Inflation Is Busting Out All Over

Core CPI climbed 0.3 percent last month, the largest rise since September.
Stephen TaubMarch 23, 2005

It’s time for companies to shift into inflation management mode for the first time in many years.

On Wednesday morning the Labor Department confirmed the Federal Reserve’s warning from the previous afternoon: Prices are trending higher, which could put further upward pressure on interest rates.

The consumer price index rose 0.4 percent in February, led by higher costs for gasoline and airfares. Core CPI, which excludes the volatile costs of food and energy, climbed 0.3 percent, the largest rise since September. In January, Core CPI rose 0.2 percent.

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The upward movement in consumer prices seems to corroborate the sentiments expressed yesterday by the Federal Open Market Committee, which raised its target for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent. The FOMC’s prepared remarks stated that “though longer-term inflation expectations remain well contained, pressures on inflation have picked up in recent months and pricing power is more evident.”

Keep this sobering thought in mind: The committee also asserted that the climb in energy prices “has not notably fed through to core consumer prices.” Rising prices and the accompanying hike in interest rates has many ramifications for companies. Since inflation is being fueled, in part, by rising energy bills, many companies will feel pressure to pass along such costs to their customers.

This doesn’t apply solely to oil-guzzling industries like airlines and chemical producers. As interest rates rise, borrowers will also be required to pony up more to fund their future capital needs. And rising airfares will fall more heavily on business travel, which is frequently booked too close in to departure to take advantage of advance-purchase discounts.

As companies pass on more costs to consumers, it’s just a matter of time before the rank and file will demand fatter raises — or their first pay hike in several years — just to keep pace with their increased costs. Indeed, more companies are already requiring their employees to shoulder more of the health-care burden through higher deductibles, premium sharing, or co-pays.

Meanwhile, rising rates threaten to cool off the torrid housing market, a big source of recent economic growth. Last week, mortgage applications fell for the fifth time in the last six weeks, according to Bloomberg, driven by a 16.5 percent decline in the number of refinancing applications, the largest such drop since mid-May.