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Food inflation in Asia and India, and a word about price indexes

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Vendors in Mapusa, Goa

Vendors in Mapusa, Goa. The middle basket contains 'nachne', local millet


The question in Asia again is food inflation. Entering the last quarter of 2010, news reports from South and South-East Asia cite continuing high food inflation as a persistent worry for consumers. The food weighting in Asia’s consumer price indexes is mostly high. China, India, Indonesia and Thailand have CPI weightings of 33%-46% for food.

Hence, persistently higher food prices pose a bigger risk of a rise in inflation expectations and wages in these countries as compared with higher per capita income economies on a relative basis, says the late September Global Economic Forum briefing from Morgan Stanley. “While job growth was affected by the latest global financial crisis, with GDP growth back to trend line and employment levels having recovered sharply, the risk of a rise in inflation expectations is significant. While employment statistics in the region are not very transparent, given the GDP growth trend, it appears that employment growth should have been strong.”

China, India and Indonesia together account for 40% of the global population. Any small increase in demand from these countries in the form of imports tends to push up global prices. The recent crop failure in India and its attempt to import sugar are a case in point. Moreover, there are some crops that are peculiar to local markets with very little global supply. For instance, in the case of India last year, the country fell short of pulses (lentils), and it was not really possible to import the crop even if the government had wanted to. Indeed, the top four (in terms of population) countries in the region (China, India, Indonesia and Thailand) are all net exporters of food items. All four countries tend to maintain inventories for staple items like rice and wheat, and have public distribution systems to ensure availability of these essential items at a reasonable price. Most countries in the region subsidise food for the poor.

Against this background, two recent speeches from senior figures in India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, are worth examining closely. First, in ‘Managing the Growth-Inflation Balance in India: Current Considerations and Long-term Perspectives’ the deputy governor of the RBI Dr Subir Gokarn talks directly about food inflation (he gave the speech on 05 October 2010 at The Private Equity International India Forum).

“The inflation rate, which was briefly negative in the middle of 2009, began to accelerate rapidly later in the year. This upward momentum continued into the first half of 2010, with double-digit inflation persisting for a few months. The rapidity of the transition was surprising, given the fact that the recovery in growth was just getting under way and, importantly, the global situation was still very uncertain. However, the reason for the sharp increase was that all the possible drivers of inflation were simultaneously contributing. Each one by itself may not have resulted in the outcome that we saw, but all three working together resulted in a rather sharp acceleration. Food prices rose sharply because the monsoon of 2009 was deficient in most parts of the country, impacting agricultural production. However, there are, I believe, longer term forces at work on food prices, which are a matter of concern.”


UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo


Next, in a speech titled ‘Perspectives on Inflation in India’, executive director of the RBI, Deepak Mohanty (on 28 September 2010 at the Bankers Club, Chennai) said that the Reserve Bank is concerned over “the unacceptably high inflation rate”. Mohanty dwelt awhile on the Indian government’s new wholesale price index series.

“In the meanwhile, the Government has also released the new series on the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) changing the base year from 1993-94 to 2004-05. In terms of change in the relative weight of major commodity groups, the share of primary articles has gone down by 1.9 percentage points, which has been compensated by increase in the share of fuel group by about 0.7 percentage point and manufactured products by 1.2 percentage points. There has been a reduction in weightage of primary food articles and manufactured food products by 2.6 percentage points in the new series to 24.3 per cent from about 26.9 per cent in the old series.”

“Second, notwithstanding a significant reduction in weightage, the food inflation in the new series is higher than in the old series. This is because of change in the consumption basket in favour of protein-rich items such as egg, meat and fish where price rise has been high apart from milk and pulses. Third, the non-food manufactured products inflation is lower in the new series than in the old series. This is because of a substantial overhauling of the basket with the introduction of a number of new items. For example, the new series has 417 new commodities of which 406 are new manufactured products. Fourth, the new series has wider coverage. For example, the number of price quotations has increased from 1,918 in the old series to 5,482 in the new series. The new series, therefore, is better representative of overall commodity price inflation.”

What is curious is that these trends have taken place during a phase of rapid growth in India’s formal economy. Gokarn explained that what was most significant from the monetary policy perspective was the growing visibility of demand-side pressures. He examined the price dynamics of the manufacturing sector – overall and without the food processing component. The latter, he said, has been used by many analysts as a reasonable proxy of demand-side inflation, which is the phenomenon that monetary policy can and should influence. Both sectors he said, and particularly non-food manufacturing inflation, “show a tremendous acceleration from a significantly negative rate of inflation during 2009 to reach rather worrisome levels by the middle of 2010”.

Mohanty finds that the new series of WPI inflation marks a major change in terms of scope and coverage of commodities and is more representative of the underlying economic structure. As per the new series, the manufactured products inflation is lower than what was seen on the basis of the old series, he said. The food price inflation, on the other hand, is higher than what was seen on the basis of the old series. “The high level of food prices is The 100th postindeed a matter of concern as the prices of protein-based items, which have a higher share in the consumption basket, are showing larger increases”. Moreover, Mohanty said, there is continuing shortage of food items such as pulses and edible oils. “If the supply response doesn’t improve, there is a risk that food price inflation could acquire a structural character”.

