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The US Federal Reserve kicked off its Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting on Tuesday, with the markets widely anticipating a 25 basis-point hike in what would be the first interest rate increase since 2018.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell had earlier raised the prospect of a 25bp hike, telling a House financial services committee hearing two weeks ago that he is "inclined to propose and support” the increase as inflation has sat above 2% and as the United States’ labor market continued to recover.

High inflation underscores need for tightening

With the US consumer inflation soaring to a 40-year high of 7.9% in February, a rate hike this week is highly anticipated, although uncertainty lies in how much the Fed will have to tighten to tame inflation. Markets are also pricing in up to six or seven hikes this year, one for each of the upcoming FOMC meetings.

Higher inflation expectations among US consumers, according to surveys by the New York Fed and Cleveland Fed, also ramp up the likelihood of a more hawkish Fed.

US Inflation

50bp hike also on the table

Although many market watchers anticipate a 25bp hike when the Fed caps off its meeting on Thursday, some economists say a 50bp is also likely. Last month, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard called for a full percentage-point hike by July 1.

ING Bank’s Chief International Economist James Knightley in a note last week said it wouldn’t be surprising “to see maybe two FOMC members vote for 50bp.”

Knightley and other economists from the Dutch bank most recently said markets are back to pricing 160bp hikes in six meetings in total for 2022, although the Fed may have five rate hikes planned for the year.

Russia-Ukraine war places Fed in a precarious spot

However, the worsening conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has reached its third week, puts the Fed on alert due to expectations that the war could worsen inflation and result in a potential global economic recession that could derail the United States’ recovery momentum.

Still, the Fed appeared to be undeterred by the crisis, with Powell saying in a recent speech to Congress that the near-term effects of the war and Western sanctions on Russia remain highly uncertain.

"Making appropriate monetary policy in this environment requires a recognition that the economy evolves in unexpected ways. We will need to be nimble in responding to incoming data and the evolving outlook,” Powell said.

Squeezing household income

A rate hike in the US — the first since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged — could further squeeze household income at a time when gas prices hover around record highs. Gasoline prices in the US surged to an all-time high of $4.33 on Friday, before retreating over the weekend, according to data from the American Automobile Association.

Higher interest rates will raise borrowing costs in banks, lifting variable rates on credit card debt and affecting interests on auto loans and mortgages. This could further weigh on consumer’s spending habits.

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The worsening oil supply shortage in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent pump prices to record highs in recent weeks, sparking fears of a catastrophic global oil crisis and soaring inflation.

Despite these concerns, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other non-OPEC oil-exporting nations, a global oil cartel known as OPEC+, are still holding back on boosting production, downplaying the impact of the conflict on global oil supply and demand and stressing that the current market volatility is triggered only by geopolitical developments.

Why are oil prices high?

Economic sanctions imposed against Russia have caused oil importers overseas to turn down Russian oil as "no one wants to be seen buying Russian products and funding a war against the Ukrainian people,” a New York Harbor trader was quoted by Reuters as saying earlier this month.

Even when not many countries use Russian oil, pump prices have surged in recent weeks as the absence of millions of barrels of Russian oil from the global supply chain prompted importers of Russian crude like Europe to seek the commodity elsewhere such as from OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia. These leaves other traders scrambling to secure supply.

How OPEC plays into the issue

OPEC members — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela — account for about 40% of the world’s crude oil production and 60% of petroleum traded globally, according to the US Energy Information Administration

In 2020, as demand for oil plummeted when most countries were under lockdown, OPEC+ agreed to a deal with former US President Donald Trump to slash nearly 10 million barrels of oil per day, or close to 10% of the global oil output. The world’s top exporters eventually started beefing up production by 400,000 barrels a day since August 2021 as economies reopened.

Most recently, with the Russia-Ukraine war threatening a global oil supply crunch, the focus has again turned to OPEC+ to ramp up output. However, the group in its recent meeting on March 2 — about a week since Russia started invading Ukraine — reaffirmed its commitment to only increase its crude oil output by 400,000 bpd.

“It was noted that current oil market fundamentals and the consensus on its outlook pointed to a well-balanced market, and that current volatility is not caused by changes in market fundamentals but by current geopolitical developments,” OPEC+ said in a statement.

UAE pushes for increased output

Yousuf Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to Washington, last week said the country “favor[s] production increases and will be encouraging OPEC to consider higher production levels.” The statement caused oil prices to fall at most in two years on Thursday, with Brent crude futures falling 13.2% at $111.14 a barrel, the biggest one-day drop since April 21, 2020.

Prices have continued to fall on Monday, with Brent prices falling to $107.59 a barrel for May contracts and WTI crude slipping to $103.42 for April contracts.

Oil prices have also retreated on expectations that some producers may accelerate production.

Will OPEC+ boost output?

In late January, prior to the Ukraine conflict, the EIA had predicted a nearly 2.7 million bpd increase in OPEC’s oil output this year, the largest year-over-year jump in production since 2004.

Energy research firm Rystad Energy most recently estimated that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Kuwait can bring about 4 million bpd of spare capacity into the market within three to six months, potentially easing the crisis. However, that amount still falls short of Russia’s 7 million bpd in oil exports, according to Reuters.

In an interview with Bloomberg News last week, OPEC’s outgoing general secretary Mohammad Barkindo said there is "no physical shortage of oil” amid the Ukraine crisis, adding that the physical market supplies are guaranteed.

