Japanese earthquake: Markets shed £1trillion amid nuclear fears Telegraph, Louise Armistead (16/3/11)
Panic over Japan triggers market turmoil Independent, Nikhil Kumar (16/3/11)
Japan quake: Economy ‘to rebound’ after short term pain BBC News (14/3/11)
Japan disaster: The cost of a crisis Guardian (16/3/11)
Global stock markets tumble in ‘perfect storm’ amid fears of nuclear disaster Mail Online, Hugo Duncan (16/3/11)
Japan’s earthquake will cause a global financial aftershock Guardian, Peter Hadfield (15/3/11)
Economists’ estimate of Japan quake impact Reuters (16/3/11)
Fukishima factor adds pressure to economic fallout from Japan’s crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott (15/3/11)
- What is the likely impact on Japan’s GDP?
- Why is the potential disruption to the supply chain important for a firm?
- How and why will this catastrophe affect global financial markets?
- What are some of the main problems of using GDP as a measurement for growth? Think about the impact on GDP of Japan’s destruction and their future re-construction.
- What types of production methods etc have Japan implemented to allow them to become so efficient in production?
- What are the arguments to suggest that this disaster might help the Japanese economy recover from its deflationary spiral? What are the arguments to suggest that it might make it worse?
- What are some other examples of natural disasters or human errors that have also had economic consequences?