Inflation is cooling, but prices on many items are going to stay high for months
A shopper checks out the egg section at the Publix at Winter Park Village, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Tribune News Service | Getty Images
Inflation may be cooling. But, for most Americans, the price of a cup of coffee or a bag of groceries hasn’t budged.
In the months ahead, the big question is whether consumers will start to feel relief, too.
Over the past few months, many of the key factors that fueled a four-decade high in inflation have begun to fade. Shipping costs have dropped. Cotton, beef and other commodities have gotten cheaper. And shoppers found deeper discounts online and at malls during the holiday season, as retailers tried to clear through excess inventory. Consumer prices fell 0.1% in December compared with the prior month, according to the Labor Department. It marked the biggest monthly drop in nearly three years.
But cheaper freight and commodity costs won’t immediately trickle down to consumers, in part due to supplier contracts that set prices for months in advance.
Prices are still well above where they were a year ago. The headline consumer price index, which measures the cost of a wide variety of goods and services, is up 6.5% as of December, according to Labor Department data. Some price increases are eye-popping: The cost of large Grade A eggs has more than doubled, while the price tags for cereal and bakery products have climbed 16.1%.
“There are some prices, some goods for which prices are falling,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “But broadly, prices aren’t falling. It’s just that the rate of increase is slowing.”
Retailers, restaurants, airlines and other companies are deciding whether to pass on price cuts or impress investors with improved profit margins. Consumers are getting pickier about spending. And economists are weighing whether the U.S. will enter a recession this year.
Sticky contracts, higher wages
During the early days of the Covid pandemic, Americans went on spending sprees at the same time that factories and ports shuttered temporarily. Containers clogged up ports. Stores and warehouses struggled with out-of-stock merchandise.
That surge in demand and limited supply contributed to higher prices.
Now, those factors have started to reverse. As Americans feel the pinch of inflation and spend on other priorities such as commutes, trips and dining out, they have bought less stuff.
Freight costs and container costs have eased, bringing down prices along the rest of the supply chain. The cost for a long-distance truckload was up 4% in December compared with the year-ago period, but down nearly 8% from March’s record high, according to Labor Department data.
The cost of a 40-foot shipping container has fallen 80% below the peak of $10,377 in September 2021 to $2,079 as of mid-January, according to the World Container Index of Drewry, a supply chain advisory firm. But it is still higher than prepandemic rates.
Food and clothing materials have become cheaper. Wholesale beef prices dropped 15.6% in November compared with a year ago, but are still historically elevated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Coffee beans fell 19.7% in the same time, according to the International Coffee Organization’s composite global price. Raw cotton’s cost plunged 23.8%, according to Labor Department data.
However, to protect against unpredictable spikes in prices, many companies have long-term contracts that set the prices they pay to operate their businesses months in advance, from buying ingredients to moving goods across the world.
For example, Chuy’s Tex Mex locked in prices for fajita beef that are lower than what the chain paid last year, and it plans to also lock in prices for ground beef during the third quarter. But diners will likely still pay higher menu prices than they were last year.
Chuy’s plans to raise prices about 3% to 3.5% in February, although it has no more price hikes planned for later this year due to its conservative pricing strategy. The chain’s prices are up about 7% compared with the year-ago period, trailing the overall restaurant industry’s price hikes.
Similarly, coffee drinkers are unlikely to see a drop in their latte and cold brew prices this year. Dutch Bros. Coffee CEO Joth Ricci told CNBC that most coffee businesses hedge their prices six to 12 months in advance. He predicts coffee chains’ pricing could stabilize as early as the middle of 2023 and as late as the end of 2024.
Supplier contracts aren’t the only reason for sticky prices. Labor has gotten more expensive for businesses that need plenty of workers but have struggled to find them. Restaurants, nail salons, hotels and doctors’ offices will still reckon with the cost of higher wages, Moody’s Zandi said.
A shortage of airplane pilots is among the factors that will likely keep airfares more expensive this year. The price of airline tickets have dropped in recent months but are still up nearly 30% from last year, according to the most recent federal data.
However, Zandi said, if the job market remains strong, inflation eases and wages grow, Americans can better manage higher prices for airfare and other items.
Annual hourly earnings have risen by 4.6% over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not as high as the consumer price index’s growth in December.