Barkindo’s statement underscores the OPEC+’s likelihood of only beefing up production once signs of a supply crunch become more imminent. One factor that could prompt the cartel to yield to calls to accelerate output is the potential for a demand destruction. Oil demand may soon peak and decline when retail fuel prices become relatively expensive and as the prices of other consumer goods skyrocket.

The transition to renewable energy sources and the shift to new-energy vehicles may also cause oil demand to weaken, especially as Western countries and other economic giants like China accelerate their climate action targets.

The potential end to the Russia-Ukraine dispute could likewise stabilize oil prices and encourage OPEC+ to boost output as global supply chains and activities resume, although the likelihood of this happening in the near term is relatively slim as Western countries have refused to directly intervene over fears of wide-ranging “consequences” from Vladimir Putin.

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allbirds stock

Allbirds (NASDAQ: BIRD), the New Zealand footwear company, was listed on the Nasdaq in November 2021 at a starting price of US $21.21 and found a range between US $20 and $30 for one month.

Its mission to create the world's first carbon-neutral shoe brand appealed to investors, perhaps those of the ESG persuasion, who have pushed a record US $650 billion of funds into ESG project in 2021. As noted by the Financial Post, Allbirds mentioned the word "sustainability" 112 times in its IPO filing.

Starting December 2021, up to the time of writing, BIRD stock has plummeted to US $5.99, and its market cap has reduced to US $4 billion from US $900 million. While the company has been performing admirably, as per its quarterly report released on February 23, BIRD's stock price has flown south for the winter, as it's caught up in the same winddown experienced by many other of its growth stock brethren.

Growth stocks fall out of favour

Over the past few months, investors have generally turned against growth stocks ever since it became apparent that the US Federal Reserve would be hiking interest rates to combat the countries inflation that is famously at a 40-year high.

Allbirds is firmly in the category of a growth stock and a unique growth stock at that, as its typically eco-conscious customers return less frequently to the Allbirds checkout aisle. This means its growth strategy and attempt to build brand awareness has to be particularly aggressive.

As such, Allbirds is ploughing its cash flow and cash reserves into gaining more customers, opening brick-and-mortar stores, and expanding its apparel range. The company is projecting revenue of US $360 million in the 2022 financial year, a big lift in revenue over 2021, but still expects to make a loss of approximately US $11 million. Interestingly, it should be noted that about US $8 million of this shortfall is attributed to compliance costs associated with becoming a public company.

Even though Allbirds may bootstrap its growth expenses with its cash flow and reserves, it does have US $40 million available under a revolving credit agreement. The cost of borrowing capital moving forward, should it need to meet its aggressive growth strategy, may become increasingly costly in line with the US Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes.

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wheat futures

Fears of the impact of Russia-Ukraine war on global inflation and recession have escalated in recent weeks and another major issue looming over the horizon are concerns that the conflict could result in a hunger crisis as both countries account for over a quarter of the world’s wheat exports.

Wheat prices recently surged to a 14-year high, with the price of a bushel of wheat soaring more than 50% to $12.94 on Monday since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The price movement on Monday hit the Chicago Board of Trade’s limit for another day.

Reliance on Russia and Ukraine wheat exports

Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, accounting for about 30% of the global total. In 2019, Russia was the world’s top wheat exporter, while Ukraine came in fifth next to the US, Canada and France, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The disruption in both countries’ grain harvest and trade could have catastrophic impacts on their biggest buyers in the Middle East including Egypt, which depends on Ukraine’s wheat imports to produce subsidized bread to its poor population and other staples.

These fears intensified on Wednesday after the Ukrainian government said it will ban exports of key agricultural goods like wheat, corn, salt, meat and oilseeds to maintain market stability in Ukraine and “meet the needs of the population in critical food products.

Looming food shortage

Many nations rely on Ukraine and Russia for grain and oilseeds and the crisis could exacerbate the supply of food especially at a time when low-income countries are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some economists have warned that the war could lead to a repeat of the Arab Spring in the past decade when social unrest and armed rebellions led to soaring food prices.

"The fallout from Ukraine will spread across the globe. Russia and Ukraine together export 30% of the world's wheat. As this war heats up, many countries will face: soaring food prices, catastrophic hunger & growing instability,” David Beasley, the head of the United Nations World Food Program said.

Farmers in Russia and Ukraine are tipped to reduce their planting area in the coming seasons as the war intensifies, placing the pressure on other exporters to boost production.

China, India, US work to fill in the gap

Although Russia and Ukraine’s grain trade have not been technically included in sanctions imposed by Western countries, many importers have turned to other sources like China, India and the US to make up for any shortfalls, according to ING Bank, over fears of supply disruptions.

“We would expect to see strong plantings from US farmers over the spring, leaving the potential for an increase in US spring wheat, corn and soybean area,” ING’s head of commodities strategy, Warren Patterson, said in a note on Monday.

Volatility in wheat markets

The lingering crisis in Ukraine has caused wheat prices to be highly volatile in recent weeks as countries work to ensure grain imports to feed their population. The CBOT soft red winter wheat, KC hard red winter wheat and MGEX spring wheat all reached their daily trading limits for another day on Tuesday, while US wheat futures snapped a six-day winning streak the same day.

Investors have been hesitant in making big position moves for the second week in a row last week despite the market volatility, Reuters said.

In the week ended March 1, commodity funds axed only 11,000 futures and options contracts from their CBOT wheat net short, down from estimates, the news outlet reported earlier this week, citing data from the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

"Huge speculative interest has flowed into wheat that may have pushed futures past reasonable levels… The export market is difficult to define with many countries banning exports and tenders being canceled,” CHS Hedging was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying.

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