Overview: The Commodity Squeeze

Rising commodity prices are putting a strain on corporate costs, which are taking many investors by surprise. Most analysts focus on sales volume to initially judge a company’s ability to meet its debt obligations. Strong levels of demand, particularly across many emerging market countries, imbued an air of complacency. However, the accelerating inflation rate around the world and the rising costs of raw materials and energy are silent killers which can quickly undermine a company’s performance. The top line may be moving higher, but the bottom line may be sinking into the red. Mexico recently witnessed several of its corporates fall victim to rising input prices. Durango was a perfect example. The Mexican paper products company’s cash flow dropped suddenly during the first quarter of this year, due to the rising cost of old corrugated containers (OCC) and energy. Consequently, Fitch downgraded Durango’s credit rating to B- from B. Unfortunately, commodity prices are rising faster than most corporates can pass the price increases along to consumers, triggering an erosion of credit metrics and the loss of investor confidence.

Most commentators worry about the increase in consumer prices (CPI), but the rise in producer prices is bringing a new round of concerns to the credit markets. In the U.K., for example, producer prices jumped 19% y/y in March, while consumer prices rose 2.4% y/y. Declining demand, rising commodity prices and higher financing costs are creating the perfect storm for many companies. That is to say, without talking about higher labor costs. The growing militancy by governments around the world is also preventing many corporations from passing cost increases along to consumers. From Russia to Argentina, price controls are the order of the day. This is putting undue pressure on treasurers and CFO’s.

Although investors in energy-intensive sectors, such as airlines and thermo-electricity generation, are always sensitive to oil price movements, manufacturing caught many people unaware. Energy was always considered to be a minor input in the manufacturing process, but with oil hovering around $130 per barrel it is no longer inconsequential. Energy is now one of the more important components of the production chain. In addition to manufacturing, sectors such as mining, agriculture and petrochemicals are being squeezed. The problem is even more acute when petroleum byproducts are inputs, such as in the petrochemical, plastics and fertilizer sectors. To make matters worse, competitive pressures are keeping many marketing departments from raising their prices too quickly, which creates new headaches for CFOs. Such conditions could lead companies to reduce investment plans and postpone maintenance projects, which manifests itself in other problems further down the line.

Fortunately, some sectors are less sensitive to changes in commodity prices. This is particularly true for financial services, banks, tourism, telecommunications and media. Interestingly, many transportation and logistics companies benefitted immensely from the increase in commodity prices. Given that these companies are essential in bringing the commodities to market, they were able to pass the cost increases through to the final consumer. In some cases, they were able to charge additional premiums. There has never been a more opportune time for the trucking, railroad, barging and logistics industries. Therefore, investors and analysts need to take costs factors more into consideration when making their credit decisions. They should also be ready to reprofile portfolios into industries and sectors that are less sensitive to the volatility that is convulsing the commodity markets.

3 Responses to "Overview: The Commodity Squeeze"

  1. mikka   May 21, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    US PPI data released yesterday shows inflation pressures building throughout the production chain. Headline PPI fell thanks to seasonal adjustments that mask energy price rises, but also thanks to the waning food price shock. Core PPI, however, posted a nasty advance to the fastest pace since 1991, largely attributed to vehicle and furniture/appliance prices – imported items or items with high import content. Presumably, prices for these items rose due to rising costs of production, inputs and delivery. Long story short, non-US exporters are passing on cost increases to US suppliers.But will US suppliers pass on cost increases to US consumers? Flailing demand for automobiles (esp. SUVs in the midwest) and furniture/appliances, slackening labor market, negative wealth effect of the housing bust, higher borrowing costs, and competition among firms suggests producer price pass-through to consumer prices will be mild on average. Auto demand is falling on rising gas prices. Furniture/appliance demand is falling on falling house prices.Could the tax rebates help stem the decline in consumer demand? Unlikely. $600 is not enough for large consumer durables. Besides, higher fuel and food prices will whittle away much of the rebate. (Thankfully, food price inflation is fading – and I hope it continues to do so for the sake of lower- and middle-class consumers – but food prices are stuck at higher levels). The outlook for firms in the consumer durables and consumer discretionary sectors looks grim – they’re squeezed in both directions: production costs are rising while sales are weak. Aggressive discounting to eliminate unsold inventory seems more likely than higher price tags. Although, the massive unsatisfied demand for Wiis at full or heavily marked up prices tells me one company out there (ahem, Nintendo) could be an exception to all this if it would just deliver more Wiis to the US. Meanwhile, consumers are hemmed in by rising costs and falling wealth, as well as unemployment and job uncertainty – particularly for those in the financial sector, construction, and real estate firms. Who will flinch first – Households or Corporates? Will companies be able to pass-through costs to consumers? Will consumers eat the higher costs? As long as credit card companies are willing to extend credit, I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of the desire of (some) American consumers for immediate gratification to overcome corporates’ fear of slimming profit margins.

  2. Anonymous   May 21, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Will inflationary pressures recede if the US experiences a severe recession and we get significant global economic slowdown? Probably yes…

  3. Broadsword   May 23, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Is it possible that the extreme and sudden inflation in commodities is a government sponsored event? This in order to saturate every value-added good and service in an economy with imported inflation? And to bring about a dampening of deflation that must surely come to pass as a severe global contraction crushes demand? Deflation, as Bernanke writes, is much more venomous than inflation as debts nominally denominated become more expensive as the currency is enriched. Monetary policy below the zero bound is helpless to counteract it. It leads to greater likelihood of harder landings and greater numbers of defaults, bankruptcies, and social unrest. With such a scenario looming, it seems to be in the global CBs best interest to spur inflation from the economies most basic components e.g. energy, commodities to "trickle up" inflation and mitigate deflation’s domain.