Yet in some categories, softening demand has translated to price relief. Several hot pandemic items, including TVs, computers, sporting goods and major appliances have dropped in price, according to Labor Department data from December.
Budget pressures for families
Top retail executives said they expect families’ budgets will still be under pressure in the year ahead.
At least two grocery executives, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen and Sprouts Farmers Market CEO Jack Sinclair, said they do not expect food prices to drop anytime soon.
“The increase is starting to moderate a little bit,” said McMullen. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to start seeing deflation. We would expect to see inflation in the first half of the year. Second half of the year would be meaningfully lower.”
He said there are some exceptions. Eggs, for example, will likely become cheaper as as Avian flu outbreak recedes.
Over the past two years, consumer packaged goods companies have raised prices of items on Kroger’s shelves or reduced packaging sizing, a strategy known as “shrinkflation.” McMullen said none have come back to the grocer to lower prices or step up discounting levels from a year ago. Some are keeping aggressive prices, as they play catch-up after margins got squeezed earlier in the pandemic or as they sacrifice volume for profits, he said.
At Procter & Gamble, for example, executives plan to increase prices again in February. Prices on P&G’s consumer staples like Pampers diapers and Bounty paper towels have climbed 10% compared with the year earlier, while demand slipped 6% in its latest quarter.
In other cases, companies are still dealing with factors that contributed to inflation. For example, farmers are raising cows, but have fewer than before the pandemic, and grains and corn are less plentiful as the war in Ukraine continues, according to McMullen.
“If before you were spending $80 and now you’re spending $90 [on groceries], I think you’re going to be spending $90 for awhile,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to go back to $80.”
Utz Brands CEO Dylan Lissette echoed that sentiment back in August, telling investors that list prices usually don’t fall even when costs come down.
“We don’t take something that was $1, move it to $1.10 and then a year or two later, move it to $1,” he said.
Instead, food companies such as Utz typically offer steeper and more frequent discounts to customers as costs drop, according to Lissette, who was once in charge of pricing Utz’s pretzels and kettle chips.
Over the next few years, companies may reverse “shrinkflation” packaging changes that result in cheaper snacks on a per ounce basis. And two or three years after that, shoppers may see the introduction of new value pack sizes, Lissette said.
Retailers’ ace in the hole
But retailers may be able to speed up that timeline. They can use their own, lower-priced private brands, such as the peanut butters, cereals and laundry detergents that resemble the well-known national brands.
Kroger last fall rolled out Smart Way, a new private brand with more than 100 items like loaves of bread, canned vegetables and other staples at its lowest price point.
McMullen said the grocer already planned to launch the private label, but sped up its debut by about six to nine months because of shoppers’ interest in value amid inflation. And he added, if a national brand loses market share, they’re more likely to get aggressive on discounts — or even permanently lower the price.
Zandi, the Moody’s economist, said while customers may grow frustrated, they are not powerless. By choosing competing brands or opting for items on promotion, they can send a message.
“Businesses do respond to shoppers,” he said. “If consumers are price-conscious, price-sensitive, that’ll go a long way to convincing businesspeople to stop raising prices and maybe even provide a discount.”
— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this story.
Lucid to cut 1,300 workers amid signs of flagging demand for its EVs
Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson poses at the Nasdaq MarketSite as Lucid Motors (Nasdaq: LCID) begins trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange after completing its business combination with Churchill Capital Corp IV in New York City, New York, July 26, 2021.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
Struggling EV maker Lucid said in a regulatory filing on Tuesday that it plans to cut about 18% of its workforce, or roughly 1,300 employees, as part of a larger restructuring to reduce costs as it works to ramp up production of its Air luxury sedan.
Lucid said it will incur one-time charges totaling between $24 million and $30 million related to the job cuts, with most of that amount being recognized in the first quarter of 2023.
News of the job cuts was first reported by Insider earlier on Tuesday. Lucid’s shares closed down over 7% on Tuesday following the Insider report.
In a letter to employees, CEO Peter Rawlinson said the job cuts will hit “nearly every organization and level, including executives,” and that affected employees will be notified over the next three days. Severance packages will include continued healthcare coverage paid by Lucid, as well as an acceleration of equity vesting, Rawlinson wrote.
