The inflation trade


The inflation trade

Inflation has been one of the central themes in global trading strategies in past one decade. During 2010-19, the central banks of developed countries (primarily US Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and Bank of Japan) struggled to build inflationary pressure in their respective economies, to attain a minimum level of inflation they considered necessary to motivate investments and sustainable growth. Incidentally, none of the Central Bank targeting higher inflation has so far been successful in their endeavor. Nonetheless, the sharp rise in global commodity prices in past few months has triggered a rush for “The inflation trade”.
In Indian context, prices of all key commodities (metals, energy, food, cement, textile, and plastic etc), communication, healthcare and education, etc have seen strong inflation in past 6 months.In its latest monetary policy statement, RBI admitted that “The outlook for inflation has turned adverse relative to expectations in the last two months”. The RBI expects the inflation to remain above its tolerance range for at least six months more. The policy statement reads, “Cost-push pressures continue to impinge on core inflation, which has remained sticky and could firm up as economic activity normalises and demand picks up. Taking into consideration all these factors, CPI inflation is projected at 6.8 per cent for Q3:2020-21, 5.8 per cent for Q4:2020-21; and 5.2 per cent to 4.6 per cent in H1:2021-22, with risks broadly balanced.”

The commodity sector has been one of the best performing sectors in the Indian stock markets in past 6 weeks. A number of brokerages have upgraded their outlook for steel, cement, gas, and chemical etc producers. Many have argued this to be a sustainable and durable trend and once in a decade opportunity to trade the inflation. For example, the brokerage firm Edelweiss expressed exuberance over steel prices and said, “Going ahead, we expect a blockbuster Q3FY21 with record margins in store. Furthermore, structural shortage of steel implies the rally in ferrous stocks has more legs despite their recent run-up. We remain positive on ferrous”.

I spoke with some steel and cement dealers, in Delhi, UP, MP and Bihar, in past two days. All of them appeared bewildered by the rise in prices. All of them cater to the small private construction segment, and none of them confirmed any sign of demand pick up in that segment. Being in trade for many decades, they were sure that demand is certainly one of the key factors driving the prices of steel and cement higher. They guessed, it could be a mix of supply chain disruptions, import restrictions, large inventory building by China and most importantly, the “understanding” between the domestic producers that could be driving the prices.

On the other side, Chinese Yuan has appreciated dramatically in past couple of months. This CNY appreciation has come along with first contraction in the Chinese consumer price index, since global financial crisis. At this point in time, it is tough to say how much of Chinese deflation is consequence of CNY appreciation, but it must certainly have some role. If the strength in CNY reflects the policy decision of Chinese authorities, we need to worry about deflation which China will be exporting rather than the inflation.

My take on the inflation trade, especially in Indian context, is as follows:

A large part of the global inflation in past 9 months could be the consequence of (i) supply disruption due to logistic constraints; (ii) inventory building by large consumers like China; and (iii) weakness in USD.

After reading and listening to views of various experts, I have concluded that that China might have built large inventories of all essential commodities (especially metals and energy) to hedge against (i) Trump victory and consequently intensifying trade war; (ii) longer lockdown due to pandemic Both these conditions have failed. Regardless of popular opinion, my view is that CNY strength is a Chinese gesture to US for ending trade dispute. If Biden reciprocates well to this gesture, inflation may not be a concern for next 10yrs at least.

I shall therefore avoid “The inflation trade” for now. However, if I see a sustainable pickup in demand next year, I shall be inclined to buy some domestic commodities like cement and chemicals (primarily import substitute).

Chart for the day

Author: Midas Finserve

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