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Supply chain pressures remain well above their pre-pandemic levels, but there are signs that global trade relations could start to normalise this year — even as many countries face rising cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant and persistently high inflation.
A gauge of worldwide supply chain constraints produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that such pressures reached their highest point in October 2021. But the index — which is based on 27 variables, including global shipping rates and air freight costs — ticked slightly lower in both November and December.
Some analysts believe that the squeeze in certain areas will continue to ease off in the coming months.
“Over the next year, it seems likely that some supply chains will resolve themselves while others may prove more persistent,” said Simon Edelsten, manager of the Artemis Global Select Fund and Mid Wynd Investment Trust.
The swift reopening of the global economy had “caught some by surprise last year,” said Edelsten. But some sectors, such as the automobile industry — which had suffered from semiconductor shortages — “seem to be improving,” he added, pointing to Toyota’s and Tesla’s recent sales figures.
Companies around the world have been hit by pandemic-related pressures such as factory shutdowns and bottlenecks, as the introduction of border restrictions by many governments coincided with booming consumer demand. Disrupted logistics networks have caused shipping costs to mount and have delayed deliveries.
“Last year was a perfect storm for supply chains. Not only did we have Covid disrupting production, but fiscal stimulus boosted demand and the Suez Canal closure caused months of disruption,” said Guy Foster, chief strategist at wealth manager Brewin Dolphin.
Supply chains could prove more resilient this year, as inflation hits consumers’ spending power and more companies adapt to Covid-safe production protocols. Moreover, a surplus in orders from the end-of-year holidays could allow inventories to replenish while older deliveries come through, said Foster.
Supply-chain strains have contributed to persistently high inflation. Fresh figures on Wednesday showed that US consumer prices rose by an annual 7 per cent in December, their fastest pace in almost 40 years. Separate data on Thursday showed that US wholesale prices rose at an annual clip of 9.7 per cent last month, though this was slightly below economists’ forecasts.
Even as macroeconomists are generally optimistic about the year ahead, most indicators of supply-chain stress remain much higher than where they were pre-coronavirus. Container shipping rates peaked in October, but are still more than five times their level in January 2020, according to data provider Harpex.
Richard Flax, chief investment officer at digital wealth manager Moneyfarm, expects the supply-chain recovery to happen “slowly” over the course of 12 to 18 months. Improvements linked to investments in better supply security and plant efficiency would take time, he added.
Timothy Fiore, chair of the Institute for Supply Management, noted “indications of improvements” in labour resources and supplier delivery performance. But customer inventory levels remain very low, while backlogs of orders are “staying at a very high level,” he added.
“The fly in the ointment is China,” said Foster, who sees “one major risk” for supply chains this year. A new wave of coronavirus infections, paired with China’s “zero-Covid” policy could lead to port closures, which would further disrupt shipping, he said.
The global economic recovery from coronavirus will run into “multiple challenges” this year, the IMF said on Tuesday, warning of lower growth and higher inflation.
Significantly downgrading its 2022 forecasts for economic activity in the world’s two largest economies, China and the US, the updated economic forecasts from the fund show it becoming more pessimistic about the scope for a full recovery from the pandemic.
The outlook would be even worse, the IMF added, if central banks have to take firmer action to quell inflation or geopolitical tensions in Ukraine intensify.
The IMF’s forecast for the global economy is for growth in gross domestic product to slow from 5.9 per cent in 2021 to 4.4 per cent this year, weakening further in 2023 to only 3.8 per cent.
The fund has knocked 0.5 percentage points off its growth forecast for 2022 with only a modest bounce back of 0.2 percentage points for 2023.
Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s first deputy managing director, said in a blog post that the world economy was grappling with supply disruptions, higher inflation, record debt and uncertainty. “The continuing global recovery faces multiple challenges as the pandemic enters its third year,” she said.
“The last two years reaffirm that this crisis and the ongoing recovery is like no other,” Gopinath added. “Policymakers must vigilantly monitor a broad swath of incoming economic data, prepare for contingencies and be ready to communicate and execute policy changes at short notice.”
The IMF significantly downgraded its forecast for US economic growth in 2022, from 5.2 per cent in its October outlook to 4 per cent just three months later. It judged that the administration of Joe Biden was no longer likely to pass its Build Back Better legislation.