Lucid ended 2022 with about $4.4 billion in cash on hand, enough to last until the first quarter of 2024, CFO Sherry House told CNBC last month ahead of the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. But there have been signs that demand for the high-priced Air has fallen short of Lucid’s internal expectations, and the company may be struggling to convert early reservations to sold orders.
Lucid said that it had more than 28,000 reservations for the Air as of Feb. 21, its most recent update. But it also said that it plans to build just 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles in 2023, far fewer than the roughly 27,000 that Wall Street analysts had expected.
With Lucid’s factory currently set up to build about 34,000 vehicles per year, the company has warned of continuing losses.
“As we produce vehicles at low volumes on production lines designed for higher volumes, we have and we will continue to experience negative gross profit related to labor and overhead costs,” House said during Lucid’s earnings call on Feb. 22.
Lucid hasn’t yet announced a date for its first-quarter earnings report.
Virgin Orbit extends unpaid pause as Brown deal collapses, ‘dynamic’ talks continue
NEWQUAY, ENGLAND – JANUARY 09: A general view of Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, as final preparations are made at Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the spaceport in Cornwall, marking the first ever orbital launch from the UK. The mission has been named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones hit. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Matthew Horwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Virgin Orbit is again extending its unpaid pause in operations to continue pursuing a lifeline investment, CEO Dan Hart told employees in a company-wide email.
Some of the company’s late-stage deal talks, including with private investor Matthew Brown, collapsed over the weekend, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.
Hart previously planned to update employees on the company’s operational status at an all-hands meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, according to an email sent to employees Sunday night. At the last minute, that meeting was rescheduled “for no later than Thursday,” Hart said in the employee memo Monday.
“Our investment discussions have been very dynamic over the past few days, they are ongoing, and not yet at a stage where we can provide a fulsome update,” Hart wrote in the email to employees, which was viewed by CNBC.
Brown told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” last week he was in final discussions to invest in the company. A person familiar with the terms told CNBC the investment would have amounted to $200 million and granted Brown a controlling stake. But discussions between Virgin Orbit and the Texas-based investor stalled and broke down late last week, a person familiar told CNBC. As of Saturday those discussions had ended, the person said.
Separately, another person said talks with a different potential buyer broke down on Sunday night.
The people asked to remain anonymous to discuss private negotiations. A representative for Virgin Orbit declined to comment.
Hart promised Virgin Orbit’s over 750 employees “daily” updates this week. Most of the staff remain on an unpaid furlough that Hart announced on Mar. 15. Last week, a “small” team of Virgin Orbit employees returned to work in what Hart described as the “first step” in an “incremental resumption of operations,” with the intention of preparing a rocket for the company’s next launch.
Virgin Orbit’s stock closed at 54 cents a share on Monday, having fallen below $1 a share after the company’s pause in operations.
Virgin Orbit developed a system that uses a modified 747 jet to send satellites into space by dropping a rocket from under the aircraft’s wing mid-flight. But the company’s last mission suffered a mid-flight failure, with an issue during the launch causing the rocket to not reach orbit and crash into the ocean.
The company has been looking for new funds for several months, with majority owner Sir Richard Branson unwilling to fund the company further.
Virgin Orbit was spun out of Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2017 and counts the billionaire as its largest stakeholder, with 75% ownership. Mubadala, the Emirati sovereign wealth fund, holds the second-largest stake in Virgin Orbit, at 18%.
The company hired bankruptcy firms to draw up contingency plans in the event it is unable to find a buyer or investor. Branson has first priority over Virgin Orbit’s assets, as the company raised $60 million in debt from the investment arm of Virgin Group.
On the same day that Hart told employees that Virgin Orbit was pausing operations, its board of directors approved a “golden parachute” severance plan for top executives, in case they are terminated “following a change in control” of the company.
Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations
Supporters wave signs during an address at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).
Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images
DETROIT – United Auto Workers members have ousted their president in the union’s first direct election, ushering in a new era for the prominent organized labor group ahead of negotiations later this year with the Detroit automakers.
The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.
Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the election results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.
“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.
Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that Curry is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”
“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.
More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.
The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who did not immediately confirm the results. The election results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.
Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.
Jim West for UAW Members United
Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.
Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.
The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.
Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.
For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.
Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.
The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.
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