Closing the gate once the horse has bolted

  • Can price controls rein in uncontrolled depreciation?

By Dhananath Fernando

People are infuriated over the recent drastic price hikes on essential food items, and analysts and policymakers are attempting to make sense of what triggered this.

Some argue that the increasing global commodity prices are indeed the root cause of these local price hikes. In my opinion, however, global price hikes cannot be the sole reason. This conclusion is misleading as the domestic prices of these food items are higher than the percentage increase of global commodity prices adjusted for the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee (SLR).

Steep depreciation of the currency

It is no secret that the Government sought refuge in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in recent times. This has had a considerable impact on commodity prices due to the depreciation of the rupee. A depreciating rupee coupled with increasing commodity prices is certainly an ill-fated combination. Even though many economists alerted the Government of the risks MMT could pose, they fell on deaf ears.

When global market prices rise, it is inevitable that domestic markets adjust accordingly due to price signals. This means that people shift their consumption behaviours and patterns with price volatility. However, Sri Lanka’s essential commodity price hikes came suddenly and have given people no time to adjust their purchasing patterns.

As per Central Bank data, Sri Lanka’s food inflation is increasing. Advocata Institute’s Bath Curry Indicator, which tracks the weekly expenditure of a four-member household on rice and curry, found that prices increased by 45% on a YoY (Year-on-Year) basis in July and by 30% in August.

I’d like to conclude my argument by quoting Nobel Laureate Prof. Milton Friedman: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

Acute foreign exchange crisis exacerbated by MMT

The acute foreign exchange crisis we are in, too, is a major contributor to recent price hikes. Oversupply of money has drained our reserves and added additional pressure on the currency. For example, when the government provides Rs. 20,000 (which is beyond the government’s capacity) for low-income families, money will flow out of the system due to the purchase of imported goods. People will be inclined towards buying imported LP gas, lentils, sprats, and tin fish.

Further, maintaining a negative real interest rate, which is to keep interest rates artificially low by increasing money supply below the inflation rate, will motivate people to spend more money than to save. More spending equals more expenditure on imports, which will then exacerbate the country’s Balance of Payment (BOP) crisis.

Currently, banks have different exchange rates for different customers. The kerb market’s exchange rate for the US dollar is between Rs. 250 and Rs. 260.

If this trend continues, the country’s fuel prices, LP gas, milk powder, and many other commodity prices will continue to rise.

Price controls

The Government has announced strict price controls and has appointed a designated officer to curb hoarding by traders with the objective of decreasing essential commodity prices. Recent news reports claim that hoarded essential food items such as sugar have been confiscated from stores by the authorities.

However, price controls are proven to be ineffective and will lead to goods disappearing from markets, as a result creating black markets. Further, it is likely that price controls will result in importers stopping the importation of goods. The first lockdown saw an initial price control of Rs. 65 on lentils and a controlled price of Rs. 100 on tin fish. Later, the Government had to withdraw the price controls as it resulted in severe shortages, with traders halting imports and the sellers hesitating to trade at a loss. Price controls simply don’t work because the price structure is unique for each trader.

Competition is the only factor that drives prices down. For example, the cost structure of a trader who sells lentils in an air-conditioned shop and a trader who sells at the Sunday market is different. The price they mark is based on the cost, and consumers buy it based on the value they get. Price controls hamper the signalling mechanism, resulting in severe repercussions.

Why do traders hoard?

Even with increased raids by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), traders continue to hoard. This behaviour is intricately linked with the foreign exchange crisis the country is in. The Central Bank introduced regulations stating that traders cannot buy US dollars for a future day (forward market) at the current exchange rate. Further, importers were requested to open Letters of Credit (LCs) for a 180-day credit period. As a result, importers brought essential commodities in agreement to pay the exchange rate to be in effect after 180 days. They brought the goods they already sold at a calculated exchange rate.

However, now the exchange rates are depreciating further. For example, when traders imported the consignments, our exchange rate was about Rs. 190. But with the currency depreciation, now they have to pay the current exchange rate as there is no forward market or interbank market in operation. This is pushing importers to hoard to secure stocks for the future. Importers will also be inclined to increase prices to cover their losses incurred due to exchange rate volatility.

All of these trickle down to the average consumer as higher prices on essential commodities. Higher prices, long queues for essential goods, and empty shelves are symptoms of wrong macroeconomic policies.

This column and many economists alerted the Government that it would come to this, and I am disappointed that the Government did not heed our advice.