Living according to a government’s will

  • Cost of living and the freedom of choice

Jeewan Thondaman, the political leader representing the estate electorate in Sri Lanka, was questioned recently on what development means for the estate sector. He said: “One politician visits the estates and says he built five houses and another one says he built 10. Merely building houses is not development.”

Then the TV anchor probed him on what development really is. “Giving the opportunity for people to build their own house in a land they own, as per their preference and aspirations, is development,” he replied. He went on to say that “if politicians build houses for the estate sector, regardless of the number of houses built, estates would never be developed”.

Politics aside, the young politician’s views on choice are highly commendable. Most often, people do not realise the importance of the ability to choose from a wide range of options. Especially in countries like Sri Lanka, we expect all things to be provided by the government. We like to eat what the government tells us to eat, we want to get educated on what the government says is good for us, we strive to get a job from the government as they see fit, etc.

The ability to choose is often tested in terms of marriage and relationships. Imagine if the government decided to select partners for us. We can all picture what chaos it would be. Similarly, when the government decides which food we should eat, which fertiliser we should use, and which job we should do, the results are not that different.

Availability of a range of options and increasing choices as much as possible is one key parameter on consumer convenience. The same concept works for essential commodities as well at a time when the national conversation is on rising food prices.

Let’s first understand the reason for rising food prices.

The recent food price hikes are caused by multiple reasons. One is rising global food prices and commodity prices with economies opening up after lockdowns. As a result, a barrel of Brent Crude oil, which was priced at about $ 42, is now at $ 83. So, a fuel price hike can be expected, which will, in turn, have a knock-on effect on many consumer goods.

Sri Lankans will be affected more significantly due to the Sri Lankan rupee depreciating in comparison to the US dollar. Excessive printing of money under Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has further contributed to the depreciation of the currency. As this column highlighted many times, excessive printing of money, which increases the money supply, will also increase the demand for imports. A lot of the money printed will be used to purchase imported goods, which will worsen the balance of payment (BOP) crisis. A worsening BOP crisis will also increase the shortage of USD, thus increasing the price for a US dollar in LKR terms, or the exchange rate.

An increasing exchange rate will cause the prices of all imported goods to increase as the market adjusts, and keeping the exchange rate fixed without really having sufficient US dollars doesn’t make any sense. Simply, we have imposed a price control on the USD, which has created shortages just as with milk powder and liquified petroleum (LP) gas. Price controls also led to shortages.

If the Central Bank has unlimited USD supply, we can keep the exchange rate without fluctuations, but as per official data, our reserves are at a historically low level. So the Government and also our people are in a very unfortunate situation without having adequate tools to arrest the rising prices.

In a situation like this, some recommendations have been floated, such as increasing wages or Lanka Sathosa distributing essential goods.

On the question of increasing wages, the private sector has to have increased profits and revenue if they were to consider a salary hike. The government sector, which is about 18% of our labour force, cannot have a salary hike without further borrowing from the Central Bank. If the Central Bank further borrows on behalf of the Government, the prices will further increase. So, the only way to overcome this is to fasten our seatbelts and make sacrifices on our real consumption.

Sathosa has no other magic formula to reduce the prices unless a subsidy or budgetary support is provided, and obviously someone has to bear that cost of such a subsidy. Removing price controls is indeed a move in the right direction, but ensuring the market has enough competition across sections is also important in bringing down prices.

One good example is the wheat flour market, where there are only two players in the market. There is a very high tariff on imported milled wheat instead of raw wheat. So this acts as an entry barrier for other industry players to enter the market. As a result of such a lack of competition, the two existing players set the market price and the barriers to entry allow ample space for rent-seeking activities.

It’s the same for cement and industries like LP gas. In most cases, these industries are protected from competition. Protection from competition is directly undermining consumer choice. If Sri Lanka is serious about bringing down prices, our only solution is competition and expanding consumer choice.

At present, though, it seems that sacrificing consumption will be the only option we have and it will not be easy, specifically for the poor, where a higher percentage of income goes for purchasing food. This is going to be a truly difficult time period for such families. So the only option available is increasing the range of options available by increasing competition. Then, people can adjust their choices so that they have room to explore alternatives without experiencing the effect of higher prices. The only way to do it is to remove all barriers to market entry in order to pick the supply side up and iron out market distortions.

Different households will adjust in different ways to price hikes. For example, some households will reduce the quantity of milk powder used per cup. Some households may decide that only kids should be fed with milk powder and adults give up milk powder and shift to plain tea. Some families may adjust with frequency. Instead of having milk tea seven days a week, some will skip two to three days based on their affordability. Some families or businesses who have a higher degree of dependence on milk powder will use the same quantity, but they will reduce their entertainment expenses or other expenditure categories to keep the milk powder consumption going.

In simple terms, each household and individual, based on their circumstances, can decide what is the best choice for them. So even when making “sacrifices in consumption”, the freedom to choose is vital. With people making choices, there will be new market opportunities where suppliers will consider more options to supply alternatives to the  market and capture a different market segment.

Freedom of choice matters both in hard times and good. It is a fundamental pillar in a market system where people have the option of adjusting for higher prices by managing the cost of living to a certain extent. Competition in the market is what fuels the choice for consumers. Sri Lanka has to set the fundamentals right. For example, we cannot develop the estate sector by just building houses. We need to provide them the opportunity and choice to build a house as per their preference. This can only be done by allowing the market forces to work and establishing freedom of choice for people. While the importance of having the freedom to make individual choices is fundamental, the Central Bank can ensure that the rate of money supply increase is limited by using monetary policy. Finally, MMT does not work as it is claimed by those innocent of simple monetary economics. As our currency is not an internationally accepted currency, money printing by the Central Bank leads to inflation.