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Economy in Brief

Commodity Prices, Inflation and Expectations
by Tom Moeller November 12, 2008

Weakening economic growth in the U.S. as well as in other industrial countries has sapped what had been, until early this past summer, pronounced strength in commodity prices. Since then, copper prices, corn prices, crude oil and wheat prices all are down roughly fifty percent from their highs. Showing a more moderate decline has been the price of beef which is off seven percent.

The implication of these declines will clearly be to moderate future gains in consumer prices. However, not so much of a moderation should be expected. Overall, commodity prices make up roughly twenty five percent of the price of finished goods prices; more for foods but less for industrial metals. The remaining input pressures on consumer prices stem from labor and processing costs.

After rising to $142.46 per barrel this past July, WTI crude has since fallen 50% to roughly $70 per barrel. Prices have been most sensitive to the weakening in global economic growth. That weakness has been fostered by fewer miles driven in the U.S. where gasoline consumption is down 4% during the last year. Weaker oil demand is also the result of lower industrial production, off 4.5% y/y. Elsewhere, German factory production is down 0.5% y/y after 6.0% growth during 2007 and 2006; Japanese production is off 4.7% y/y after 3% to 4% gains the past two years; and French output is off 2.0% after rising 1% during the last two years.

Then there's the price of gold, reflecting global inflationary pressures. Near $700 per ounce, the price is down 30% after having momentarily touched $1,000 this past March and the price is off 6.7% y/y.

Industrial metals have weakened sharply with the weakness in industrial economies around the world. The table below indicates that aluminum prices are down 15% from their year ago level and they are off by nearly one-third from their high this past Spring. Stainless steel scrap prices also are off 11% during the last twelve months and they've halved their 2007 high. Prices for high grade copper round out the story of price weakness. They are down by more than one-half from their high this past Spring.

Food prices have shown a similar pattern of reversing past strength, helped in part by a return of favorable growing weather. Wheat prices are down by roughly one half from their year ago level and the latest is off by two-thirds from this year's high. Milk prices similarly have cratered, off by nearly one-half y/y. Egg prices (+11.2% y/y) similarly are down by one-half from their highs earlier this year. Even beef prices, which are receiving a lift from a thinning of herds in recent years, are up 5% y/y but the price is off 9% from the high this past July.All this weakness has yet to show up. however, in consumer prices for food. They have been rising at a 6.0% y/y rate after last year's increase of 4.0%. In contrast to the lower commodity prices noted above, the price consumers paid for milk & dairy products was up 4.9% y/y in September and meat prices were up 5.9%. Processing and distribution costs of food account for most of the price consumers pay -- and they have not fallen, only their rate of growth has slowed.

How does all this shake out for the U.S. economy as a whole? The Federal Reserve can take comfort from lower product prices as it eases monetary policy. Inflationary pressures generally are under control. The core CPI rose at a 2.5% year-to-date through September, roughly its growth rate over the last two years. Moreover, oil prices have more than halved their highs early their summer.

Inflationary psychology, however, is a different story. One measure of that psychology is the difference between the yield on long term U.S. treasury notes and the Federal funds rate. That difference has risen sharply over the last year. The markets are indicating a worry about future inflation. Growth in M2 recently rose to 6% y/y from its low of less than 4% during 2005. The monetary base has surged. Both have occurred as the Fed has provided liquidity to deal with the current crisis in the financial markets. Will this provision justify the concern about the potential for higher inflation? The monetary theorist would say "probably not," because the demand for money is collapsing. In fact, another direct measure of the market's inflation psychology is the implied forward inflation rate suggested in the market for Treasury Inflation-Indexed Securities (TIPS). It has dropped to 2.2% from 2.5% during 2006. Will a steep yield curve anticipating higher inflation eventually be reconciled with the decline in the forward rate in TIPS? Yes, but the direction of inflation will depend on how long the Fed keeps money easy after the current financial crisis is resolved.

The commodity price series in the table below can be found in Haver's WEEKLY database. The monetary and inflation figures cited above are available in USECON.

Creative Destruction and Aggregate Productivity Growth from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia can be found here.

Oil Prices and Inflation from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is available here.

Commodity Prices Latest Week Y/Y October September Oct. '07 2007 2006 2005
 Industrial Metals
   Aluminum ($/Metric Ton) 0.89 -22.2% 0.99 1.16 1.10 1.18 1.18 0.89
   Stainless Steel Scrap ($/Ton) 2,121 -11.3% 2,121 2,538 2,221 2,786 2,918 1,268
   High Grade Copper ($/lb) 1.64 -47.1% 2.20 3.12 3.58 3.06 3.04 2.28
   Milk (Cents/lb.) 94 -49.2% 100 123 193 172 145 98
   Beef Carcass (Index Value) 143.3 5.3% 137.2 147.4 137.7 139.3 134.1 150.3
   Corn, No. 2 Yellow ($/bushel) 3.41 -5.1% 3.66 4.92 3.27 4.14 3.46 2.00
   Wheat, Soft Red ($/bushel) 4.01 -45.7% 3.87 5.11 8.06 8.64 4.77 3.34
 Light Sweet Crude Oil, WTI ($/bbl.) 64.31 -32.5% 78.40 104.66 85.00 72.25 66.12 56.60
 Gold, Handy & Harmon ($/oz.) 733.75 -8.8% 802.9 828.7 753.10 810.5 628.7 507.4
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