Saturday, January 29, 2011

Food Riots: Is Bernanke Partially to Blame?

As we know, massive popular unrest has broken out against autocratic governments in North Africa and the Arab world. Egypt is the biggest story. But to varying degrees, the people have taken to the streets in Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen.

But in addition to the apparent revolt against repressive governments, all the experts say the other main cause of unrest is record food prices. For example, former Bush advisor Dan Senor notes that Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. Because of skyrocketing prices, Egyptian inflation is now over 10 percent.

So I have to ask this tough question: Is Ben Bernanke’s ultra-easy QE2 money pump-priming partially to blame?

Commodities are priced in dollars, and the Fed has been overproducing dollars for more than two years. Consequently, emerging markets throughout the world — and the food sector in particular — are suffering from rising inflation.

The CRB food index is up an incredible 36 percent over the past year, including 8 percent year-to-date. Raw materials are up 23 percent over the past year. Inflation breakouts have occurred in China, various Asian Tigers, India, Brazil, and other Latin countries. Even Britain and Germany are registering higher inflation readings.

But food riots in the North Africa/Middle East area are bumping smack into long-time resentment over autocratic government.

If food is in fact the trigger for what may be a revolution in Egypt, then U.S. monetary policy has to shoulder at least some of the blame.

Ultimately, as Senor argues, a region-wide revolt against the autocrats may be healthy if it leads to greater democratization and liberalization. But the protests may spread to Saudi Arabia and Iran, with huge implications for global energy markets. And that’s where the hoped-for transition to political liberalization — with a potential backlash from radical Muslim groups — makes the story even more unpredictable.