Is the inflation scare over?

May 13, 2011

The effects of this year's commodity spike should be behind us by this summer.

It seems early yet to say so. Consumer price inflation rose for the fifth straight month, the government said Friday. Prices were 3.2% higher than a year ago in April, led a 33% surge in the gasoline price index.

But with economic data weakening in recent weeks and the Federal Reserve preparing to end the bond-buying program that set off the latest speculative boom in commodities, there is reason to believe food and fuel prices are actually about to start bringing down inflation numbers.

In other words, the CPI may continue to rise in the next few months. But all signs point to falling inflation numbers in the second half of 2011, as investors get used to a slower growth outlook.

“With crude oil prices falling 10% in the past week and cereal prices in retreat for more than a month now, energy and food should eventually start to have a deflationary impact on the CPI,” says Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics.

The selloff that took crude prices in New York below $100 is only the most visible sign of the shift away from commodities. Front-month corn futures have fallen 10% over the past month, thanks in part to a government forecast this month that good weather and increased planting will help grain stocks rebound from a 15-year low hit last year.

“I’m optimistic we can rebuild some stocks this year,” says Sal Gilbertie, who runs the Teucrium Corn exchange traded fund that trades under the ticker CORN. “We had some weather shocks last year that sent the price way up, but I think we can expect to see a normal seasonal pattern this year.”

Under that pattern, corn prices typically top out in the spring as the pollination season starts, and bottom in the fall during the harvest. That suggests the recent quote of $6.85 a bushel is, at the very least, not just a step on the way to $7 or $8 the way it was last year.

Even with the recent pullback, corn remains up 65% from a year ago. But Gilbertie says he believes the price surge of the past year will meet with a robust supply response, as farmers plant more corn, rebuilding stocks and causing prices to ease.

“The best cure for high prices is high prices,” Gilbertie says. Come the second half of this year, the logic of that statement should become apparent even to inflation hawks.

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