Friday, February 04, 2011

Is QE fueling commodity, food price inflation?

Is the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy fueling inflation in asset prices, including the price of commodities and foodstuffs?

That seems to be the big question in recent days, as civil unrest in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East and Asia demonstrate how long-simmering tensions can quickly boil over when grain prices rise and the spectre of food shortages looms over a population.

The recent situation recalls the commodity and grain price surges of 2007-2008, when food stocks were diminishing and shortages and worries over food riots were a global phenomenon (and news item). Then, as now, grain ethanol and "excess speculation" were offered up as contributing causes to rising food prices.

So what about the role of quantitative easing and increased money creation by the Fed and other central banks? Might that sort of liquidity operation be fueling a rise in asset prices across the globe?

Or are prices rising due to demand from increased populations and rising wealth in emerging nations as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would have it?

Last night, while reading through some interesting reactions to this topic on Twitter, I decided to do a little quick research and see what sort of answers I could find. As rising food prices and global inflation have been a big theme with economists and macro analysts in recent months, it didn't take long to find some worthwhile articles and posts addressing this topic.

One particularly interesting article from October 2010 anticipated a great deal of what we currently see unfolding in the world. Here's an excerpt from, "Bernanke sets the world on fire":

"...In 2007-2008, Bernanke's loose monetary policy fueled unprecedented commodity price inflation. But Bernanke put the blame on China and on oil producers.

So far in 2010, the price of crude oil has jumped by 27%, of corn by 63%, of wheat by 84% , of sugar by 55% , and of soybeans by 24%. Without the Fed's unprecedented loose monetary and near-zero interest rates, it would have been highly unlikely for commodity prices to increase at these alarming rates...

...The frightening food price inflation has raised the specter of another food crisis and food riots... Since liquidity for commodity price inflation is abundant and cheap, food price inflation could run up, stall world economic growth and spread social unrest. "

Certainly many other factors, including the use of food for ethanol, growing populations, increasing standards of living (changing diets), weather events, and gradual loss of prime arable land to urbanization are playing a large role in ongoing food price rises.

Still, is it possible that the role of cheap money flowing into asset markets (including commodities) is an under-acknowledged spark fueling higher prices?

Related articles and posts:

1. Bernanke says policies boost stocks, not food prices - Barron's.

2. Countering the myth that "World is running out of food" - Big Picture Ag.

3. FAO food price index and reports - United Nations, FAO.

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