Asia’s food-oil-inflation roller-coaster

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These people are already hit by the food price rise

In South-East Asia the price of Thai fragrant rice has surged by 26 per cent since 01 Nov 2009, thanks to storms in the Philippines and drought in southern China. At these levels, physical hoarding is seen taking place among Thai rice exporters, which means they probably have expectations that rice prices will go up even higher. And it is not just rice. Soya beans and edible oils like palm oil are also seeing a rise in prices, which in turn may make livestock more expensive since these crops go into animal feed.

Food prices are also rising in China – prices of vegetables shot up by as much as 10 per cent since 01 January 2010 as extreme cold weather damaged crops and transportation problems hampered delivery. Oil prices have been rallying in line with the global recovery, hitting levels above US$83 a barrel earlier this week, near a 15-month high. Food prices are also rebounding from their 2009 lows, potentially increasing price pressures in Asian countries that are already seeing asset bubbles build up.

Vegetable vendor

There’s already evidence from Kerala that the combination of food price rise specifically and inflation generally is hurting:

“The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (Nafed) will join hands with the State government to implement an ‘Easy Market’ scheme to provide solace to consumers in the event of spiralling prices of essential commodities. The Union government has approved a subsidy of around Rs.600 crore [Rs 6 billion = US$ 133.34 million, Jan 2010] to provide ‘Easy Market’ kits containing 20 items of daily use to consumers at a discount ranging between 30 and 40 per cent. In Kerala, Nafed will use the Triveni and Neethi chain of stores to implement the scheme.
The scheme had been approved by a Cabinet sub-committee and 60 million kits would be distributed in the first phase. These kits contain rice, wheat, whole wheat flour, pulses, sugar, edible oil, etc, he said. Nafed would procure wheat and rice from the Food Corporation of India and distribute them at reasonable rates. Wheat flour would also be distributed similarly.”
Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

But elsewhere in India’s government mindspace, the ‘spend more’ school of thought is dreaming up still more schemes that have to do with food:

“Speaking at the National Retail Summit 2010 “Modern Retail: Towards Sustainable Growth and Profitability” Subodh Kant Sahai, Minister for Food Processing Industry, said that the Union Government is coming out with a series of initiatives to “increase the share of modern retail”. Sahai stated that the centre has planned to upgrade 70 cities in India by 2012 having all the modern facilities that of metros like Mumbai and Delhi. “With the amendment of the Agriculture Produce Market Act or the APMC act, farmers would become the largest beneficiaries. With 70 percent of our population also dependent on agriculture this would also get in 3rd party investors interested in Retail to patronize the farmers,” he said. According to Mr Sahai growth of the food processing industry is directly linked to the growth in retail industry.” Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

It’s typical that India’s administrators, planners, policymakers and legislators don’t bother to look around at the conditions of our fellow Southasians:

“Burma had been the world’s largest exporter of rice as recently as the 1930s, but rice exports fell by two thirds in the 1940s, with the country never again reclaiming its dominant status in the internatinal rice trade. Thailand and Vietnam now lead the world in rice exports. For fiscal year 1938/39, rice accounted for nearly 47 percent of Burma’s export receipts. However, by 2007/08 the corresponding figure had sunk to less than two percent. Dr. U Myint [an economist] said the reintegration of the rice industry into the world market would provide incentives to increase both the quantity and quality of rice and thereby lead to higher incomes and employment opportunities for the rural population, who constitute 65 percent of the population of 58 million. An estimated 31 million acres of land is cultivated in Burma, of which more than 16 million acres are devoted to rice.” Read more here.

Commodity chains took powerful shape in the steam age to give a large number of local products geographically expansive identities. Opium, jute, and indigo are prime examples of nineteenth century Bengal farm products generated by world markets where the ups and downs of prices impinged sharply on local experience in some locales but not others.

Tippoo's Dominions, 1794

“By 1900, commodity production defined South Asia as a region of the world economy, defined regions in South Asia, and defined localities in regions. Ceylon, Malaysia, Assam, Fiji and Mauritius were for plantations. Ceylon first produced coffee; then tea, rubber, cocoanut, and cinchona. Assam was tea country. Ceylon and Assam replaced China as top suppliers of English tea. Fiji and Mauritius meant sugar plantations. Labour supplies posed the major constraint for plantation capitalists who found the solution in eventually permanent indentured labour migration from labour export specialty areas in Bihar, Bengal, and southern Tamil districts.”

“Sites of commodity production demanded more commodities. Circuits of moving commodities linked commodity producers and consumers to one another in spaces that surpass the spatial imagination of national history. Modern Indian history has circulated in the space/time of capitalism, in the manner of globalization today, for over a century. Far-flung plantations in Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies, as well as cities and farms in Burma and Africa developed circuits of commodity production and capital accumulation anchored in India. Tamil Chettiyars became local financiers on the rice frontier in Burma’s Irrawaddy River delta, which generated huge exports of rice for world consumers, including Indian cities that needed Burma rice so much that when Japan’s conquest of Burma cut rice exports, it precipitated the 1943-4 Bengal famine. In 1930, Indians composed almost half Rangoon’s population. In East and South Africa, Gujarati merchants and workers arriving from Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras provided labour and capital for railways and import-export dependent urbanism. The Indian diaspora was well underway a century ago: between 1896 and 1928, seventy-five percent of emigrants from Indian ports went to Ceylon and Malaya; ten percent, to Africa; nine percent, to the Caribbean; and the remaining six percent, to Fiji and Mauritius.”

From ‘Agricultural Production, South Asian History, and Development Studies’, edited by David Ludden, Oxford University Press, September 2004