Monday, September 13, 2010

Food Inflation begins the inflation cycle ... starting ... like ... NOW

When does inflation start? Well, if you had to pick a point, it might be at a point when many pundits believe deflation is likely as many western-world based investment managers seem to currently.

Two to three years ago, many investment talking heads (myself included) spoke of the potential for emerging and developed countries stock markets to diverge in, at least, the strength of their upward market trend. The idea being that the developed country markets would move sideways, while emerging markets would continue to thrive.

The credit crisis which culminated in the stock market plunge of 2008/2009 of course showed how correlated these markets could be during times of panic. However, there is nothing wrong with the general divergence thesis during normal times, with many emerging markets getting close to re-testing their 2007/2008 price levels. Divergence is or will be here, and remains as real a prospect as ever.

However, there is one place where divergence currently exists: the "anticipation" of inflation/deflation. In developed nations, the worry is that future deflation will set these rich economies on a two-decade Japanese-style slump. In developing economies, the worry is the opposite and, rather than an intellectual debate about the future, the issue is immediate and proximate: inflation, which IS (t)here. Especially food inflation.

Large developing nations, such as India, China, and Russia, have all recently reported jumps in their inflation rates, headlined by significant jumps in food inflation (see here, here, and here). This has even resulted in an overall significant jump in global food inflation too (see here). This is the result of climate change generally, which of course plays out via specific "natural events", such as drought, flooding, and "rainfall dosing" (which is a term I am using to describe the phenomenon of growing season rainfall remaining relatively the same, but is concentrated in far fewer days [but does not consist of "flooding", per se]). This is in addition to the lower yields that are produced from heat-stressed plants. Climate-change induced food issues are here, and they are here to stay for some time.

The only reason that inflation remains off the radar screen of many professional investment types is that, in the western world at least, the food budget typically consists of a very low proportion of overall income. Whereas, however, the opposite is true in the developing world (or more so, even, in the undeveloped world), food budgets constitute a much higher proportion of the total income. So, food inflation has a much greater effect in those countries and feeds into the total inflation picture very quickly. In food, the principle of substitution (the idea that, during inflationary times particularly, folks substitute cheaper but roughly similar items for more expensive ones) has only limited applicability: after all, everyone needs to eat.

Food inflation also enters the general inflation cycle very quickly too (especially farther down the income ladder a country is) because, aside from an inflationary element of its own, the inflation knock-on effect is very pernicious, as the factory worker,, marches into the boss' office, and demands a raise to deal with his deteriorating ability to feed his family. This scene plays out exactly the same way, hundreds of millions times, in hundreds of thousands of bosses offices.

The dream that (some may have that) food inflation emanating in one part of the globe won't spill over somewhere else is likely to be met by the insistent ringing of the morning's alarm clock: free trade in food. As pricing for food rises - there and here - the knock-on effect will also be felt as like looking into a mirror - here and there.

Climate change, and its resultant outputs, will have effects ranging from the evisceration of the capital value of, particularly, long-dated low-yielding stripped bonds, to the more pragmatic, of the renewed popularity of the high-yielding home garden.

So, the weather issues of this summer's northern hemisphere's growing season provide a glimpse into the future: a future which is coming fast. For those who want to understand it better, there's no better place to point your binoculars than at the emerging market countries.

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