By Erik Sherman
April 9, 2021
Worried about all the predictions of inflation and how you’ll manage?
Relax, you could be doing business in Ukraine, with its dizzying changes
from one year to the next.
In comparison, inflation over the last 30 years in the U.S. has been
“The new generation of business owners [in the U.S. have] never
experienced inflation,” said Henry Shterenberg, CEO of World Trade
Center Kyiv in Ukraine. “Ukraine is much better prepared for financial
shocks,” like supply chain disruptions, currency devaluation, price hikes in
markets, labor costs, and more.
And yet, go back an additional decade and you find a top inflation rate of
13.5% in 1980 in the U.S. It doesn’t take 50% per month hyperinflation to
upend business practice. Maybe it’s time for executives to review the skills
necessary to steady a business through turbulent times. Just in case.
Inflated inflation worries?
After the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, some economists are pounding
the inflation drums. So much money in the system will cause inflation and
the Federal Reserve is complacent, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence
Summers argues on Twitter and in ongoing debates with other
Economic predictions are notoriously unreliable, especially as different
people with illustrious pedigrees can’t seem to agree. For example, after
the roughly $2.5 trillion spent on the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, inflation
didn’t jump higher. Why should it now?
High inflation may not seem likely, but it is possible—especially when you
consider how one industry can experience inflationary shocks that don’t
perturb the rest of the country, and can still drive higher costs, supply
chain disruptions, and labor shortages.
And yet, a business should be cautious when rolling the dice on strategy,
as inflation can be tricky. Executives should always be ready to hedge
their bets when trying to manage macroeconomic change.
When the government calculates and discusses inflation as a single
number, the figure includes samplings of many different types of
purchases over multiple geographic areas. The rate at which expenses rise
for one person or company may not be the same as that for another
because the choice of purchases is different.
Michael Alexis, CEO of virtual team-building activities company
Teambuilding, emailed Zenger News to say that over the last decade he’s
also done restaurant industry business in Beijing. China’s inflation rate in
the last ten years has run mostly around 2%, with exceptions in 2011
(6%) and 2020 (5.5%). However, the specifics for restaurants in the
country’s capital has been far different. He called the industry’s
inflationary pressures “massive.”
“For example, at the end of a five-year lease your rent may double or even
triple,” Alexis wrote. “Similarly, the cost of staff and labor grows
substantially year over year.” So did food costs. He thought that the
pressures “may have been more isolated to Beijing by specific policies,”
such as migrant labor restrictions. Other industries, however, could have
continued without concern.
“From a firm’s perspective, why do they care about inflation?” William
Branch, a professor of economics and department chair at the University
of California, Irvine, told Zenger. “They just would care about it if there’s
some mismatch in how their costs are increasing and how their revenue is
increasing.” When everything changes at the same rate, the effect is
unimportant because margins and profits remain steady.
Then again, a mismatch in degree or a time-lapse in which cost escalations
run ahead of revenue can cause problems. So can localized demand for
goods or services, whether in a region or specific industry.
“The worst inflation that I ever experienced, and it wasn’t the normal kind
of inflation that you’d think of, was during the dot com era,” said Ray Zinn,
who was a semiconductor company CEO for 37 years in Silicon Valley.
“Anytime you have a belief that there’s a lack of inventory, that’s when
inflation starts.” Companies were “double ordering, triple ordering,” and
that drove prices sky-high as many assumed the dot com boom would
continue indefinitely “People overreact on the upside and they overreact
on the downside,” he said.
The effect can be seen right now in the lack of chip supply that is
hindering automobile manufacturing. Low inventory levels drive up costs
for a form of inflation that might not affect a clothing retailer or
manufacturer of mechanical fasteners.
The first step in managing inflation for a business is to forecast what
might happen. “You have to predict how long that’s going to last, how
long will this inflation go,” Zinn said. There is risk in making the wrong
forecast but worse in not forecasting at all. In the latter case, executives
will continue to chase changing conditions and always be left behind for a
guarantee of more challenging times.
If inflation is likely to be ongoing and not a momentary bubble for a
quarter or two, then it’s time to consider how to hedge. One way is to do
any necessary borrowing early on because the value of the dollar drops,
so that debt becomes cheaper while inflation is higher.
“Tie in costs with longer-term contracts if you can do it,” said James
Cassel, chairman and co-founder of investment banking firm Cassel
Salpeter. The effect is the same as early borrowing—locking in pricing
that will drop in real terms after inflation. “Look to productivity, ways to
use technology to bring your costs down. And then be very careful in
watching your pricing sensitivity.” With enough price elasticity, a company
can raise prices to protect margins without an equally offsetting drop in
demand. Without elasticity, it could become necessary to find ways to cut
Ironically, for many businesses, a slight rise in the inflation rate—to 3% or
4%, for example—could be useful. “You need to keep an eye on what your
competitors are doing,” said Alessandro Rebucci, an associate professor of
finance at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Now that we’re
talking about everyone raising prices, it will be much easier for individual
firms to raise their prices a little bit without losing demand.”
Companies also typically negotiate wage and supplier agreements across
multiple quarters, with expenses set in advance. “A little bit of inflation is
going to lower their [real] costs,” Rebucci said.
But if it’s necessary to manage inflation, be careful about the steps you
take. Keesjan Engelen, CEO of Taiwan-based electronics design firm
Titoma, mentioned in an email that he had worked for another firm in the
1990s during an inflation spike. Long-range vendor contracts and
eliminating non-vital costs “allowed us to minimize the price increase that
was sure to come.”
Not all companies were careful enough. “Many businesses sacrifice quality
while cutting costs and meet their end as a result,” Engelen warned.
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