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A grocery store in New York.Wang Ying | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Inflation may be cooling. But, for most Americans, the price of a cup of coffee or a bag of groceries hasn't budged.

In the months ahead, the big question is whether consumers will start to feel relief, too.

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Over the past few months, many of the key factors that fueled a four-decade high in inflation have begun to fade.

Shipping costs have dropped. Cotton, beef and other commodities have gotten cheaper. And shoppers found deeper discounts online and at malls during the holiday season, as retailers tried to clear through excess inventory. Consumer prices fell 0.1% in December compared with the prior month, according to the Labor Department. It marked the biggest monthly drop in nearly three years.

But cheaper freight and commodity costs won't immediately trickle down to consumers, in part due to supplier contracts that set prices for months in advance.

Prices are still well above where they were a year ago. The headline consumer price index, which measures the cost of a wide variety of goods and services, is up 6.5% as of December, according to Labor Department data. Some price increases are eye-popping: The cost of large Grade A eggs has more than doubled, while the price tags for cereal and bakery products have climbed 16.1%.

"There are some prices, some goods for which prices are falling," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. "But broadly, prices aren't falling. It's just that the rate of increase is slowing."

Retailers, restaurants, airlines and other companies are deciding whether to pass on price cuts or impress investors with improved profit margins. Consumers are getting pickier about spending. And economists are weighing whether the U.S. will enter a recession this year.

Sticky contracts, higher wages

During the early days of the Covid pandemic, Americans went on spending sprees at the same time that factories and ports shuttered temporarily. Containers clogged up ports. Stores and warehouses struggled with out-of-stock merchandise.

That surge in demand and limited supply contributed to higher prices.

Now, those factors have started to reverse. As Americans feel the pinch of inflation and spend on other priorities such as commutes, trips and dining out, they have bought less stuff.

Freight costs and container costs have eased, bringing down prices along the rest of the supply chain. The cost for a long-distance truckload was up 4% in December compared with the year-ago period, but down nearly 8% from March's record high, according to Labor Department data.

The cost of a 40-foot shipping container has fallen 80% below the peak of $10,377 in September 2021 to $2,079 as of mid-January, according to the World Container Index of Drewry, a supply chain advisory firm. But it is still higher than prepandemic rates.

Food and clothing materials have become cheaper. Wholesale beef prices dropped 15.6% in November compared with a year ago, but are still historically elevated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Coffee beans fell 19.7% in the same time, according to the International Coffee Organization's composite global price. Raw cotton's cost plunged 23.8%, according to Labor Department data.

However, to protect against unpredictable spikes in prices, many companies have long-term contracts that set the prices they pay to operate their businesses months in advance, from buying ingredients to moving goods across the world.

For example, Chuy's Tex Mex locked in prices for fajita beef that are lower than what the chain paid last year, and it plans to also lock in prices for ground beef during the third quarter. But diners will likely still pay higher menu prices than they were last year.

Chuy's plans to raise prices about 3% to 3.5% in February, although it has no more price hikes planned for later this year due to its conservative pricing strategy. The chain's prices are up about 7% compared with the year-ago period, trailing the overall restaurant industry's price hikes.

Similarly, coffee drinkers are unlikely to see a drop in their latte and cold brew prices this year. Dutch Bros. Coffee CEO Joth Ricci told CNBC that most coffee businesses hedge their prices six to 12 months in advance. He predicts coffee chains' pricing could stabilize as early as the middle of 2023 and as late as the end of 2024.

Supplier contracts aren't the only reason for sticky prices. Labor has gotten more expensive for businesses that need plenty of workers but have struggled to find them. Restaurants, nail salons, hotels and doctors' offices will still reckon with the cost of higher wages, Moody's Zandi said.

A shortage of airplane pilots is among the factors that will likely keep airfares more expensive this year. The price of airline tickets have dropped in recent months but are still up nearly 30% from last year, according to the most recent federal data.

However, Zandi said, if the job market remains strong, inflation eases and wages grow, Americans can better manage higher prices for airfare and other items.

Annual hourly earnings have risen by 4.6% over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not as high as the consumer price index's growth in December.

Yet in some categories, softening demand has translated to price relief. Several hot pandemic items, including TVs, computers, sporting goods and major appliances have dropped in price, according to Labor Department data from December.

Budget pressures for families

Top retail executives said they expect families' budgets will still be under pressure in the year ahead.

At least two grocery executives, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen and Sprouts Farmers Market CEO Jack Sinclair, said they do not expect food prices to drop anytime soon.

"The increase is starting to moderate a little bit," said McMullen. "That doesn't mean you're going to start seeing deflation. We would expect to see inflation in the first half of the year. Second half of the year would be meaningfully lower."

He said there are some exceptions. Eggs, for example, will likely become cheaper as as Avian flu outbreak recedes.

Over the past two years, consumer packaged goods companies have raised prices of items on Kroger's shelves or reduced packaging sizing, a strategy known as "shrinkflation." McMullen said none have come back to the grocer to lower prices or step up discounting levels from a year ago. Some are keeping aggressive prices, as they play catch-up after margins got squeezed earlier in the pandemic or as they sacrifice volume for profits, he said.

At Procter & Gamble, for example, executives plan to increase prices again in February. Prices on P&G's consumer staples like Pampers diapers and Bounty paper towels have climbed 10% compared with the year earlier, while demand slipped 6% in its latest quarter.

In other cases, companies are still dealing with factors that contributed to inflation. For example, farmers are raising cows, but have fewer than before the pandemic, and grains and corn are less plentiful as the war in Ukraine continues, according to McMullen.

