Does a food price index plateau signal rising real food prices?
We have from the FAO this month (that means February 2013, released in March), the updated FAO food price index coinciding with its Crop Prospects and Food Situation. This dual release gives us the opportunity to look at the interplay between the FAO food price index and its cereals sub-index, what the ‘Prospects’ quarterly has said about cereals worldwide, and what recent index numbers seem to be telling us.
First the tale of the unfiltered numbers. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 210 points in February 2013, unchanged from January but – FAO points out with what sounds to me like mild relief – “five points (2.5%) below the corresponding month last year”. More interesting is the observation by the food price indexers that “since November the Index has moved within a narrow 210-212 point range, as increases in the prices of dairy products and oils/fats were largely balanced out by declines in the prices of cereals and sugar”.
If you dwell awhile on the chart I have made for just the cereals sub-index of the FAO food price index (above left), which traces the journey of this sub-index from 2008 January, you will see that from 2008 July it plunged and stayed low (relatively for this period) until 2010 June, and then the ascent to the 230-250 level was steep. And there it has remained. The short red line describes a cumulative average for the 12 months until 2013 February, and the trend for this ‘alarum’ (I am partial to medieval English) is quite clear, forsooth.
Since we have discussed earlier what the FAO food price index in fact describes, which is not what food consumers pay for their daily several hundred grams (if that, sadly) of staples, this does to me look like we can read a plateau as signalling persistent high and rising true cost of food to consumer. Perhaps I should petition the folks inside that citadel on Rome’s Viale delle Terme di Caracalla to rename their index into an indicator.
But only if they are not otherwise busy answering telephone calls (or telegrams, as they did in an earlier and far less frenetic age) about the ‘early prospects for 2013 cereal crops’ which is the star of this quarter’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation bulletin. For, here is what they have said:
“FAO’s first forecast for world wheat production in 2013 stands at 690 million tonnes, representing an increase of 4.3 percent from the 2012 harvest and, the second largest crop on record after that of 2011. The increase is expected mostly in Europe, driven by an expansion in area in response to high prices, and a recovery in yields from below-average levels in some parts last year, notably the Russian Federation.”
Elsewhere in Europe, we have been told, prospects are satisfactory in the Russian Federation (a big jump, as the chart shows). In neighbouring Ukraine, a large recovery in wheat output is forecast. In North America, the outlook in the USA has been diplomatically called “less favourable than among the other major wheat producing countries” (makes me wonder if the Prospects authors have been fraternising too frequently with UNFCCC staff). Perhaps they haven’t yet noticed the US Drought Monitor, which may explain the “aggregate wheat output is tentatively forecast to decrease” for the USA.
In Asia, the Prospects expects “a record wheat output of some 121 million tonnes in 2013” in the People’s Republic (of China, newly minus Wen Jiabao as premier). It also expects “a record wheat output” in Pakistan and “another bumper crop” in India (what will that do to the already mountainous central stocks of cereals?). Australia and wheat can be summarised (by me, not them) in a word: uncertain.