Even with slower growth, the IMF thought the Federal Reserve would need to tighten monetary policy faster than it previously expected.
“Everything points in the same direction when it comes to monetary policy, which is the need to cool down the economy to bring down inflation,” said Gopinath in an interview with the Financial Times.
Ahead of the Fed’s first monetary policy meeting of the year this week, Gopinath said there was likely to be volatility in markets this year. “This makes the job of the Fed even more important — to very, very clearly communicate how they are reading inflation and how they expect to respond to this over time.”
For China, the fund downgraded the 2022 growth outlook from 5.6 per cent to 4.8 per cent on the back of the restrictions needed to continue with its zero-Covid policy and the retrenchment in the property sector.
But Gopinath did not think a Chinese slowdown stemming from its property sector would derail the global economy. “China has both the monetary and fiscal space to deal with the macro consequences of something like that, and does have some ability to ensure that there is some orderly restructuring and that it doesn’t spill over to financially viable firms.”
The IMF also forecast UK growth to moderate after a strong 2022, with the economy expanding just 0.5 per cent in 2023.
The eurozone growth outlook was maintained albeit with a weaker recovery forecast, reflecting disruptions from the Omicron wave of Covid-19, followed by faster growth in 2023.
For almost all of the world, inflation is now expected to be higher this year, requiring central banks to tighten monetary policy and putting pressure on countries to make sure their levels of borrowing come down as the cost of credit rises.
This will put most pressure on emerging and developing economies, the fund said, adding to concerns raised earlier this year by the World Bank. Those with large amounts of foreign currency-denominated debt will be most at risk.
Gopinath said the most important economic policy initiative would be “to break the hold of the pandemic”, requiring a larger and more equitable supply of Covid-19 vaccines, tests and therapeutic drugs.
Elevated fuel and housing costs drove Australian inflation to higher than expected levels in the fourth quarter of 2021, increasing the likelihood of an interest rate rise in the second half of the year.
The consumer price index rose 3.5 per cent in the fourth quarter compared with the previous year, and 1.3 per cent from the third quarter, according to data published on Tuesday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Economists had expected a year-on-year rise of 3.2 per cent.
The rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant has added to inflation worries. Food prices have risen on supply chain disruptions as supermarkets, retailers and logistics companies have struggled to source workers owing to the country’s isolation policies.
Michelle Marquardt, head of prices statistics at the ABS, said the most significant price rises in the December quarter were new housing, holiday and accommodation costs and automotive fuel, which surged almost a third from a year earlier.
“Shortages of building supplies and labour, combined with continued strong demand for new dwellings, contributed to price increases for newly built houses, town houses and apartments,” she said.
Unemployment hit a 14-year low in December, making for a tight job market, but the spread of Omicron and low migration numbers because of strict border policies have led to a labour shortage.
Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP, said the data made a rate increase more likely. “So we continue to see the Reserve Bank of Australia raising rates in August with RBA commentary adjusting in a more hawkish direction. At least it’s not the 7 per cent inflation seen in the US,” he said.
Sean Langcake, senior economist for BIS Oxford Economics, said that programmes designed to stimulate residential construction had led to cost inflation for materials and workers, contributing to underlying inflation.
“While some of these cost pressures could still be seen as transitory, we expect the RBA will strike a more hawkish tone at next week’s meeting. A rate rise in 2022 is now more likely in light of these data,” he said.
The RBA said in November that it was unlikely to raise interest rates from its 0.1 per cent level in the short term until inflation was sustainably within its 2-3 per cent target range.
The timing of a potential rate increase could influence Australian elections, which are due to take place in the coming months, with housing prices a crucial issue for voters.
Jon Fletcher, general manager of the Grange Hotel near Sherborne in Dorset, was told last week by his drinks supplier that prices would rise by an average of 12 per cent this year, the latest in a punishing round of cost increases.
“Everything is going up,” said Fletcher, who has had to cover similar rises in laundry costs and wages, and has been warned of a substantial increase in his energy bill. “It all adds up; some of it is very big.”
British companies have warned that their recovery from the pandemic risks being dented by rising inflation as they wrestle with the dilemma of what proportion of the costs can be passed on to consumers.
