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  • Writer's pictureJoe Carson

Manufacturer's Buying Policy Signal Firms Are Expecting Persistent Inflation

In February, the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) reported that the lead time for capital expenditures, production materials, and maintenance and repair supplies hit record levels. Lead times for CAPEX jumped six days to 173 days, materials two days to 97, and maintenance four days to 50.

Leadtimes are a valuable indicator of current and future demand. When backlogs rise and get stretched out, firms protect their production schedules by building safety stocks and placing long-dated orders for materials and supplies to meet expected future demand.

The current generation of policymakers probably does not follow lead times, but the old generation did. (Read the 1994 transcripts of the Federal Open Market Committee meetings). Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan religiously tracked lead times, order backlogs, and delayed deliveries (i.e., vendor performance or supplier delivery index) as signs of future inflation and inventory building. The latter is an essential part of demand-driven fast growth and inflation cycles since it adds a layer of demand, putting more pressure on prices.

In February, the customer inventories index stood at 31%, with 16 industries reporting too low and none reporting too high. The ISM report indicated that February marked the 19th consecutive month customer inventories were at historically low levels. The prices paid index of 75.6% remains relatively high, and 17 industries reported paying more for raw materials and none paying less.

In 1994, with a set of lead time, suppliers index, and price paid data that is not as scary as today, the old generation of policymakers saw the need for substantial monetary restraint to break the inflation cycle and limit the cyclical rise in general inflation. That policy playbook worked as pipeline price pressures never reached the consumer level.

It's too late for the current generation of policymakers to follow the 1994 playbook as pipeline price pressures are present at the consumer level, with more to come. Yet, policymakers can make things worse by not acting quickly and aggressively. Russia's invasion of Ukraine complicates the timing of monetary policy adjustment, not the scale, as the stance of monetary policy remains far too easy to break the inflation cycle.

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