As Prices Rise Across Supply Chains, Will Inflation Come for You Too?

There’s an underappreciated side effect of all the disruptions across global supply chains: the cost of producing and distributing everything from furniture and foam to cars and machinery is rising. While that has thrown off the plans of companies, the effect on consumer wallets is much more subtle and uneven — for now.

In the U.S., 3M Co. has pointed to rising freight costs to ship its goods while Mattel Inc. has said plastic is more expensive. In China, the cost of products like furniture are going up because chemicals and metals for foam are rising. Some toy wholesalers in the country have raised prices by as much as 15%. Factory gate prices have been edging up there too.

It isn’t hard to see how we got here: Manufacturers cut back as the start of the global pandemic led to forecasts of a massive economic slump. But the reverse happened: consumers continued spending, demand stayed put or got even stronger for some things. Countries everywhere embarked on fiscal stimulus. That was good news but producers weren’t prepared and the demand-supply equation was thrown into imbalance. All we hear about now are shortages.

Logistical problems have contributed to the scarcity of goods. The shipping industry didn’t have enough containers, which resulted in transport rates and costs going through the roof. The supply chain issues are now so severe that delays and delivery times are at their highest in decades in many places. One delay leads to another; and those delays perpetuate production issues. Prices and delivery times keep inching up. 

Inflationary pressures build across industrial supply chains and unexpected increases crop up. Some manufacturers, for example, have stock-piled when they can to reduce uncertainty around future shipments, exacerbating shortages.

The consumer doesn’t really notice anything dramatic because, so far, the increases have been digested along the production and distribution process, keeping retail prices relatively even. It isn’t a one-off surge, the kind of price-gouging seen, for example, in high-priced snow shovels during a blizzard.

But there is a cost to consumers as producers try to keep their manufacturing expenses down.

Take electric car batteries. Chemicals like lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide are up by as much 60%. That’s likely to push up prices for batteries or at least make it much harder to bring them down, which was the expectation as the market for EVs grew. The cost is one of the biggest barriers to making green vehicles more affordable. 

Battery companies will now have to reassess where they invest or how they push costs to automakers. The building consumer momentum around green cars will take a hit too: If nickel prices hit a historic high of $50,000 per ton, that could add $1,250 to $1,500 per electric vehicle, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts. Or manufacturers could decide to stick to older and less expensive technology to keep people buying their already costly products. Consumers just won’t be getting the cutting edge stuff. 

Companies are looking for ways to ease the pressure, but no one seems to have a clear way out besides hoping the situation is temporary because Covid-19 related disruptions are bound to end. But much of the return-to-normal thesis is premised on large populations being vaccinated, a process fraught with issues. No one has talked about a near-term solution.

Meanwhile, freight rates and raw material prices continue to rise. Sure, transportation may not add that much to the cost of a good in normal times but at some point, when they get high enough — like now — someone has to digest them. Supply chains may just get warped out of shape to deal with the current — and growing — imbalance. 

The price of your coffee or new mattress isn’t going up dramatically tomorrow. And, for now, you won’t notice too much — or care — when they do. You may just never know how much better the brew or your sleep may have been. But don’t rest too comfortably. Eventually producers will have to start passing more of the cost down to their customers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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