Inflation and commodities

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The drumbeats have become too loud to ignore.

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, now says he will “strongly resist” intensifying inflationary pressures. Gazprom on Tuesday predicted crude oil will reach $250 a barrel next year. Admittedly, that is a bit like Colonel Sanders forecasting a boom in fried chicken futures. But Gazprom is not alone. And in his latest speech, Mr Bernanke effectively said the oil bulls might be right.

In doing so, Mr Bernanke has at least repudiated the Fed’s earlier erroneous stance that futures markets signalled commodities prices had peaked. The bigger question is whether he intends to act. On that, markets are divided. Fed Funds futures now imply a near certainty of two 25 basis point rate increases by November. Meanwhile, crude oil, although having fallen slightly remains high and appears to be calling the Fed’s bluff.

Oil bulls may be right, for now. Mr Bernanke says the economy is holding up reasonably well. In essence, fears of a 1930s-style slump seem to be giving way to concerns that we risk repeating a 1970s-style inflation spiral. The antidote would be rate increases.

But the soul searching questions about inflation expectations contained in his speech suggest the Fed chief’s own thinking has yet to settle. Meanwhile, economic pressures remain intense. Merrill Lynch estimates the combination of tighter credit, food and energy inflation and fewer jobs could take out $775bn of household cash flow – seven times the fiscal stimulus. Throw in the presidential election and it is hard to envisage aggressive rate increases prior to December. In that scenario, core inflation might remain relatively benign, as consumers weaken, while energy inflation remains strong. The big loser would be profit margins, as companies struggle to pass on rising costs. Odd, then, that US equities seem to have taken Mr Bernanke’s comments in their stride.

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