Is China about to start exporting inflation?

03/08/2010 4:39 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Shouldn’t we be seeing more inflation than we are?

The anecdotes add up to rising inflation. But you can’t see it in the official numbers.

Are the anecdotes misleading? Are the official numbers wrong? Or are we simply looking at a lag between anecdote and official number?

Vale (VALE), the big Brazilian iron ore producer is looking for a 40% price increase in March and another 40% price increase in May.

BHP Billiton (BHP), the big Australian miner, has just signed a contract to provide coking coal (the kind used in making steel) to Indian steelmakers that provides for a 55% increase in prices.

Oil climbed to $82 a barrel today, March 8. That’s a two-month high.

At that price oil is still within the $69 to $83 a barrel trading range established since September 2009 but the climb since December has broken the pattern that held in the earlier part of the range. Back in September and October much of any increase in the price of oil was a result of a fall in the value of the dollar. When the dollar was worth less, oil producers demand more of them for a barrel of oil and the price of oil climbed. Since December, however, the price of oil has climbed even though the dollar has strengthened. Oil producers are getting more dollars per barrel even though the value of each dollar has climbed.

Wages are rising in China thanks to a labor shortage in China’s coastal export centers. The shortage is at least partially a result of government policies that encourage economic development in the neglected interior provinces. The New York Times recently report that the hourly rate for temporary factory workers in Guangzhou, for example, recently climbed to $1.17 an hour from 95 cents in February before the Lunar New Year holiday. That’s a 23% increase.

But if all this is inflationary smoke, where’s the inflationary fire?

The U.S. consumer price index (CPI) climbed at an annual 2.6% in January. That was down from 2.7% in December. Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was up just 1.6% in January, down from 1.8% in December.

You can’t see inflation in China’s numbers either. The January consumer price index was up at an annual rate of just 1.5%. That was a drop from December.

I expect that the answer to Where’s the fire? is “Just wait.”

China will report inflation numbers for February 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 10. The consensus among economists is that the annual inflation rate will go up more than it did in January. But how much? Predicting China’s official numbers is always iffy but the consensus is that the annual inflation rate will pop to 2.3%.

That’s still below the 3% target the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has announced as his target for China’s official inflation rate in 2010.

But an increasing number of economists don’t think China will come in anywhere near that official number—unless Beijing completely cooks the books on inflation. A survey of 14 economists conducted by the Wall Street Journal showed a median forecast of a 4.4% peak for inflation in China this year. For the full year the survey called for a 3.4% inflation rate.

And we all know that inflation in China eventually turns into inflation for U.S. consumers, right?

We just don’t know when.

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