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Coming soon to U.S. shores: Higher prices

By Chris Isidore, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- As inflation spreads across the developing world, household needs could soon be more expensive for American consumers too.

Commodity prices -- from oil to steel to cotton -- are rising across the globe. While that's already being felt at U.S. gas stations, it'll soon be putting pressure on the prices Americans pay for food, appliances and clothing.

Prices are rising far more rapidly in developing economies than in the United States. Retail prices in China rose nearly 5% over the past 12 months, much faster than in the United States, where consumer prices were up 1.6%.

But the U.S. consumer might not be able to avoid higher prices much longer.

Numerous companies are already announcing planned price increases due to rising raw material costs.

For example, clothing maker Hanes Brands (HBI) raised prices this month and may hike them again this summer if the cost of cotton stays at current levels. Its more cotton-intensive products could have a combined 30% price increase if that happens.

Executives at Kellogg (K, Fortune 500) said prices for its cereal are likely to go up 3% to 4% due to higher grain costs.

And appliance maker Whirlpool (WHR, Fortune 500) announced price hikes will take effect in April due to higher steel prices.

Many other companies, including Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500) and Kraft (KFT, Fortune 500) are saying they expect to be raising prices in response to the higher commodity costs, but aren't giving details.

Higher import prices are driving up consumer prices, according to David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's. And that's a trend that's likely to accelerate.

"The fall in the dollar and the rising commodity prices are the reason to worry," said Wyss. "It doesn't just raise the price of imported goods, it gives domestic producers an umbrella under which to raise their prices."

So far, what's been keeping U.S. prices in check is not good for the economy -- a weak job market and stagnating incomes.

But economists say that won't keep inflation away long term.

"The possibility that it will be pass to the consumer is starting to grow," said Eugenio Alemán, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities. "The U.S. economy is recovering and there is more consumption, leading firms to believe they can raise prices."

Even if the U.S. incomes remain weak, China's economy is booming, meaning Chinese manufacturers are going to have to raise prices to cover their pay increases. That will eventually spill over to the U.S.

"Price increases take some time to come through," said John Ryding, chief economist with RDQ Economics. "But the idea that we'll dodge the prices this time around doesn't make any sense."

Ryding expects U.S. inflation will be running at 2.5% by the end of this year and be heading up, even if unemployment remains high.

He said U.S. prices have stayed this low this long because China has kept it currency, the yuan, pegged to the dollar. But that won't continue forever as the Chinese authorities begin to let the yuan rise to combat domestic inflation.

"China has been like a huge buffer to absorb the inflation pressures the U.S. has created through monetary policy," he said. "It's inflating Chinese prices rather than boosting our CPI. But as China inflates its currency, we'll be paying a lot more for goods." To top of page

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