All over the world, food is causing trouble. Why? Not because there is too much of it or too little, but because it has gone way up in price.
Why has it gone up? Well, for one reason, Ben Bernanke and other monetary authorities are pushing more money into the world financial system. The cash has to go somewhere. Much of it seems to be finding its way into the commodities markets – including soft commodities, notably food. In other words, worldwide inflation of food prices is a monetary phenomenon, as Milton Friedman might have put it, not a feature of the weather. But rather than attack the cause of inflation, the authorities are aiming squarely at its consequences.
Of course, there are other reasons for food price increases. There are a lot more people in the world than there used to be. And the new people have to eat too. Since many of these new people are entering the ‘middle class’ they have more money to spend on food, so they can bid up prices. And, typically, they want more meat. It takes more land to produce meat than it does to produce grains – putting further pressure prices all up and down the food chain.
Another reason food is in the news is governments’ own food policies. This is on our mind, because when we went to lunch today we discovered that our favorite meat – churasquito – was unavailable.
“Because of the blockade, you know…” the waiter explained.
Here in Argentina, politicians can do the math. There are more urban voters than rural ones. And as elsewhere, government is in the business of providing bread and circuses. Bread is getting expensive; the urban mobs are beginning to grumble. So the government of Senora Fernandez de Kirchner effectively forbade the farmers from selling their grain on the world market, imposing a 49% tax on foreign sales. It seemed like a no-brainer, until the farmers blocked the roads into Buenos Aires.
“They’re trying to starve us into submission,” explained a cab driver.
Word on the street is that both sides have agreed to a ‘cooling off’ period.
Meanwhile, beyond the pampas, three billion rely on rice for their daily rations. The price of rice rose 50% in the last two week, causing fear of riots all over the world. Vietnam, India, China and Egypt have all banned foreign sales.
Nations either export rice or import it. The exporters are coming under pressure to export less – in order to lower prices at home. The importers, meanwhile, have no choice but to try to get as much of it as possible, as soon as possible, in order to head off shortages. Result: a run on rice.
Oh…if only we’d bought some rich, wet rice land…instead of bone-try cattle country. Beef is about the only farm product that has gone down in price!
Markets and Money