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As inflation falls, corporate America won’t rush to pay the price


U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during an event to celebrate the anniversary of his signing of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act legislation, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2023. 

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden has been doing everything he can to point the finger at big corporations for high prices.

“Too many things are unaffordable,” the president said.

“Stop the price gouging,” Biden said on another recent occasion.

The blame game may be good retail politics, and the president has announced some real actions to alleviate consumer financial stress, forgiving as much student debt on the margins as he can under the law, unveiling various plans to eliminate “junk fees,” and using new powers under the Inflation Reduction Act to bring down key drug prices.

Some recent research supports the case that corporations have taken more advantage of the current inflationary era than they really need to do. But amid the political pressure, don’t expect corporate America to be swayed.

As the Federal Reserve signals for the first time that it’s getting comfortable with the decline in inflation, and even short of declaring “mission accomplished” seemed to say this week it doesn’t wholly disagree with the market view that rates cuts are the next phase in its monetary policy, the one major force in the economy not talking about cuts in a major way is corporations.

That’s been on the mind of Fed presidents as the central bank contemplates a big shift. Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, a former corporate sector CFO, recently told CNBC that one area he monitors and speaks to companies about is price setting. Companies won’t be giving up their power to raise prices “until they have to,” Barkin, who will be a voting member of the FOMC next year, said.

It’s been a hard-won advantage. Over the past two decades, price setters “have been beaten up,” Barkin said, by the combination of ecommerce, globalization, access to new supply and the power of big box retailers. “If you go back to 2018-2019, you had people who really weren’t into raising prices [as they] didn’t think they had the power to do it. I’m out there talking to price setters now and there are some who have taken a step back and said, ‘Okay, we’re on the backside of this,’ but I still talk [to others] who are looking to get more price.”

During an interview later in November with Barkin at CNBC’s CFO Council Summit in Washington, D.C., the subject came up again, and an informal poll of CFO Council members in the room on the subject of pricing plans for 2024 was taken. A majority said their companies would be raising prices next year; a minority said they would keep pricing the same; none said they would be lowering prices. 

“I’m looking for the point where they’re no longer taking outsized price increases because they’re worried the volume and the market won’t sustain it,” Barkin said.

That is happening in certain goods markets where the Covid…



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