April 26, 2008

Rice Inflation: When Did It Start?

The global food crisis has been getting a lot of well deserved press recently, and while several different crops have experienced varying levels of inflation, I thought I'd look at rice in particular. Although rice isn't a staple crop in America the way wheat and corn are, it's very much a staple crop here in Asia. Asian reactions to the price increases for rice have varied dramatically. Singapore, for example, has tried to reassure the public that there is plenty of rice while keeping price controls off and allowing companies to bring in additional supplies above and beyond what's normally imported to hedge against any future supply shocks. On the other hand, some other countries in this region (e.g., Vietnam, India and China) have temporarily banned the export of rice.

For this analysis, I used the price data for milled rice provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. This particular file has price information on a monthly basis since August 2005 for several types of rice in the United States, Thailand (the world's largest exporter of rice), and Vietnam (the second largest rice exporter). For my analysis, I've chosen two American varieties, Southern long-grain milled (LGM) and California medium-grained milled (MGM), and one Thai variety, 100% Grade B. (I've done some analysis on the Vietnamese data; however, the data set is incomplete so I'm not as trusting on that information as I am for the other three sets.)

As you can see on the above chart, rice prices had been relatively stable since August 2005, especially for Thai rice. The current upswings in prices began last summer, in July 2007 for both the Southern and California rices, and in September 2007 for the Thai rice. (For Vietnam, it appears that the upswing began in May 2007; however, there is three months' worth of data missing for October-December 2007, and it's conceivable that prices could have dropped in that time period.) Since that time, prices have risen at a compound monthly growth rate of 7.65% for the Southern LGM, 2.80% for the California MGM, 14.47% for the Thai rice, and 8.32% for the Vietnamese rice. Moreover, as the graph currently shows, there's no indication on the part of any of the varieties that prices are likely to change direction soon.

From my perspective, the inflation for rice is mostly of the cost-push variety, with oil and fertilizer costs as primary culprits. The discussion of the inflation being driven by demand-pull is nonsense, in my opinion. Demographic changes are far too slow to account for such a rapid increase inside of one year's time, and there's not been any sudden desire for people to eat more rice or that rice has become a substitute in place of another grain.

When might we expect to see rice prices declining? Based on current futures prices for rough rice at the Chicago Board of Trade, the May 2008 futures are selling at a price of $23.80 (as of this time). Futures peak with the July 2008 contracts ($24.18), before falling slightly to this year's low of $21.78 (November 2008). For 2009, prices are expected to increase slightly ($22.38 in May 2009), before falling to a low of $18.25 for November's contracts. In other words, prices are expected to drop by almost a quarter, but only in another year and a half's time.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and J2TM.

Update: This post was mentioned on the Daily Kos Eco-Diary Rescue 4.26. Thanks Meteor Blades!

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