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Friday, April 18, 2008

Food Price Riots

Behind the Food-Price Riots

The Wall Street Journal

By VINCENT REINHART

April 18, 2008

With a dramatic rise in the prices of foodstuffs, riots have flared up in dozens of hotspots around the world. Panicky politicians are responding with precisely the wrong policies, including production subsidies and trade controls.

The problem is clear enough: According to the International Monetary Fund, food and beverage prices have risen 60% in the past three years, and more than doubled since 2001. Even in the U.S., increases in the food-price component of producer- and consumer-price indexes over the last 12 months have been in the neighborhood of 5%.

What is going on? We can discern four forces at work today pushing up food prices – forces that were also at work in the 1970s, the last time food prices increased so rapidly on a sustained basis:

- Monetary policy in overdrive. Consider the real federal funds rate – that is, the nominal funds rate less inflation. A low real fed funds rate both encourages interest-rate sensitive spending, such as business investment, and discourages global investors from supporting the dollar on foreign exchange markets. At 2.25%, the nominal fed funds rate is now below the prevailing rate of consumer price inflation.

The last time the real fed funds rate was negative for a prolonged period was the mid-1970s. This was also a period when overstimulated demand pushed food prices up and the dollar depreciated sharply. In the end, economic growth suffered as well. Remember stagflation?

- Exchange-rate arrangements in disarray. The 1970s were also noted for turmoil in exchange markets, following the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system. The schism today is that some exchange rates move too little and others too much.

The exchange rates that are moving too little are those of emerging market economies and oil producers. China, India, Korea and Taiwan, and key oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, have been preventing their exchange rates from appreciating significantly by rapidly accumulating international reserves.

They've also effectively adopted the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve by keeping their domestic interest rates close to the fed funds rate. That way, no interest-rate wedge opens between their markets and our own that would otherwise put pressure on their exchange rate.

As a consequence, they are following an accommodative monetary policy strategy totally unsuited to their already overheated domestic economies. Higher inflation has followed.

With exchange-rate movements capped by policy makers in so many parts of the world, the burden of adjustment falls more heavily on the nations that allow their currencies to float freely, such as Canada, those in the Euro area, and Japan. The depreciation of the dollar against these currencies is yet another reminder of the 1970s. As a result of these exchange-rate changes, the purchasing power of these regions for any internationally traded good denominated in dollars has gone up. Hence, it is no accident that the dollar price of food is up sharply.

- Unsound market interventions. Policy makers flailed about in the 1970s, enacting environmental legislation without due deference to the costs imposed on industry. They also tried to impede market forces with gasoline rationing and a brief flirtation with outright price controls.

This time round, our government has been force-feeding the inefficient production of ethanol.

The result: Corn prices have more than doubled over the past three years, adding to price pressures on commodities that are close substitutes, or which use corn as an input to production.
Meanwhile, policy makers in emerging market economies have bent under the weight of popular unrest to raise food subsidies. This strains their budgets. They are also imposing restraints on exports, thereby losing gains from trade.

- Oil prices on the rise. The lines stretching around filling stations in the 1970s should remind us that large energy-price increases are disruptive. And we have had a large one: Crude prices have more than quadrupled since 2001. Any industry dependent on energy will feel those cost pressures, and modern agriculture, with its oil-based fertilizers and large machinery, is no exception.

But there is an important difference between our troubles today and those of the 1970s. In that decade, aggregate supply sagged as oil producers scaled back production and anchovies disappeared off the coast of Peru. The 2000s have been about demand expansion. Millions of workers in China, India and Vietnam, among others, have joined the world trading system. Beginning from a point close to subsistence, most of their additional income is being spent on food. Thus, the price of food relative to other goods and services has risen.

The good news is that producers respond to relative prices, although it can take some time. Already, the acreage in which corn is planted in the United States is back to levels of the 1940s. More of a production response should follow in other areas as well.

Challenges abound as supply catches up with higher global demand. The Federal Reserve has to be sensitive not to stoke inflation pressures, and to monitor inflation expectations closely. The subsidies proffered to corn producers have to be trimmed, in part to set a new standard for emerging market economies to emulate. And the gains from an open trading system have to be protected to keep our economy efficient.

Mr. Reinhart, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was director of the Division of Monetary Affairs at the Federal Reserve.

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My Rant

The claim that climate change is direct result of man's energy consumption is simply unproven and politically motivated. While they propound lies that certain lightbulbs or cars will destroy the earth and raise ocean levels as much as 20 feet within the next century, fascists, like Al Gore, fly around in their Gulfstream jets and live in homes that use 22 times the energy of an average American's home! Their propaganda is outrageous and potentially catastrophic for the economies of United States, the developed world and developing world.

The proof of global warming or man's influence on climate change is not settled science. Just consider the source of the big lie: the proselytizing hypocritical high priest of the pagan environmental religion Al Gore or the other Kool-Aid drinking climateers from the left such as Learjet liberals, Hollywood high school drop-outs, billonaire elitists, the left-leaning mainstream media, the United Nations, academia, environmental radicals, socialists, other anti-capitalists and so called "researchers", "experts" and/or "scientists" whose paychecks depend upon the apparent existence of the "issue".

United States energy conservation and independence is a worthy goal that should be supported by Republicans, the Democrat Party, true Democrats, Independents and environmentalists. Energy independence is a major national security concern. However, lying to our people, implementing the cap & trade boondoggle which will crush our economy or doing anything that will cause the United States to transfer an portion of its sovereignty to the United Nations is idiotic. Not in my name!