Ne vous mêlez pas du pain

Food set to become a controversial geopolitical issue

‘Ne vous mêlez pas du pain’ – do not meddle with bread, is the sound advice that Anne Robert Turgot, the 18th century French economic thinker and administrator gave to Louis XVI. It was good advice, which the King did not heed.

Turgot knew better, he was Controller General of Finances in France between 1774-1776, a period marked by the ‘Flour Wars’ when bad harvests pushed up the price of grain, and consequently, bread. The riots were a precursor to the Revolution, at a time when nearly half of disposable income was spent on basic foods like bread (and salt).

The link between food prices and unrest has held since then (and has a pedigree going back to and beyond the Roman Empire). In 2007 as dollar and commodity price volatility marked the beginning of the global financial crisis, a spike in soft (agricultural) commodities led to unrest in countries as diverse as Haiti, Mozambique and Bangladesh.

Then four years later, a spike in grain and other food prices catalyzed the Arab Spring, markedly so in Egypt which is highly vulnerable from the point food security. Some countries in the region, notably Kuwait, ducked such unrest by introducing grants and subsidising food consumption for over a year.  

The case of the Arab Spring underlines two other factors, both also found in the likes of Venezuela today. First, rising food prices are usually the ‘last straw’ for citizens in countries that are badly run, corrupt, suffer poor institutions and that are often also oppressive. Second, in many of these countries, as in pre-Revolutionary France, staple food stuffs like bread make up between one third to one half of discretionary spending.

This was the case in India in recent years, where spikes, or more appropriately bubbles in onion prices led to political agitation. For example, in mid 2013 there was fivefold spike in the price on onions, partly due to shortages, partly due to hoarding. Similar, dramatic spikes have occurred to garlic prices in China.

Since that period (2012-2013) world food prices have thankfully been stable, according to the UN FAO global food price index. One area of recent turbulence which is worth watching is pork prices in China. Swine fever has led to a sharp rise in the price of pork, which because foodstuffs account for some 30% of China’s inflation basket, has driven CPI (consumer price inflation) to 3%, close to its highs of the last eight years.

While China is not at all as fragile as Egypt, the spike in pork prices if it persists, will have a number of short and longer term macro impacts, one of which is that China may not have the demand for the 20 billion dollars or so of soya beans it has promised to purchase from the USA.

Chinese consumers will feel more constrained, and the rise in prices will, in the context of weaker property prices, contribute to a sense of ‘squeeze’ (recall the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ (class) in England). Relatedly, higher headline inflation makes it more difficult for the People’s Bank of China to cushion weakness in the economy with rate cuts.

The spike in pork prices is also a reminder of how food is at the centre of geopolitics. China, though vast, has a relatively constrained arable land mass, and will in the future have to import more food as well as try to buy land or crop facilities in other countries. Other food ‘vulnerable’ countries are India, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. Global warming and diminishing water supplies in many of these countries may mean that food security becomes an even more acute risk factor.

In contrast, the US has vast expanses of farmland, a good chunk of which could be used for food stuffs if it were not for ethanol subsidies. In the future, it may use food in an altogether more strategic way.

In the shorter term, the investment impact of higher pork prices is to make Chinese consumers nervier, to constrain policy makers there.  That means that demand for hard commodities like oil and copper will be muted, Chinese interest rates volatile and overseas food producers more attractive.

Further out, trade wars may give way to food wars.

Have a great week ahead,
Mike

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