Global inflation was about to be tamed. Red Sea attacks now fan revival fears

By Enda Curran

Soaring shipping costs and a jump in oil prices are stoking worries about a revival of inflation pressures around the world.

Only days into a 2024 that was meant to be the year inflation dissipated, manufacturers and retailers are again juggling delays and facing higher expenses, as persistent attacks by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea rattle a major shipping route through the Suez Canal. Ocean freight rates for goods from Asia to Europe have more than doubled over the past four weeks.

A British Typhoon fighter jet takes off from a base in Cyprus as part of an air strike on Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.
A British Typhoon fighter jet takes off from a base in Cyprus as part of an air strike on Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.Credit: Getty Images

Fears of a wider regional conflict pushed up oil prices Friday after the US and UK led a military response to the attacks. Global benchmark Brent rose as much as 4.3 per cent, briefly topping $US80 ($119) a barrel.

Among the key reasons for the decline of inflation over the past year were a decline in energy costs and supply chains that had largely ironed out their pandemic strains. The Red Sea turmoil is reversing both of those disinflationary forces that central bankers were hoping could help them finish the job.

“This is a world in which we are fragile to begin with on the supply side, and then you get this additional shock,” said Mohamed El-Erian, president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, on Friday in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

Meanwhile, Central America’s Panama Canal remains restricted due to an ongoing drought that has limited the number of ships that can pass through.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have staged a series of attacks on Red Sea shipping.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have staged a series of attacks on Red Sea shipping.Credit: Bloomberg

While the shipping disruptions are nowhere near the levels of stress experienced during the pandemic, blockages in two of the world’s most important trade arteries are prompting warnings from industry players that supply chains remain as vulnerable as ever.

“This is a very dramatic reminder that supply chains continue to be very fragile,” said Stephen Lamar, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which represents over 1000 leading brand names. “It has an inflationary impact all across the freight industry.”

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The full extent of that inflationary impact, which will mostly be felt in Europe and the US, will take time to become clear. Even after the attacks by the US and UK, the conflict in the Red Sea is unlikely to spill over into the wider region, limiting the economic damage, according to Ziad Daoud of Bloomberg Economics.

A slump in merchandise trade and a surplus of freight capacity means the price pain won’t be a replica of what it was during the pandemic. Chinese exports fell 4.6 per cent in 2023, the first annual drop since 2016, underscoring weak global demand for goods.

“Global shipping costs have jumped and oil prices are up by a few dollars per barrel, but if this is the worst of the impact, which seems most likely, then it will not materially translate into higher consumer price inflation globally,” said Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi.

Still, companies are already taking steps to mitigate the disruption. Volvo Car AB will suspend production at its Belgian plant next week as attacks on vessels in the Red Sea disrupted the company’s supply chain. Tesla will reportedly suspend most production at its Model Y plant near Berlin from January 29 to February 11 in response to the disruptions.

Grocery pressures

In the UK, grocery chain Tesco PLC warned that the Red Sea shipping disruption could lead to inflation pressures.

“If they do have to go the whole way around Africa to get to Europe, it extends shipping times, it constrains shipping space and it drives up shipping costs,” Tesco chief executive Ken Murphy told reporters. “So that could drive inflation on some items, but we just don’t know.”

British supermarket chain Tesco has warned the shipping disruption could lead to inflation pressures.
British supermarket chain Tesco has warned the shipping disruption could lead to inflation pressures.Credit: Bloomberg

Those on the front lines of merchandise trade are seeing the changes in real time. Rachel Shames, who brokers shipping and freight for US importers and exporters, said a typical shipment from Asia to the US now faced delays of 10 to 12 days. That meant extra operational costs for fuel and staff, and less available capacity.

“It’s a lot more time on the water and that is sucking up capacity that would normally be back and rotating in the market,” said Shames, who is vice president of pricing and procurement at Virginia-based CV International. “This is not something anyone saw coming.”

Estimates by economists at Allianz Trade found that a doubling of shipping costs would lift inflation by 0.7 percentage point for Europe and the US, or an extra 0.5 percentage point for the world.

Oxford Economics estimates that a permanent $US10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil would add 0.22 percentage point to UK inflation and 0.29 point to global inflation in 2024. The impact on growth would be to shrink global output by 0.07 per cent this year and 0.09 per cent in the UK alone.

‘Canal crisis’

Andrew Goodwin, UK economist at Oxford Economics, said the increase in the Baltic Dry Shipping Index could herald a rise in UK goods prices, but only if it was prolonged.

Europe’s challenges come amid signs that US inflation may prove more stubborn than expected, complicating expectations for the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates this year. US inflation accelerated in December as a steady decline in goods prices petered out.

For now, retailers and manufacturers are bracing for how the disruption will play out over coming months, according to Craig Akers, director of operations at the Toy Shippers Association.

“I am coining this year, the ‘canal crisis’,” he said.

Bloomberg

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