Energy & Commodities


The skyrocketing cost of lumber, explained


Low supply and high demand have pushed lumber prices through the roof, but European beetles are helping.

Wood is typically used for building roofs. Now it’s known for blasting through them.

Lumber prices are up nearly 260% since April 2020, following a perfect storm of surging demand and diminished supply.

And it all started with a simple backlog…

At the start of the pandemic, sawmills anticipated weak demand and limited production by up to 30%. To their surprise, demand turned out stronger than ever:

  • DIY boom: While the US economy shrank 3.5% in 2020, spending on home improvements and repairs grew 3%+
  • Low interest rates: In December, US new housing starts hit a 14-year high

Despite wood production hitting a 13-year high in February, supply hasn’t caught up with demand — and now ~70% of builders are raising home prices to slow demand down.

The result is a $24k+ increase in the average price of single-family homes since April 2020.

European beetles are now coming in clutch

Not those European beetles. A literal beetle infestation across Europe is boosting logging there, and Europe’s share of US lumber imports reached a record high of 13% in 2020.

Those imports are critical to the US lumber supply as British Columbia has reduced production by over a third in 5 years.

In conclusion… (We wanted to end this piece with a joke about lumber, but we just couldn’t think of any that wood work.)


Rabo: When It Comes To Inflation, What One Does And Doesn’t See Is All Political

CPI Basket Case

On Sunday on ‘60 Minutes’, Fed Chair Powell said “We can wait to see actual inflation before we raise interest rates.” Well, today is the US inflation report. The market consensus is headline prices will rise 0.5% m/m, which would be around 6% y/y annualised, and on a straight y/y basis CPI will go from 1.7% to 2.5%. Of course, excluding food and energy CPI is seen rising just 0.2% m/m, or around 2.4% annualised, and up from 1.3% to 1.5% y/y. Yet the Fed won’t see any actual inflation in those numbers. When it comes to inflation, what one does and doesn’t see is all political.

For example, we are currently seeing a housing boom in many economies, most so in Australia, on the back of ultra-low interest rates. What do central banks and regulatory bodies say when house price inflation is, say, 5%, or even 10% – let alone 30% as in Oz? Answer: nothing. Once upon a time they had to do something – but then we removed accurate measures of house prices from CPI, so now they don’t. It isn’t happening, or isn’t their remit. True, they can waffle about financial stability, and in the case of the odd outlier like New Zealand (and on/off in China), the government can force action from the central bank. Yet until that revolution is imposed globally –in the same ‘yes,-that-is-going-to-happen’ way the US wants minimum corporate tax rates to be– house-price inflation just is what it is. As such, is it any wonder that such a vast slice of the US, Chinese, European, Aussie, etc., economies are focused on endless property speculation?

How about stock prices? Can anyone remember back to Alan “Bubble Boy” Greenspan and his empty warning of “irrational exuberance”? Indeed, can anyone remember the last time a major central bank deliberately raised interest rates in order to slow down an ascent in stocks, because this was inflationary? Conversely, does anyone seriously think that stocks could ever fall significantly before our monetary authorities slashed interest rates (where they still can), or boosted QE further, or did “whatever it takes” to get them to go back up again? So clearly not much fear of inflation there – just deflation.

Of course, there is wage inflation. Nowadays there are more frequent and widespread calls to ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘level up’, and recognition that this involves higher pay. (Just not for NHS workers in the UK, who were initially offered 1%). Even the US Treasury Secretary is using quasi-Marxist terminology of “labor vs. capital”. However, since the neoliberal reforms of the late 1970s/early 1980s, wage inflation has not been tolerated by central banks – outside of finance and after-dinner speaking fees of USD250,000 a pop. Any sign of general salaries going up to, say, 5% or even 10% is terrifying, was met with an immediate response of higher interest rates.

Yes, central-bank rhetoric has now changed: but it’s easy to say one is willing to let wage rises happen when one is also aware that the economic structure will not allow it! You can’t sit on rates or yields or talk about “labour vs. capital” and expect wages to just go up. You need to *strengthen* the bargaining power of labour vs. capital. How do you do that without empowering unions/weakening the power of firms? How do you do that while allowing off-shoring and free trade, because the logical response will be to shift production elsewhere. And how do you stop capital replacing labour, i.e., automation? Our global system is designed to ensure we don’t get general wage inflation. Slashing rates, QE or even YCC are performative in a political vacuum: but, handily, they produce higher house and stock prices.

Meanwhile, expensive Aussie house prices and cheap rhetoric are not the only things growing 30% y/y. As the US CPI report will probably only partially show, so are food and energy costs. I wrote recently about geometric vs. arithmetic means and hedonic adjustments made to the CPI basket that keep it lower than it feels for most people. One other what-you-see-and-what-you-don’t impact in the same basket I didn’t mention is periodicity.

How often do you buy a TV, for example? The price of those has come down when one adjusts for quality, and even in absolute terms. Yet my own experience is that if I am buying more than one every five years, I am pretty angry about it. The same goes for key pieces of furniture and lots of other items where our neoliberal system *has* seen prices come down (and Western supply chains and jobs shift to Asia in tandem). By contrast, how often do you buy food? How often do you fill up your car with petrol/gas, or buy something delivered by somebody who did? Inflation fails to capture this time distribution effect. Everything around you that you need to buy today is going up in price rapidly – but don’t worry: something big you might not need to buy until 2028 is going down in a hedonic-adjusted price. Sit back and feel the savings.

Big Fat Idea – Investing in CyberSecurity

Ian Paterson, CEO of Plurilock Security joins Michael to share some insights into the booming market for cybersecurity products and services – and most importantly, some ideas on how investors can participate.

Mike’s Editorial

If you like paying taxes, you’ll love what’s coming. Of course it’s already started with the increase in payroll taxes, carbon taxes and liquor taxes that have already kicked in.

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Debt Fueled Spending Won’t Create Growth


As the economy shut down in March of last year due to the pandemic, the Federal Reserve flooded the system with liquidity. At the same time, Congress passed a massive fiscal stimulus bill that extended Unemployment Benefits by $600 per week and sent $1200 checks directly to households.

In December, Congress passed another $900 stimulus bill extending unemployment benefits at a reduced amount of $300 per week, plus sending $600 checks to households once again.

Now, the latest iteration of Government largesse comes in a solely Democrat supported $1.9 trillion “spend-fest.” Out of the total, only about $900 billion goes to consumers in the form of $400 extended unemployment benefits and $1400 checks directly to households. The remaining $1.1 trillion will have little economic value as bailing out municipalities and funding pet projects doesn’t boost consumption.

Economists estimate the latest stimulus bill could add nearly $1 trillion to nominal growth (before inflation) during 2021. While such a surge in growth would be welcome, it represents just $0.50 of growth for each dollar of new debt.

Such a high growth estimate also assumes that individuals will quickly spend their checks in the economy. The hope is that as vaccines become available, individuals will unleash their “pent-up” demand from the last year.

While that could indeed be the case, there are also other facts to consider.

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