You don’t Use Interest Rates to Control Cabbage Prices: China February CPI +2.7% will Not Trigger Policy Tightening.
China CPI – February 2010
(The charts below are courtesy of Andy Rothman at CLSA. Andy is by far the most knowledgeable person I know on Chinese inflation issues.)
The worry that rising inflation in China will provoke the government to tighten sharply, which would slow growth and push commodity prices lower is unfounded.
China’s February CPI was up +2.7% from a year earlier after showing deflation for most of 2009. As the chart below shows, however, it’s all food prices. 2.06% of the 2.7% headline number came from food. Another .44% came from residence expenses, which were pushed up by a one-time increase in utility costs last year. Other goods and services accounted for only 0.2% of the 2.7% increase–about one-fourteenth of the total increase in consumer prices.
Food prices make up a much larger share of the CPI basket than they do in the U.S. or Europe. Food prices in February were +6.2% higher than a year earlier. Most of the increase was due to the 25.5% increase in fresh vegetable prices and +19% increase in fresh fruit prices, as shown in the chart below. Both were caused by severe weather and the New year holiday, which fell in February this year. Together, fruit and vegetable prices accounted for about one-third of the total CPI increase in February.
Rising incomes in China make the CPI increase negligible, as shown in the chart below. In fact, rising food prices drive higher income growth for China’s farmers. This is exactly the kind of relative price/wage pattern we expect in a country with fixed exchange rates and sharply rising productivity. Traded goods prices are constrained by global competition and rising productivity. But wages grow strongly to reflect rising output levels. It is important in this situation not to confuse rising wages with inflation when setting overall economic policy.
Internationally traded industrial input prices, however, are rising sharply to reflect the strong China growth and strong construction activity following last year’s stimulus program, as shown below. With input prices rising and end-user prices (CPI) constrained by intense competition and overcapacity the worry is not inflation, it is the profit margins of the industrial companies that make up a large part of China’s stock market.
Bottom line: China is not going to tighten policy aggressively to try to control cabbage prices. The exit from China’s stimulus program will continue in a gradual and orderly way over the next year.