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Rising Import Prices and Why They Matter

Rising Import Prices and Why They Matter

When commenting on today’s higher than expected 1.7% surge in August import prices, Mark Haines, host of CNBC’s popular program “Squawk Box” posed the question “Why should we care?” This cavalier attitude typifies the manner in which the main-stream media routinely dismiss many of the problems confronting the U.S. economy, and is yet another example of how ingrained American economic illiteracy has become.

The news that sparked the question was the report that import prices registered their largest monthly gain in 20 months, increasing by 7.2% over the past year, with the non-petroleum component increasing by 3.2%, the fastest rate in nine years. Meanwhile, July export prices actually declined by .5%.

Besides evidencing heightened inflationary pressures, rising import prices are the national equivalent of increasing corporate expenses. Mark Haines’ dismissal of the former is akin to shareholders shrugging off the latter. Continuing the analogy, export prices are the national equivalent of revenues. In those terms, today’s import/export numbers reveal rising expenses and falling revenue. It doesn’t take a Warren Buffet to understand why we should care about that.

Corporate profits result from the difference between revenues and expenses. For a nation, the closest equivalent would be its balance of payments. If, as a nation, America pays more for its imports while receiving less for its exports, its balance of payments deficit will widen. Not caring about import prices also means not caring about the trade deficit (the July trade deficit will be released tomorrow), about which Mark Haines has previously posed his “Why should were care question?”

In fairness to Mr. Haines, his lack of concern about the trade deficit is shared by many Wall Street analysts and frequent “Squawk Box” guests. In fact, many of these pundits are the same people who four years earlier did not care about the lack of earnings of the Internet stocks they recommended. On Wall Street, a problem isn’t a problem until it’s a problem.

When no one cared that internet companies were losing money, losses weren’t a problem. After all, despite losses, such companies could easily raise equity capital from investors, borrow money from banks, obtain vender financing from suppliers, and get their employees to work for stock options. No problem. However, once investors began to care about losses, such companies could no longer raise equity capital, banks and supplier would no longer extend them credit, and employees demanded to be paid in cash. Big problem…. and we all know how it was resolved.

Internet stock investors who ignored losses suffered as the prices of their shares ultimately collapsed. Similarly, holders of U.S. dollars who ignore rising import prices and increasing trade deficits will suffer significant losses of purchasing power, and U.S. citizens will suffer substantial declines in their standards of living. I don’t know about Mark Haines, but I can think of a lot of reasons to care about that.

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