General Mills the megamanufacturer behind your morning Cheerios, reported a drop in earnings that might make it question whether continuing to raise prices is worth it.
CEO Jeff Harmening acknowledged during the company’s fourth-fiscal-quarter earnings call this week that consumers responded to higher prices by making fewer purchases. “As you look at the last 12 weeks, it’s pretty clear that elasticity — volume elasticities have increased,” which may suggest consumer demand is more sensitive to price increases than it had been previously.
In business and economics, price elasticity refers to the degree to which individuals, consumers or producers change their demand or the amount supplied in response to price or income changes.
“ ‘Companies have been raising prices pretty aggressively. We’re seeing that trend definitely subside.’ ”
— Richard Moody, Regions Financial Corp.
The manufacturer of the Häagen-Dazs, Pillsbury and Betty Crocker product lineups, as well as its famed breakfast cereals, felt the impact of this phenomenon as it reported a decline in profits and sales volume for its fourth quarter.
Richard Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial Corp., said higher prices are posing an issue for companies more broadly. “Companies have been raising prices pretty aggressively. We’re seeing that trend definitely subside. Sellers of goods just don’t have as much pricing power as they had for most of last year and the prior year,” Moody told MarketWatch.
This could be music to the ears of Federal Reserve officials, who are trying to get inflation back down to their 2% target.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, during the early days of the fight against inflation in 2022, said inflation would return to the Fed’s target once companies find out that raising prices is harmful to their bottom lines.
In an interview last May with Fox Business Network he observed that “a lot of CEOs have come on TV and said, ‘Oh, I have lots of pricing power, and I can do whatever I want and make a lot of money … but I think some of them are going to get punched in the face here with the fact that consumers have to react.”
Though General Mills’ drop in earnings might not be the punch in the face Bullard warned of, its recent quarterly update could be a sign that continuing to raise prices is now looking harmful to financial results.
A statement from the company attributed the drop in earnings to a trend among retailers toward lower inventory levels. During the pandemic, grocery stores stocked up on Nature Valley snack bars and CoCo Puffs due to concerns about supply-chain complications. General Mills says retailers are holding less inventory now, so there is less on the shelves for consumers to purchase.
CEO Harmening said the majority of General Mills’ price increases are in the marketplace already. Though conditions can change, “we feel good about what we see right now with our pricing and the inflationary environment that we see,” he said, a possible indication that the company might back off of flexing price muscle.
Other economists were uncertain about reading too much into lower earnings for companies like General Mills.
Will Compernolle, macro strategist at FHN Financial, said he detected a bit of a culture change due to grocery-store inflation over the past two years. “People are buying less stuff to eat at home. And that is, you know, a kind of mysterious trend in the sense that this is always considered a necessity,” he said.
As pandemic-era stay-at-home recommendations and other public health measures were eased, there’s been “a temporary surge in food-services spending” as people have chosen to go out to restaurants rather than cook at home, he said.
He said it is unclear how companies like General Mills will respond to consumer spending. In order to determine demand, they will have to see what “the new normal looks like when the dust settles” and ask whether “people going to go back to their old composition of food at home versus food away.”
Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union, said he has observed “consumers are saving more and spending less, perhaps out of caution, as most believe a recession is either here or imminent.”
Lower-income Americans have become particularly sensitive to price increases, Frick said. He shared his “hunch” that there is “kind of a drag on spending because lower-income Americans are being hurt so badly.”
“It seems likely most of the effects of spending plateauing overall has to do with that lower third of Americans [having] really started to, you know, pinch their pennies and run up their debt, and they don’t want to run it up any more,” Frick said.
Income and spending data released by the government on Friday showed people may have more money to spend but are not spending quite as much.
U.S. consumer spending slowed in May, rising just 0.1%, compared with 0.6% growth in consumer spending in the prior month. Consumers saved 4.3% of their disposable income, an increase from April’s 3.4% savings rate.