The latest UN FAO World Food Price index (published on 3 February) showed a deceleration in food inflation in January: up 1.1% mom, up 19% yoy, and up 49% from the May 2020 trough.
This is the fifth month in a row of deceleration in the yoy figure. The index is nevertheless at a new 10-year peak. The move up in the overall food index over the past year or so is of a similar magnitude to that seen prior to the 'Arab Spring' of 2011.
This latest reading suggests that pressure continues for countries with high household spending on food and dependency on imports of food — for example, Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines — but there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
And within this subset – excluding Egypt and Nigeria – there is also net import exposure to high crude oil imports, and the 20% increase in Brent since the start of December is clearly unfavourable for them.
Most components of the food index were up mom, with sugar an exception:
Vegetable oils – up 4% mom and up 34% yoy, where palm oil is a key export for Indonesia (although part of the driver for higher prices was concern that Indonesia exports will be diverted to the domestic markets) and Malaysia.
Dairy – up 2% mom and 19% yoy, where developed markets are the main exporters.
Cereals – up 0.1% mom and 13% yoy, with wheat, which is a key food import for Egypt, down 3% mom.
Meat – flat mom and up 17% yoy, with emerging market exporters including Brazil, India and Argentina.
Sugar – down 3% mom and 20% yoy, exported mainly by Brazil, Thailand and India.
The next update of this index is due on 3 March.
When determining interest rates, policymakers tend to focus on core inflation and treat some of the variation in food items as seasonal or temporary. However, for governments that subsidise food items, this food price spike creates fiscal stress and, for countries reliant on food imports, it drives a deterioration in the trade balance.
Furthermore, for the mass, poorer segment of the population, food inflation is generally an acute concern – the 'Arab Spring' coincided with a c40% increase in 2010-11 – and this translates into risk for governments facing re-election or attempting to implement structural reforms that challenge vested interests. Recent protests in Tunisia, for example, are as much about frustration with cost of living increases, in the absence of employment growth, as they are about Covid management and corruption.
Countries with both a high proportion of household expenditure on food and a significant net import bill for food include Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines in Asia, Egypt and Nigeria in Africa, and almost all of the Middle East (particularly, Jordan and Lebanon).
Food accounts for a large proportion of household expenditure in countries such as Argentina, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Morocco and Ukraine but, at the macroeconomic level, this is offset by net exports of food. That, of course, does not mitigate the risk of social unrest from the poorer segments of these countries if the bump in export revenues does not trickle down.
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