For the past decade, low-priced labour from China, India and Eastern Europe has helped much of the world enjoy economic growth without the sting of inflation. Now that damper on prices is beginning to reverse—and global inflation pressure is starting to build.
Companies in many countries are operating at close to full capacity, facing shortages of everything from land to equipment. Western workers and their low-cost rivals both are winning higher pay, thanks to rising demand. In some cases, the global links of the economy are increasing costs rather than lowering them, as far-flung businesses compete for the same resources.
Central banks are increasingly worried about spare production capacity running out—which could force them to raise rates to their highest level in years to stave off inflation. That could puncture the ebullience of stock and bond markets, which have become accustomed to a rare combination of fast growth, low inflation and low interest rates.
Already long-term interest rates are on the rise, in anticipation: US 10-year treasury bonds hit a nine-month high of nearly 5% this week. “Markets have gotten used to the idea that the global economy will keep producing downward pressure on prices,” says Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economics professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. “But that phase may be ending.”
In remarks to a bankers conference in South Africa on Monday, US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said rising Chinese domestic costs could eventually feed through to US imports, but would likely have only a “modest” effect. Still, he reiterated that risks to moderating inflation “remain to the upside” in the US because demand is high relative to capacity.
European Central Bank (ECB) president Jean-Claude Trichet has warned that European industries have little scope left to raise production, and has asked unions to show restraint in seeking wage increases for the overall health of the economy. On Wednesday, the ECB raised its key rate by a quarter of a percentage point to 4%.
Germany’s engineering sector, the mainstay of its export-led revival, is operating at 93% capacity, leaving the lowest amount of slack since the 1960s. Amid falling unemployment, the nation’s most powerful union, IG Metall, recently pushed through a pay raise of 4.1% to cover much of the ma-nufacturing sector this year.
The Bank of England raised interest rates last month in part because “there might be less disinflationary pressure in the global economy”, according to the minutes of the meeting. The cost of consumer goods in the UK has stabilized after falling persistently for many years under pressure from imports, and more UK manufacturers plan to raise prices than at any time since the mid-1990s, according to the Confederation of British Industry.
Even the price of Chinese exports such as furniture and clothing is rising, and provincial authorities there raised long-stagnant—and still tiny—minimum wages by an average of 21% last year. Indian outsourcing giant Infosys Technologies Ltd recently raised entry-level wages 10% and expects to do so again amid increasing competition for its workers.
To be sure, globalization is still helping contain some price pressures, and growth is still strong. Inflation remains moderate, at around 2% in industrialized countries and not much above 5% in many developing countries. The lack of price pressure has allowed central banks to leave their short-term interest rates 1.25 percentage points lower, on average, than at the peak of the world’s 1990s economic boom, JPMorgan says—even though the world economy is growing even faster now.
The flood of cheap imports into the US has benefited consumers there and subtracted about one percentage point a year from US inflation for the past decade, says IMF. Goldman Sachs economists said in a report last week, “There are pockets where inflation has risen more than expected, but the most recent evidence...is that inflation is receding,” especially in the US and Japan.
Still, signs are now multiplying that global growth is fuelling inflation rather than restraining it, says Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and a non-voting member of the Fed’s policy committee. “More and more, I hear people complain about the rising costs of (hiring) Indian MBAs or the wages paid to Chinese workers,” he says. As an inflation-damper, he adds, global capacity has gone from “tailwind to a headwind”.
Bruce Kasman, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co., warns that investors worldwide have been underestimating central banks’ willingness to raise rates to avoid a repeat of the spiralling inflation of the 1970s, the last time the world economy grew as strongly as today. It won’t require much higher rates, Kasman says, to “cause significant damage in the markets”.
Global crosscurrents from China and India and other fast-growing developing nations are raising some costs in the developed world. US farmers, for instance, are paying more to export grain because the large ships they use are busy serving China’s booming domestic market. The price to use the ships has risen to almost $50,000 (Rs20.5 lakh) a day from $17,000 last year, says Oivind Lorentzen III, president Northern Navigation America Inc., a Stamford, Connecticut-based shipping firm.
The collision between rising demand and tight supply is evident in Germany, which is leading the 13-nation euro currency area to its fastest growth since the tech boom. Hanover-based tyre manufacturer Continental AG says it’s struggling to meet extra orders of tyres from makers of trucks and cargo trailers, many of whom underestimated the surging demand for commercial transport.
“We’re basically sold out,” says managing director Hans-Joachim Nikolin. This month, Continental raised its tyre prices by up to 5%, partly passing on the cost of natural rubber, which has soared amid high demand from Asia.
