May 21, 2019

Unstoppable tariffs take on immovable U.S. inflation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A logjam of inflationary pressures is starting to hit the U.S. all at once, and will challenge the persistent low inflation that has been a hallmark of the economy for more than a decade.

What's happening: The biggest single inflationary catalyst is the trade war between the U.S. and China. Major companies, including Walmart and Macy's have already warned that tariffs will force them to raise prices.

Where it stands: UBS analyst Jay Sole said in a weekend note to clients that 25% tariffs on Chinese imports could accelerate pressure on companies' profit margins and put $40 billion of sales and 12,000 stores at risk.

  • And that's just one inflationary input.

What to watch: Oil prices hit a 3-week high Monday and look poised to rise further given the possibility of OPEC production cuts and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.

  • Gas prices have managed to hold steady throughout much of the U.S. this year, but they now are facing a doubled-edged sword: the transition to more expensive summer gasoline blends and lower U.S. gasoline stocks, which are currently at a 7 million barrel deficit from 2018.

U.S. wages have picked up, particularly among low-wage workers as more municipalities and companies like Amazon and Target push through minimum-wage increases.

Perhaps most importantly, U.S. interest rates, which have remained low thanks to the Fed and market expectations for rates cuts, are facing "exploding US deficits and debt and foreign investors’ waning appetite for US debt," says Lisa Shalett, chief investment officer at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

  • Yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note have fallen to the lowest levels of the year but a spate of weak auctions recently — producing the lowest bid-to-cover ratios since the financial crisis — have analysts like Shalett looking for a reversal.

Yes, but: The country has faced many of these headwinds before. The big question now is whether these catalysts will lead to higher prices for consumers or if businesses will eat the increased costs, lowering profit margins and reducing revenue.

The bottom line: Data shows that near- and even medium-term inflation expectations remain low for the public and for Wall Street. The stock market continues to rise, backed by high profit margins and revenues. Something has to give.

Go deeper: Lack of U.S. inflation forces another look at long-held economic beliefs

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 65,691 — Total deaths: 30,438 — Total recoveries: 139,263.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 119,748 — Total deaths: 1,991 — Total recoveries: 921.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump is considering a quarantine on New York, parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. He signed a $2 trillion stimulus bill to give businesses and U.S. workers financial relief.
  4. State updates: Alaska is latest state to issue a stay-at-home order — New York is trying to nearly triple its hospital capacity in less than a month and has moved its presidential primary to June 23. Some Midwestern swing voters that supported Trump's handling of the virus less than two weeks ago are now balking at his call for the U.S. to be "opened up" by Easter.
  5. World updates: In Spain, over 1,400 people were confirmed dead between Thursday to Saturday.
  6. 🚀 Space updates: OneWeb filed for bankruptcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  7. Hollywood: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have returned to U.S. after being treated for coronavirus.
  8. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Infant dies after testing positive for coronavirus in Chicago

Hospital staff working inside a COVID-19 screening tent in Chicago on March 26. Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An infant less than one year old died in Chicago, Illinois after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, the state health department said on Saturday.

Why it matters: The death would mark the first reported infant mortality from COVID-19 in the U.S. The fatality rate for the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is highest among those over 85 years old, per the CDC.

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Trump weighs quarantine of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

President Trump said on Saturday he is considering a "short term" quarantine of New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut — states that have already taken steps to quarantine residents and promote social distancing.

The big picture: With 112,000 people infected, the U.S. has the most COVID-19 cases in the world, exceeding China and Italy, per data from Johns Hopkins. A second wave of American cities, including Boston, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia, are reporting influxes of cases.

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