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Fed Chair Jerome Powell speaks at a news conference

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference on November 2, 2022. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Top Economist at Major Global Bank Says Corporate Profits Are Fueling Inflation

"Companies have passed higher costs on to customers," wrote Paul Donovan of UBS Global Wealth Management. "But they have also taken advantage of circumstances to expand profit margins."

Jake Johnson

The chief economist at the global investment bank UBS, the world's largest wealth manager, argued in an op-ed for the Financial Times on Wednesday that inflation in the United States "is more a product of profits than wages" and criticized Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell for refusing to acknowledge that fact as he plows ahead with massive interest rate hikes.

"Powell's public remarks offer little insight into how he expects higher rates to tame inflation," Paul Donovan of UBS Global Wealth Management wrote just ahead of the Fed's latest interest rate increase of 75 basis points. "This is the current inflation story. Companies have passed higher costs on to customers. But they have also taken advantage of circumstances to expand profit margins. The broadening of inflation beyond commodity prices is more profit margin expansion than wage cost pressures."

"Even a major bank's chief economist now admits that corporations are price gouging under the guise of inflation."

"Despite negative real wages, consumers have carried on consuming," Donovan added. "Consumers seem to be buying stories that seem to justify price increases, but which really serve as cover for profit margin expansion... This unconventional inflation means higher unemployment and lower wages are not the only possible cure for it. Policy has more routes to lower inflation if the cause is about profits."

Thus far, though, the Powell-led Federal Reserve has primarily used interest rate increases in its as-yet unsuccessful effort to bring down inflation, even as critics warn that such an approach harms workers and risks a devastating recession without tackling the primary drivers of price increases.

At his Wednesday press conference, Powell once again conceded that rate hikes "don't directly affect for the most part food and energy prices," two major sources of inflation dictated by profit-seeking corporations such as Exxon, Chevron, and Pepsi.

"We increased prices at the beginning of the fourth quarter based on what we knew at that point," Pepsi's chief financial officer said on the company's earnings call last month. "And going forward, with the investments that we've made in brands, I still think we're capable of taking whatever pricing we need."

During his public appearance Wednesday, Powell wasn't asked a single question about the role corporate profiteering has played in causing high inflation even as executives boast about their enormous pricing power.

Progressive advocates and economists who have been spotlighting corporate America's inflationary profiteering for months seized on Donovan's Financial Times op-ed as further evidence that their data-driven argument is gradually piercing the mainstream, even as Powell ignores it.

"Even a major bank's chief economist now admits that corporations are price gouging under the guise of inflation," the American Economic Liberties Project tweeted Thursday.

Christian Hallum, tax justice lead at Oxfam International, added that "skyrocketing profits are to blame for inflation, according to the chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management."

"Maybe we should tax windfall profits instead of trying to create unemployment through interest rate hikes?" Hallum suggested.

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