x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Short-term gain or long-term pain?

Soaring global prices are threatening to fuel inflation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Commodities have a bigger share in the consumption basket of Middle East economies where food and basic supplies can account for half of household income. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg News
Commodities have a bigger share in the consumption basket of Middle East economies where food and basic supplies can account for half of household income. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg News

The launch of a third round of stimulus in the United States has resurrected a great debate about whether the world may be teetering on the brink of an inflationary abyss.

The rising food prices that contributed to the Arab Spring represent one reason regional governments take inflation seriously.

They have been reluctant to roll back subsidies and price controls even at a time of easing inflationary pressure.

The question is whether record levels of economic stimulus coming at a time of consolidation in commodity markets could stoke price rises even as global growth slows.

"The Keynesian approach to stimulus is brilliant if it in fact unleashes the economic growth and it is a disaster if it doesn't. We can't reality test it yet," says Paul Laudicina, the managing partner and chairman of AT Kearney.

"In the US this is part of what the political debate has been all about. Has the stimulus of the Obama administration helped us to escape what could have been economic Armageddon or has it only really put a band aid on a very fundamental problem?"

The latest round of quantitative easing, dubbed QE3, which will involve the US Treasury buying more than US$40 billion (Dh146.92bn) in mortgage-backed securities every month, could heap further price pressure on emerging economies in the Middle East, economists have warned.

But others question whether quantitative easing is really inflationary at all. To the late American economist Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, printing money was like alcoholism, producing short-term elation at the cost of long-term pain.

Eventually, he believed, stimulus works its way through the system and drives prices higher in a process that can take years to manifest itself.

By Friedman's reckoning, the inflationary legacy of QE2 may not yet be apparent - even as QE3 gets under way.

But other contemporary economists such as another Nobel-prize winner, Paul Krugman, do not necessarily agree with the Friedman analysis and do not see the US Federal Reserve bond-buying programme as simple as printing money.

They say stimulus does not have to be inflationary as long as the Pandora's box of freshly created capital is kept largely unopened and contained within the banking system as opposed to being released into the wider economy in the form of lending that could inflate prices.

Although QE3 is notdirectly connected to commodities, its effect on the US dollar will influence the direction of commodity prices, which are often quoted in the currency.

Indeed, commodity prices already have risen in the run-up to QE3, and the stimulus could eventually hit emerging economies in the Middle East harder than more developed nations. Commodities have a bigger share in the consumption basket of their economies where food and basic supplies can account for half of household income. It means they are hit first by rising commodity prices.

It in this manner that quantitative easing in the US could have a greater inflationary impact overseas than at home. This may be one reason the Fed does not appear too concerned about the impact its bond-buying programme could have on consumer prices.

As its economy shifts towards gas, helped by the shale gas boom, it becomes less vulnerable to oil price swings. Similarly, because it is a net exporter of agricultural products it can also benefit from food inflation.

The global economy is expected to expand by 3.3 per cent this year, according to the IMF.

That would be the slowest since the 2009 recession and a principal reason many economists dismiss the threat of inflation.

"It is interesting how financial markets struggle with the concept of inflation," says Pippa Malmgren, a senior adviser with Principalis Asset Management. "There are those who say it is impossible in a deflationary world and others who say it is a time bomb."

She leans towards the second scenario even in the absence of official data to support claims of accelerating prices.

World Bank data shows that during last year, the year of the Arab Spring, food prices jumped by 13.6 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa, which was more than any other region in the world.

Overall consumer prices also increased faster than anywhere else during that year, jumping about 14.6 per cent.

Today China is also struggling to control rising consumer prices. While food costs have eased this year, they are still rising at a rate of almost 6 per cent annually, above the government's official overall inflation target of 4 per cent.

Ms Malmgren says that both business leaders and government officials agree the true figure is considerably higher.

"They will tell you they know inflation is in the low double digits because of the social unrest and in their history social unrest is always associated with higher inflation, she adds.

"Every CEO you talk to in China will tell you wages are running at 70 per cent gains per annum now for skilled workers and 30 per cent annualised for unskilled workers. The cost base is exploding. People forget that Tiananmen Square happened against a backdrop of 14 per cent inflation. The Chinese are very nervous about inflation and they are very aware of what it did to the Middle East."

Arabian Gulf economies are similarly keeping a careful eye on the souq even as price pressure appears to be easing.

It means that it is unlikely that the subsidies and price controls that protect the consumer from the harshest swings in commodity prices will be unwound any time soon, says Said Hirsh, an economist with Capital Economics in London.

"It would be very difficult for Gulf countries to reduce subsidy payments at this stage. Oil revenues are higher than ever and the population knows that," he says.