"Benign" Inflation, Added Surcharges

Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 07:22 AM

If you want to know about abstract economic theory, speak to an economist.

However, if you have questions about inflation, I suggest that rather than engaging members of the Dismal Science in a Q&A, try speaking to any small business owner instead. You will quickly learn the difference between theoretical core price increases, and the real world.

A perfect example of this was an article in the Sunday NY Times. It suggested that inflation, tho' relatively modest for the past few years, is now starting to become an increasing worry:  Maybe Inflation Is More Than a Sideshow.

The line that made my head nearly explode was this one: "Inflation has been rather benign throughout this decade."

How does one begin to even answer such sheer, imbecilic nonsense as that? I will suppress the instinct to engage in name calling about the author's ancestors, and once again c a l m l y review the available data.

Gsci We know that energy prices have skyrocketed: From 2001, when Oil was $18 a barrel, to a recent price of $92, Oil has risen 411%, for an annualized inflation rate of 31.24%. Foodstuffs are also up a similar amount: Beef, dairy, wheat, corn, rice, soy beans all recently hit record highs.

But as we know, the Fed and the BLS do not like counting the very products we each need to eat, travel to work -- to survive every day -- as part of the inflation basket. If they did, it would force them to admit that inflation is actually quite robust.

And even though these so-called core items are  counted separately, they are pressuring their way into other goods and services. For example, FedEx just announced they are raising rate by 4.9%. And a recent WSJ article noted that Business-Travel costs on the rise. Expect to see many of these "non-core" cost increases passed through to consumers and businesses in the coming year.

My favorite example of this comes from our friend Gary who owns a successful restaurant (Bin 23 in Locust Valley). I occasionally ask him about price increases, and beyond the usual -- food, electricity, taxes, and insurance -- the thing that I find fascinating are his energy surcharges. Last week, he told us that every single delivery he gets has an "energy surcharge" on it -- usually $5 or $10. 

Now, as a Restaurant that relies on fresh food being delivered 6 days a week, that can add up. But this surcharge is even on linens, flowers, silverware, glasses -- essentially everything he uses to run his business. It works out to a few $1000 per month.

I haven't been able to figure out how the BLS tracks these surcharges, if at all.  That suggests  to me that another source of price increases isn't being counted by our friendly governmental statisticians.


Ironically, its more than just food and energy causing price increases:  We know Housing has just about doubled over the past decade (prices are now down about 10-15% over the past 18 months. Medical services and health insurance have been running double digit annual gains for the past decade. Tuition costs are increasing for even longer than that, along with books and other sundries.

This is before we even get to the Dollar. Last week, Venezuela's Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said that OPEC is likely to discuss creating a basket of currencies for oil pricing at its next summit due to the steady decline in the greenback. That will reduce energy inflation to some degree -- but could be a potential disaster for the USA, which has benefited from having the World's reserve currency.


The FOMC begins their two day deliberations about rates, and I suspect they are terrified about the slowing economy and the credit crunch.  The result will be at least one more, and possibly two rate cuts, as they attempt to inflate their way out of any slowdown.

I  understand some people are afraid of deflation, but we have yet to see any early warning signs of that. Expect prices to continue to rise over the coming years . . .

UPDATE: October 30, 2007 9:59am

A few more examples:

Record Diesel Prices Squeeze Commercial Construction: Today’s average price of diesel, $3.157, ties the all-time high set two years ago. “This will squeeze contractors’ margins on existing projects and push up bids on future work, especially highway and other projects that require a lot of earthmoving, which is very diesel-intensive.” 

Kellogg Says Escalating Costs Are Limiting Profit Growth: It said rising prices for the ingredients that go into its cornflakes, Keebler cookies, Pop-Tarts pastries and Eggo waffles were limiting profit growth.



Maybe Inflation Is More Than a Sideshow
NYT, October 28, 2007

FedEx to Raise Rate For Express by 4.9%
WSJ, October 27, 2007; Page A3

Business-Travel Costs on the Rise
WSJ, October 25, 2007; Page D3

OPEC to study currency basket for pricing: Venezuela
Yahoo! India News/Reuters, October 27, 2007 07:05 PM

Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 07:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack (1)
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Tracked on Oct 31, 2007 9:15:10 AM


Barry-why would they measure energy surcharges? It is energy, which does not count, remember? LOL. I wish George Orwell were alive to see his fiction becoming fact.
Inflation = price stability!!!

Posted by: lurker | Oct 30, 2007 7:34:50 AM

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