The shortage of tyres poses a problem in turn for companies such as Schmitz Cargobull AG, Europe’s largest maker of cargo trailers. The company had planned to make around 44,000 trailers in the year through March, up 30% from the previous year. Instead, it ended up making 52,000 as demand for transporting goods and materials around Europe soared, notably in the fast-growing economies of Europe’s ex-Communist east. Europe’s tyre makers didn’t have enough tyres available to cover the extra production, so Schmitz’s purchasing manager Josef Buddenkotte flew to China to buy more tyres there to hold down the surge in costs. Schmitz expects to make 65,000 trailers in the year ahead, and has just raised its prices by 3.5%.
Schmitz added a third production shift to cover demand, but with Germany’s labour market tightening, has had to pay bonuses to attract enough staff. Schmitz will also have to digest a 4.1% rise in wages this year, under German industry’s deal with the IG Metall union.
Demand for wood is booming too, including for the specially-treated plywood that Schmitz uses in its trailers. Finnish forestry-products company UPM can’t get enough birch timber from Russia at the moment: Mild weather and muddy ground impeded logging this winter, and Russian authorities are planning to raise export duties. “We can serve long-time partners, but new customers can’t be served at all at the moment,” says Joachim Stinsky, German sales manager at UPM. The price of some of the company’s wood products has risen 20% in the past year, Stinsky says.
The rising production costs are passed on to logistics companies that buy or hire trucks and trailers. They too are struggling to meet demand. “The cargo space that’s available simply isn’t enough,” says Heiko Gnam, head of purchasing at Stuttgart-based logistics firm Diehl Spedition. The daily price for chartering a truck has gone up by 10% to 15% in the past year, he says.
In the US, central bankers are paying closer attention to the short supply of goods and services around the world. As trade swells, the prices of goods and services are increasingly determined in world markets rather than simply in the US market.
US import prices, excluding oil, rose 2.9% in the year through April, the fastest clip in 18 months. Employers are boosting wages because despite a slowdown in economic growth, unemployment hovers near a six-year low of 4.5% overall and just 1.9% for professionals. Doug Pruitt, chief executive of Sundt Companies Inc., a Tempe, Arizona, commercial builder, says the long slump following the 2001 recession masked a shortage of skilled professionals that has turned more acute as demand rebounded. He often pays signing bonuses of $10,000 to $20,000 for engineers, project managers, superintendents and estimators.
Labour shortages have constrained Sundt’s ability to grow. The company, with annual sales of about $850 million, has turned down $150 million to $200 million of work in the past two years. “I ran this office for 11 years, and we never turned down anything,” Pruitt says. He says he’s been charging 12% more than he would have for the same project a year ago.
In China, heavy investment in new factories and infrastructure means the economy is still gaining plenty of new production capacity for the future, a trend that hasn’t been stopped by the central bank’s modest recent interest-rate increases. Domestic consumer-price inflation there remains low. But labour costs for exporters on the booming coast, who expected to benefit indefinitely from cheap migrant labor to migrate from inland, are going up.
China’s export prices rose by 5.3% on average in the year to March, according to China’s customs agency, a sharp pickup from a 2.9% gain in the year to last December. Gains are coming both from labour-intensive goods such as textiles and energy-intensive produce such as steel. Surveys regularly show that a majority of employers can’t fill all of their available jobs, from textile workers in the south to software programmers in the northeast.
At the same time, several hundred million Chinese are still scraping out a living on farms. In theory, they could triple their incomes by taking a job in manufacturing or construction. But the demand for labour and its supply are often not in the same place. In practice, the rural population in the interior can’t all move away at once to the coast, where industry and foreign investment are concentrated.
With China’s economy looking set to grow by 10% or more for a fifth straight year, employers are aiming to expand their workforce by an average of 13%, according to a survey by the labour ministry. That growth is starting to empower workers. Most measures show Chinese wages have been rising by 10% or more annually for several years straight, though rapid gains in productivity have helped contain employers’ total labour costs.
Still, migrants from rural areas are getting more assertive: As rising crop prices have boosted farm incomes in the past couple of years, they’ve also lifted people’s expectations of factory life. Prospective migrants are looking for 16% higher wages than a year ago, according to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Migrant workers are getting more advanced in their thinking. They are looking at the factory’s environment, living conditions, and different kinds of benefits. Now, the workers are the boss,” says Hong Yong, who runs a furniture factory in Shunde, Guangdong province.
China’s government, under political pressure to address rising inequality, also wants to see higher wages and better social protections for workers. Zhu Changlin, vice-chairman of China’s furniture makers association, says employers can no longer get away with not paying unemployment insurance and other benefits to staff.
Many furniture manufacturers estimate their labour bill will rise 20% this year, on top of higher costs for wood and other raw materials. Building new factories is also getting more expensive: land prices are rising as the rapid growth of industrial parks in crowded coastal provinces starts to hit limits.
China is also gradually dismantling administrative practices that have kept prices for electricity, fuel and water far below market levels.
In a report this month, China’s central bank said that the changes would lead to a “certain increase in the overall price level”.
Pressure Rising (Graphic)
Global GDP (Graphic)
Inflation in India (Graphic)