Glenn Turner, owner of Gloucestershire-based Brightfusion, which makes scientific toys and engines, was forced to put up prices last year by 6 per cent — the first increase on some products in 20 years. He is already planning the next rise for later this year.
“You worry about how the price increase impacts your sales — and ultimately your business,” said Turner, who also runs Maidenhead-based Kontax Engineering.
“I have never before experienced price increases coming from all parts of the business . . . supplies, postage, wages, energy, its across the board. We know we have tax increases coming in future too. I am making a loss on some products owing to the increase in costs.”
UK inflation rose to 5.4 per cent in December, the highest rate in 30 years. This has been driven by a broad range of factors, according to economists, but underpinned by policy decisions by central banks to keep rates low and pump cash into economies to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
The inflationary pressure from the resulting consumer and corporate spending has been exacerbated by the energy crisis, a labour shortage that has pushed wages up and global supply chain disruption that has triggered higher costs for shipping and distribution.
Steffan Ball, UK chief economist at Goldman Sachs, said the bank had revised up its estimates for inflation this year from 5.7 per cent to 7.2 per cent. “It’s a significant increase and it will be felt. We now assume the Bank of England will hike rates in February and May.”
Inflation is a key risk to the economic recovery, according to Tony Danker, director-general of the CBI business lobby, and has become most companies’ top concern.
“Input costs have been followed by higher wage expectations and taken together with energy prices, something has to give,” said Danker, who called on ministers to help smooth the “cash flow crunch” for small businesses and take action on energy costs.
“Either this means yet more price rises and a bigger hit to the consumer, or it means less investment from falling margins and a worsening supply side.”
Different industries are being affected by a variety of cost increases — from wages in the hospitality industry to raw materials and shipping in manufacturing and retail.
Russell Weston, managing director at Snowbee, a Plymouth-based design and manufacturing company specialising in fishing tackle, said the biggest expenditure item was the “exorbitant” charges being levied by shipping companies.
“They are all charging whatever they can get away with,” he said, pointing to the cost of bringing a container from Asia rising from £1,650 before the pandemic to £9,500.
Energy costs have doubled, he added. “It’s absolutely crippling. It affects every single consumer good coming into this country and it will go down to the consumer. There won’t be any more cheap fridges.”
But companies can only pass on part of the increased costs, according to Fletcher. “We will put prices up but it’s difficult to raise food and beverage to a level that would absorb the costs. People will only spend so much on a pint.”
Inflation is hitting businesses regardless of size, although many bigger companies can withstand the price shocks better than smaller rivals that have fewer financial resources and are often less able to pass on price increases to consumers.
A survey carried out by Iwoca, the small business lender, found that nearly three in four small business owners said inflation was a top economic concern in 2022.
Still, results this month from large listed British companies have started to show how broad the impact of sustained higher prices will be on UK plc.
Retailers from Sainsbury’s, DFS and Dunelm to Topps, B&M and Asos have warned over operating costs inflation. M&S said that food inflation rose from 2.7 per cent in the 12 weeks to December to 3.5 per cent in December itself, but added that it had not yet passed much of that on to customers.
Clothing retailer Next warned that prices would rise by up to 6 per cent in the second half of the year because of shipping costs and wage inflation. Topps Tiles said it had started to pass on costs caused by higher shipping costs and inflation in goods but “as selling prices will increase by a lower percentage than cost prices, we do expect percentage gross margins to be moderately lower”.
The hospitality sector is also suffering. Greggs, the bakery chain, said that inflationary pressures from both ingredients and labour mounted towards the end of 2021 and were likely to remain high in 2022. Whitbread, the hotels and restaurants group, said that it expected inflation of 7 and 8 per cent on about £1.4bn of its costs. Construction is also under pressure, with housebuilder Persimmon warning of material prices rising by more than 5 per cent.
Investors worry that rising inflation will mean that earnings are hit or become worth less in realm terms, leading to a slump in company valuations.
Nick Moakes, investment director of the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said that inflationary pressures would lead to the toughest investment market since the last financial crisis.
He warned about further pressure in the year ahead, with companies also needing to shoulder the burden of rising national insurance costs in April. “We’re in a world now where inflation is probably a lot more entrenched; it’s going to be difficult to shift.”
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