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Food Price Inflation, Monetary Policy & Financial Markets

Stock-Markets / Food Crisis Apr 29, 2008 - 04:23 AM GMT

By: John_Mauldin

Stock-Markets Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThe second is by good friend and Maine fishing buddy David Kotok, the chief investment officer of Cumberland Asset Managers ( www.cumber.com ). He was recently in Africa where he met with the head of the central bank of a small country with headline inflation of 10%. The problem is that "core inflation" is 5% and food inflation is 15%, yet accounts for 50% of the GDP. He asked a group of financial thinkers (including your humble analyst) to ponder what that central banker should do. Do you set high rates and target overall inflation or set lower rates and not worry about food inflation.


Why should we worry about inflation in a small African country? Because the principles are the same, and it makes a real difference where the Fed comes down at the end of the day on this very question.

This week's reading should be very helpful and thought-provoking. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

Food Price Inflation, Monetary Policy & Financial Markets

By David Kotok

Suddenly food price inflation has become the premier hot topic. The media is now attuned to food issues including emerging market country riots.

In the US, the politicians are gearing up to castigate the speculators and blame everyone but themselves. They conveniently forget that they are the ones who passed the ethanol subsidy and they are the ones who appropriate taxpayer money to pay farmers not to grow crops. And so the political circus begins.

Notice how the three presidential candidates are silent on how the US ethanol subsidy has caused a food price explosion in grains. They avoid the issue of US policy starving many in the world. 1 billion very poor people sustain themselves on $1 or less a day. We have doubled the cost of their food.

Ethanol directly impacted corn which, in turn, also drove up maize. In addition, the substitution of wheat and rice are not easily occurring because of crop issues and concomitant price inflation in those items.

Well Cumberland is in the financial market and money management business. We eat food. We don't grow it and we don't process it. So let's try to inject some serious monetary policy issues into this media hysteria and political cacophony.

In the mature countries, food is a minor portion of the price index. And some of the food costs originate from eating out and some come from food processing. Processed food cost is heavily dependent on the inputs which are non-food items. Labor, machinery, transportation and distribution all come in to play. So in the mature countries we see that the food price inflation may be topical and attention getting but it is not a crisis.

Also, the major mature countries are mostly in food surplus. In the US we are very efficient in running our agriculture enterprise. We actually pay farmers not to till their soil. This is dumb. It occurs only because of our sorrowful Congress who has learned how to bribe the farm belt for votes at the expense of the rest of us.

In the US food has a 14% weight in the consumer price index. Compare that with Canada at 17%, the Euro zone at 16%, England at 11% and Japan at 25%. Only Japan lacks the fullness of food self sufficiency. Sure, food price inflation is important. But it is not the most important issue in these major economies.

The reverse is true for the emerging markets. In some of them the food price component is as much as half the price index. In a few it is above half. Since many of these economies are open to some degree, the importation of food price inflation is hitting them particularly hard. Some are responding with tariff adjustments. Others have actually embargoed food exports. Of course they ultimately make matters worse when they restrict world trade and in the end all suffer because of this protectionism.

What about monetary policy?

Here is where it gets difficult. We will admittedly simplify now and we acknowledge to our critics that we know there are second order effects and are ignoring them to make our point. In our view, monetary policy cannot easily and directly address food price inflation when the source of the inflation is in the raw food commodity. This is also true for energy costs when the source is in the oil or natural gas. The whole concept of "core" inflation vs. total inflation originates in this notion that monetary policy should be directed at the price level changes it can affect.

Let's get to the inflation problem in an emerging economy. Our example is imaginary for simplicity's sake. But it reflects characteristics that are very similar to many countries and regions in the emerging markets of the world.

We developed this simple and theoretical case study and then sent it to a number of economist friends. We suggested that following facts: the economy in question is a small and open emerging market. The food price component is 50% of the price index and is inflating at 15%. The non-food component is inflating at 5%. Thus the overall index is inflating at 10%. In this small and open economy, the main items in the food component are based on maize; therefore, the US ethanol policy which has raised the corn priced has also pressured an increase in the maize price.

Suppose you are the governor of the central bank. You have to set your policy interest rate. Do you base that decision on overall inflation rate of 10% or on the core inflation rate of 5%? Or are you going to confront the food inflation rate of 15%. Let's further assume that your economy is growing at a trend rate of 5% and all other aspects are in trend or neutral position. You have no negative output gap and no above trend pressures. Your only direct problem is what to do about inflation.

My economist friends who answered offered a suggested policy rate as low as 6% and as high as 13.5%. The answers were about equally divided and the respondents sample size is over 20. The distribution of answers was distinctly bi-modal. About half the answers were bunched in the lower range of 6%-8%; the other half were in the double digit area between 11% and 13.5%.

The divided views centered on whether or not to target food, ignore food, or blend policy. No one wanted to set the interest rate above the 15% food price inflation. Nearly all acknowledged that this central bank would have difficulty in communicating whatever it decided. Most respondents worried about changes in inflation expectations because of the complexity of this issue. Most believed the citizens in the country would not understand the monetary policy dynamics that led to the decision.

Some worried that setting the policy interest rate in double digits would impose a very high financing cost on the non-food portion of the economy and cause it to go into recession. They argued that the real (inflation-adjusted) rate of interest for that non-food half of the economy would be 7% or so. That would set the threshold of finance too high.

Others argued that the monetary policy expectation effect would cause the rate of inflation to accelerate if the policy rate was not set in double digits. They were willing to take the recession in the non-food area in order to keep inflation expectations under control. No one mentioned substitution effects. Perhaps that was overlooked. Or it may be because rice and wheat are not easy cultural substitutes and those grains are each experiencing their own price pressures.

In sum, almost two dozen folks with some monetary economics expertise were equally divided on this technical question. It is a question that impacts billions of citizens in this world and many countries, their governments, their currencies and, possibly, their political stability.

We do not know the correct answer. Our view would support the lower interest rate and we would focus on the non-food portion of the economy but we can argue the other side with equal vigor. For us a lot would depend on how the food price inflation spreads into wages and if it could trigger a broader wage/price spiral.

In many respects this question is now being asked of the major and mature economy central banks as well. It appears that the European Central Bank (ECB) favors the higher mode while the US Federal Reserve is positioned in the lower one. For the emerging markets it appears that there is quite a mix of policy and that it is made more complicated by the management of each currency's foreign exchange rate. In sum, our simple case study is actually quite complex when applied in the real world.

David R. Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer

 

I trust you enjoyed this week's Outside the Box. And for the record, I thought rates in our hypothetical African country should be at the lower end. Targeting food inflation with high interest rates would hammer the productive, job creating portion of the economy. I have been to 15 countries in Africa and they are in desperate need of jobs. Better to target inflation through control of the money supply and encourage capital formation and foreign direct investment. But it is a tough question.

Your glad I don't have to be a African central banker analyst,

By John Mauldin

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore

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Copyright 2008 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved
John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staff at Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC may or may not have investments in any funds cited above. Mauldin can be reached at 800-829-7273.

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