Guest Post: Fighting Inflation The Wrong Way

V Anantha Nageswaran

A table of inflation rates in many countries around the world is beginning to reveal a disturbing picture. The lowest rate is found in Germany – at 3.0%. Many emerging countries that seem to be doing a truthful job are reporting inflation rates in excess of 10% and some in excess of 20%. Others, either out of deliberate intent or methodological deficiencies, report far less. India belongs to the latter category.

Inflation is the world’s number one problem. Governments are pretending to respond. In the UK, Mr. Gordon Brown wants to assemble experts to debate solutions. The Indian finance minister says that western nations are diverting land for producing expensive bio-fuels to replace the expensive crude oil. Surely, that is part of the problem. But that does not explain the jump in the price of rice. Rice is not diverted to bio-fuel production.

In India, the response has been to reduce import duties, impose export caps and accuse manufacturers and distributors of collusion and cartel-like behaviour. Different ministers speak in different voices. Together, these pronouncements do not constitute a policy whole.

In simple terms, prices reflect the balance of supply and demand of something. When prices go up, it is a reflection – and not a consequence – of supply going down or of demand going up or both. When it happens for just one or few commodities, it is possible to blame middle-men of hoarding or manufacturers of cartel-like behaviour. When it happens in many commodities, it is futile to blame one industry or a few producers.

Usually, the source lies in some policy measures and their implementation. To make it clear, we are not dismissing the importance of factors like climate change, diversion of land for production of bio-fuels and more importantly, stagnation or even outright decline in agricultural productivity in countries like India and China. Again, they explain inflation in food and agriculture commodities. These factors do not explain inflation in crude oil and copper, for example.

If we have to identify a single or the most important explanation for the recent development in prices of many commodities, the answer lies in examining the behaviour of global central banks.

Of course, in any broad-brush analysis or conclusions, there is the risk that we miss the exceptions who behaved differently and correctly. For example, within the constraints imposed by the political system, Reserve Bank of India has done a very good job of trying to shield the Indian economy from the cycles of boom and bust. Similarly, if the Australian and New Zealand economies still face the risk of boom and bust, it is not because of their central banks but in spite of their best efforts.
The bulk of the blame has to be assigned to the American Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China. In the case of China as in the case of India and in many other developing countries, the central bank is not independent. It is subject to political influence. The Federal Reserve Board of America is, in some ways, a similar predicament. It is subject to the oversight and pulls and pressures of the democratically elected Congress members. Further, since it was founded by banks actually, it ends up coming to the rescue of banks sometimes to the detriment of the public.

In 2001-2003, it cut the Federal funds rate to 1.0%. It thus rescued the economy from the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000. Thus, it replaced the stock market bubble with a housing bubble. When the housing bubble appeared to be weakening, it refused to tighten regulations and allowed it to continue. Too many loans were made to people who should not have been lent. That is the root cause of the present problem.

In order to address the resulting loan defaults, stress on banks and their balance sheets, the Federal Reserve has allowed banks to borrow at cheap rates from it. Money is available to banks in the open market but at higher cost. Some of the banks might not have survived. But, that would have also left a lesson for other banks that they would not have forgotten for a long time. Excessive risk-taking would have been curbed. Instead, the cheap money is perhaps being channelled into speculation on commodities prices. After all, banks are not going to create more mortgage loans at least for quite some time.

Somewhat different has been the behaviour of China but it achieves the same result. China has kept its currency cheap. Keeping the currency cheap requires interest rates to remain low, in comparison to other countries but also in relation to economic growth. China has done that. Low interest rates means capital is plenty. So, capital-intensive growth has flourished. That has placed tremendous demand on resources worldwide such as crude oil, coal, steel and other industrial metals. It continues to import rising quantities of iron ore, copper and crude oil. Incidentally, it has also led to China supporting many tyrannical regimes in Africa including that of Zimbabwe. Recently, it sent a shipment of arms to Zimbabwe but faced an avalanche of protest and had to recall that shipment.

Perhaps, it is possible that American banks know that there won’t be any change in China’s demand for commodities in the near future, at least until the end of the Olympics. China may be reluctant to change course fearing unknown and uncertain consequences. If so, it argues for further rise in the price of commodities. Both their behaviour and bets might be feeding off each other. That is not good news for the rest of the world.

After all, we cannot influence the Federal Reserve. So, how should policymakers respond? Unfortunately, the answer is that they should respond differently from what they have done until now. Banning exports of agricultural commodities exposes the hollowness of farmer-friendly policies. Farmers should be allowed, with appropriate guidance, to sell to the highest bidder – local or global – and derive the maximum gains from the global shortage. Such a price signal would also encourage productivity improvement in farmland and hence boost crop production. More land would be brought under cultivation. At the same time, poor households – rural or urban – could be directly subsidised with cash transfer to be able to pay the higher price.

The same principle can be extended to the price of hydrocarbon products such as petrol, cooking gas, diesel and kerosene. Consumers and producers should receive the price signal. Without that, their respective behaviours would not change and shortages or glut would persist.

At the same time, since supply of food and other commodities would take time to respond to price signals, central banks should be allowed to restrain demand in the short-run with tight monetary policy. That means higher cash reserve ratio or higher interest rates or both. That might be unpopular or politically unacceptable. But, effective medicines never taste sweet. Only placebos do.

The chances of such sound policies being pursued are close to nil particularly as many democratic governments, including India, approach elections soon. Authoritarian governments do not care much for public opinion.

Given such a low chance for sound economic decision-making, prospects for a sustained decline in inflation should be judged remote. That is not good news as it is a stealth tax on the public and erodes their purchasing power. Consequently, it reduces affordability for many assets. As demand drops, inflation affects revenues for companies and squeezes margins through cost pressures. That does not augur well for the stock market.

The stock market in India has performed well in recent times. Many other global markets have staged a similar recovery. That is due to misplaced optimism on the American economy. As discussed above, right policies would be missing and hence the anticipated quick economic turnaround in America would be elusive. Consequently, risky assets globally would retrace their recent gains. Therefore, Indian stocks would fail to build on their recent gains. On the other hand, the likelihood of continued high global and local inflation would result in a resumption of the uptrend in gold price that has been recently disrupted. Therefore, investors who do not expect inflation to recede know exactly what they should be selling and what they should be buying.

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