Companies seem to be talking a little bit more about how price increases are helping profits, an early sign that more inflation could be seeping into the economy.
“It’s not bad. [Prices] are sticking a little bit. Anecdotal evidence is what it is. I think the breadth of it is interesting. The idea that it’s not disastrous for companies is okay. It might even be good,” said Don Rismiller, Strategas Research’s chief economist. Rismiller pointed out that among the companies that have seen earnings boosted by price increases are railroads, Kimberly-Clark and Whirlpool.
Procter and Gamble Tuesday said while foreign exchange hurt its sales, pricing was a positive, adding two percentage points to organic sales. That was in part due to increased sales of premium products.
“The unemployment rate of 4% is in the neighborhood of full employment. It would be normal for wages to go up in that environment, as the cycle matures. We have rising wages, rising productivity which is also starting to happen and a little bit more inflation, all at the same time. You can put those pieces together in an environment, that’s not terrible for corporate profits,” Rismiller said.
The ability of companies to raise prices is a positive, particularly when they have been hit by rising input costs due to escalating raw material costs, some a direct result of tariffs.
Kimberly-Clark CFO Maria Henry detailed the impact of higher commodities costs on her company’s post-earnings call. Henry said there were $135 million of headwinds in the quarter driven by pulp and other materials. The company’s sales were hit by currency rates, but organic sales increased 3%, driven by higher net selling prices, Henry said.
Caroline Levy, consumer analyst at Macquarie, upgraded Kimberly Tuesday. She said the consumer brand companies have been able to get some traction on pricing, but another important trend is that consumers are seeking more premium products and are willing to pay up for them.
Levy said the big name brand companies have become more willing to raise prices though cautiously.
“There is some line pricing and some straight pricing increases, but investors certainly fear uncertainty as to whether they will stick,” she said. “And I think that’s going to be a function of will private labels follow and how long can they absorb higher costs without following.”
Among the companies Levy follows are Procter and Gamble and Coca-Cola, which both discussed higher prices and shifts to higher priced mixes of products during earnings. “I would characterize my guys as cautiously optimistic…It’s pretty standard that people are getting a 1 to 2% line pricing plus 1 to 2% of mixed shift…I think we’re going from an over-consuming nation to a much more moderate consuming nation….The mindset of companies needs to change to adapt to that.”
The ability to raise prices extends beyond consumer brands. CSX CEO James Foote told analysts last week on his company’s call that the railroad’s topline grew by 5% to over $3 billion. “Merchandise volumes, pricing, other revenue and fuel recovery, all contributed to growth,” he said.
“If you can raise your prices, as a CEO, there are fewer things that can make you feel more confident,” said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Leuthold Group. “If you could raise your prices, that covered up a lot of past sins.”
Paulsen said the worry in the not too distant past was disinflation, where companies could not make up for problems like a sudden jump in input costs or a bad product decision.
Rismiller said there’s not much in the way of price increases showing up in inflation data at the moment. “If you print a 0.3% on core CPI, I think that’s going to be noticeable…If we look at just data, we already had, it’s been creeping up. We’re not making the case that inflation is running away from us,” he said.
Consumer prices were 0.4% higher in March, in big part due to a jump in gasoline prices. That trend of higher prices at the pump is expected to continue over the next few months on higher oil prices, now that the Trump administration has vowed to keep all Iranian oil off the market after May 1.
The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, PCE has been running at about 1.8%, below the Fed’s target of 2%.
Rismiller said the bond market could start to react if higher consumer prices start to impact inflation, since the bond market is convinced the Fed will not raise interest rates again, which it would consider in a higher inflationary environment.