"If before you were spending $80 and now you're spending $90 [on groceries], I think you're going to be spending $90 for awhile," he said. "I don't think it's going to go back to $80."

Utz Brands CEO Dylan Lissette echoed that sentiment back in August, telling investors that list prices usually don't fall even when costs come down.

"We don't take something that was $1, move it to $1.10 and then a year or two later, move it to $1," he said.

Instead, food companies such as Utz typically offer steeper and more frequent discounts to customers as costs drop, according to Lissette, who was once in charge of pricing Utz's pretzels and kettle chips.

Over the next few years, companies may reverse "shrinkflation" packaging changes that result in cheaper snacks on a per ounce basis. And two or three years after that, shoppers may see the introduction of new value pack sizes, Lissette said.

Retailers' ace in the hole

But retailers may be able to speed up that timeline. They can use their own, lower-priced private brands, such as the peanut butters, cereals and laundry detergents that resemble the well-known national brands.

Kroger last fall rolled out Smart Way, a new private brand with more than 100 items like loaves of bread, canned vegetables and other staples at its lowest price point.

McMullen said the grocer already planned to launch the private label, but sped up its debut by about six to nine months because of shoppers' interest in value amid inflation. And he added, if a national brand loses market share, they're more likely to get aggressive on discounts — or even permanently lower the price.

Zandi, the Moody's economist, said while customers may grow frustrated, they are not powerless. By choosing competing brands or opting for items on promotion, they can send a message.

"Businesses do respond to shoppers," he said. "If consumers are price-conscious, price-sensitive, that'll go a long way to convincing businesspeople to stop raising prices and maybe even provide a discount."

— CNBC's Leslie Josephs contributed to this story.


News Source: CNBC

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Warriors Trade Proposal Swaps 2 Top-10 Picks For Proven Big Men

Getty Bob Myers and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.

With a modest record of 25-24, the Golden State Warriors aren’t the NBA’s typical version of an all-in championship contender.

But just three games out of third place in a crowded Western Conference, the Dubs are far from out of the hunt for their fifth title in nine years with no indication that they’ll stop short of going all-in to get there. Granted, the term “all-in” is a bit limited for a franchise that is already more than $40 million over the tax this season with a projected luxury tax bill of $176.5 million.

Talks of moving Draymond Green persist, but have chilled to a significant degree since his dustup with Jordan Poole during the preseason. Furthermore, the Warriors’ front office doesn’t have a history as the type to move on mid-season from a tentpole like Green, especially not with a legitimate contender on its hands.

As such, Bobby Marks of ESPN suggested in his January 23 column that the most likely deals for Golden State ahead of the league’s February 9 trade deadline involve the younger pieces on the roster, some of whom were once dubbed “untouchable” but whose statuses have since been amended.

Specifically, Marks pitched a trade that swaps third-year center James Wiseman and second-year guard Moses Moody to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for big men P.J. Washington and Mason Plumlee, along with small forward Jalen McDaniels.

Time Has Come For Golden State to Cash in on Wiseman’s Potential

GettyCenter James Wiseman of the Golden State Warriors goes in for a layup against the Charlotte Hornets during a game at Chase Center on December 27, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Marks laid out the decision on the table for the Warriors in his explanation of the trade proposal.

Wiseman, the former No. 2 overall pick, missed the entire 2021-22 season with a right knee injury and has played a total of 58 NBA games in three seasons. Because this is a ‘win now’ team, the front office has to analyze if the upside of Wiseman is too appealing or if he should be moved for a player who can contribute now.

Wiseman, who is set to earn $9.6 million this season, is extension eligible this offseason and will become a restricted free agent in 2024.

Washington was the Hornets’ 12th overall pick in 2019, while Wiseman went to the Warriors at No. 2 the following year. While Wiseman’s draft position and raw skill set theoretically give him the greater upside — something the Hornets can buy into as a franchise considering their current position near the bottom of the Eastern Conference — Washington has been the more effective player.

First and foremost, he has been available far more often. As Marks noted, Wiseman has played only 58 games across his entire three-year career. Washington has appeared in at least 58 games every season he has been in the NBA, save for this year in which the power forward/center has started 49 of the Hornets’ 50 regular season contests.

Washington has put up 12.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 blocks per game for his career, all of which exceed Wiseman’s averages. Plumlee, meanwhile, is a 10-year veteran averaging nearly a double-double with 12.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game across 50 starts this season.

A move bringing in Charlotte’s starting front court will ease some of the defensive and rebounding burdens that now rest on Green’s and Kevon Looney’s shoulders, solidifying the Dubs’ front line ahead of what they hope will be another deep playoff run in 2023.

McDaniels is a versatile forward in his fourth NBA season who can add some depth to Golden State’s bench rotation.

Warriors Willing to Listen to Trade Proposals For Wiseman

GettyGolden State Warriors center James Wiseman reacts during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers.

For much of the last two seasons, the Warriors have been adamant that Wiseman was not available on the trade market, as the franchise viewed him as a building block of the future and a crucial cog in building the bridge to the next era of Golden State basketball beyond Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Green.

However, Rick Bucher of Fox Sports reported on January 21 that all of that has since changed.

“The Warriors, a league source said, have indicated in conversations with other teams that the development of third-year center James Wiseman is not aligning with their hopes of squeezing another championship from the core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green,” Bucher wrote.

As such, Wiseman’s tenure in Golden State could end just six games from now, which are all that remain for the Warriors between today and the NBA’s trade deadline.

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