CAMBRIDGE – Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. Small wonder: world food prices reached a record high earlier in the year, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.
Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.
The G-20’s efforts will culminate in the Cannes Summit in November. But, when it comes to specific policies, caution will be very much in order, for there is a long history of measures aimed at reducing commodity-price volatility that have ended up doing more harm than good.
For example, some inflation-targeting central banks have reacted to increases in prices of imported commodities by tightening monetary policy and thereby increasing the value of the currency. But adverse movements in the terms of trade must be accommodated; they cannot be fought with monetary policy.
In rich countries, where the primary producing sector usually has political power, stockpiles of food products are used as a means of keeping prices high rather than low. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy is a classic example – and is disastrous for EU budgets, economic efficiency, and consumer pocketbooks.
In many developing countries, on the other hand, farmers lack political power.
African countries adopted commodity boards for coffee and cocoa. Although the original rationale was to buy the crop in years of excess supply and sell in years of excess demand, thereby stabilizing prices, in practice the price paid to cocoa and coffee farmers, who were politically weak, was always below the world price in the early decades of independence. As a result, production fell.
If the country is a producer of the commodity in question, it may use export controls to insulate domestic consumers from increases in the world price. In 2008, India capped rice exports, and Argentina did the same for wheat exports, as did Russia in 2010.
Export restrictions in producing countries and price controls in importing countries both serve to exacerbate the magnitude of the world price upswing, owing to the artificially reduced quantity that is still internationally traded. If producing and consuming countries in grain markets could cooperatively agree to refrain from such government intervention – probably by working through the World Trade Organization – world price volatility might be lower.