Relief for consumers: prices falling
After soaring for months, prices for oil, rice, and other commodities are going down.
After sprinting to record levels this spring, the prices for basic commodities have now fallen 20 to 30 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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Prices are now lower on staples such as rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans. Also down are prices for metals such as aluminum, zinc, and copper. The commodity almost everyone follows – oil – is off nearly 20 percent as well, dropping Friday to its lowest level since May 1.
Falling commodity prices have important economic implications. They may indicate that the global economy – especially in terms of the role played by fast-growing countries such as China – is beginning to slow. The prices also take some pressure off the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to counter inflation. Last Tuesday, the Fed kept short-term rates unchanged, but it did indicate it was still concerned about inflation.
The decline in commodity prices, if it continues, could also give consumers a little more money in their wallets to pay for something other than gasoline and groceries.
"The falling prices helps shore up consumer spending and also has an effect on inflation," says Jay Bryson, global economist at Wachovia Economics Group in Charlotte, N.C. "The Fed probably does not need to tighten interest rates now."
The prospect of interest rates remaining at low levels helped ignite a significant rally in the stock market last Tuesday, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 331 points. On Friday, the rally continued, with the Dow climbing 302.89 points to close the week at 11734.32.
Although it may be too soon for the falling prices to be reflected in national inflation statistics, some of them are starting to work their way through to Americans' wallets. Last week, for example, King Arthur Flour reduced the prices on four grades of its product by 15 percent. On April 1, the company, which makes premium flour, had increased prices by 46 percent. "That price increase did not cover the difference in our costs," says Michael Bittel, senior vice president and general manager of the Norwich, Vt., company. Nevertheless, King Arthur Flour went ahead with a price decrease. "We were hoping the price would come down and we could pass that reduction back to our customers," Mr. Bittel says.
Good conditions for growing crops are partly why the grain markets have dropped in price, says William Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Neb. "We've had frequent rain events and no persistent heat to affect yields, so the crop is off to a decent start," says Mr. Lapp, adding, "But the questions remain: Will we have a long enough growing season since it's been cooler than normal, and how much of the crop was drowned out this spring?"
On Tuesday, some of the questions will be answered when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives its first official crop report. "Usually they are accurate to within about 5 percent of the crop estimate," says Lapp, a former chief economist at ConAgra Foods.