Food Security: Export Controls are Not the Cure for Grain Price Volatility, But the Cause

         My last blog post listed some policies and institutions with which various small countries around the world have had success — innovations that might be worthy of emulation by others.  Of course there are plenty of other examples of policies and institutions that have been tried and that are to be avoided.    The area of agricultural policy is rife with them.   Many start with a confused invoking of the need for “food security.”

          The recent run-up in wheat prices is a good example.   Robert Paarlberg wrote an excellent column in the Financial Times recently, titled “How grain markets sow the spikes they fear.”   Grain producing countries point to the high volatility of prices on world markets and the need for food security when imposing taxes on exports of their own grain supplies, or outright bans, as Russia did in July.    The motive, of course, is to keep grain affordable for domestic consumers.  But the effect of such export controls is precisely to cause the price rise that is feared, because it removes some net supply from the world market.    (The same could be said when grain importing countries react to high prices by enacting price controls, because that adds some net demand to the world market.)   

            The current run-up in grain prices is reminiscent of the even higher spike in food prices in 2008.   As Paarlberg argues, many of the other explanations that were put forward for that episode don’t fit this time.   The importance of export controls is now clearer.

            In 2008 Argentina imposed export tariffs to prevent its grain farmers from taking advantage of high world prices.   (This case seemed particularly irrational in that, unlike the usual case, the strongest political pressures came from the growers, not the consumers.)    At the same time, on the other side of the world, India put on export controls to prevent its rice farmers from selling their product on world markets to take advantage of high rice prices.   Controls imposed by Argentina, India, and others were important contributing factors to the global spike in food prices.

            Are governments indeed being completely irrational?   The commodities we are talking about are staples in the consumption of ordinary households.   For simplicity, let’s assume it is an absolute constraint that governments cannot allow grain prices to go above a certain threshold.    Perhaps there will be riots in the streets otherwise.  In this case might it make sense to put on export controls when the price threatens to go above that level?   One can see the motivation in the short run.   But, thinking in the long run, across complete cycles, controls are not a good answer.  

            One can imagine various sensible long-term policies that might assure that this constraint is not violated, such as stockpiling, although in practice many policies sold as “food security” are not in fact applied in a sensible way.

            One solution may be for major countries that are active in the market for wheat or rice to get together and agree not to impose controls.   The result would be to stabilize prices: no more alternation of price spikes and price collapses.  Each country could then rely more on the world market to cover shortfalls than it can now, when trade is made less dependable by the threat of controls by others.   The case of rice controls was nailed in a paper on food security written last year by two students in Harvard’s MPAID program (Masters in International Development), Naoko Koyama Blanc and Diva Singh.  In their model, it can indeed under certain conditions be rational for India to follow the practice of imposing controls when the price goes up, under a regime where volatility is high because others impose controls.  But it would be more rational for India to negotiate a no-controls regime with other countries, because under that regime volatility would be lower, the controls would not be needed, and everyone would be better off.   

Some Big Ideas from Small Countries

     Two decades ago, many thought the lesson of the 1980s had been that Japan’s variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries around the world should and would follow it.   The Japanese model quickly lost its luster in the 1990s.  

     One decade ago, many thought that the lesson of the 1990s had been that the US variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries should and would follow.   The American model in turn lost its attractiveness in the decade of the 2000s.   

     Where should countries look for a model, now, in 2010?  Many small countries on the periphery have experimented with policies and institutions that could usefully be adopted by others.  

     A panoply of innovations has helped Chile to outperform its South American neighbors.   Chile’s fiscal institutions – structural budget balance with the parameters estimated by independent expert panels — insure a countercyclical budget.  They are among the mechanisms that are particularly worthy of emulation by other commodity exporting countries, to defeat the Natural Resource Curse.  

     Costa Rica in Central America and Mauritius in Africa each pulled ahead of its peers some time ago.  Among many other decisions that worked out well for them, both countries have foregone a standing army. The result in both cases has been histories with no coups, and financial savings that can be used for education, investment, and other good things.  Singapore achieved rich country status with a unique development strategy.  Among its many innovations were a paternalistic approach to saving and use of the price mechanism to defeat urban traffic congestion (now emulated by London). 

     Some small advanced countries also have lessons to offer.   New Zealand led the way with Inflation Targeting, along with many liberalization reforms in the late 1980s.   (Perhaps its Labor Party should even be given credit for pioneering the principle that left-of-center governments can sometimes achieve economic liberalization better than their right-of-center opponents.)   Ireland showed the importance of Foreign Direct Investment.  Estonia led the way in simplifying its tax system by means of a successful flat tax in 1994, followed by Slovakia and other small countries in Central/Eastern Europe and elsewhere (including Mauritius again).   

     Mexico pioneered the idea of Conditional Cash Transfers (the OPORTUNIDADES program — originally PROGRESA, launched in 1998).  CCT programs have subsequently been emulated by many developing countries.  This was two revolutions in one:  (1) the specific idea of making poverty transfers contingent on child school attendance (which has been emulated even in New York City) and (2) the methodological idea of conducting controlled experiments to find out what policies work or don’t work in developing countries (which has fed into the exciting Randomized Control Trials movement in development economics).  Also in the 1990s, largely thanks to the leadership of President Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico adopted non-partisan federal electoral institutions that were subsequently in 2006 able to resolve successfully a disputed election.   (In contrast, it turned out in November 2000 that the United States had no mechanism to resolve such disputes, other than the preferences of political appointees.)  Mexico undertook health reform in 2004.  More recently, President Felipe Calderon has shut down the entrenched electric utility and pursued much-needed reforms in tax, pension, and other areas.

     In highlighting some very specific institutions that could be usefully applied elsewhere, I don’t mean to suggest that they can be effortlessly translated from one national context to another.   Nor do I mean to suggest that these examples are entirely responsible for the success of the economies identified.  (Indeed a few of these countries have recently been wrestling with severe problems.)  But a country doesn’t have to be large like the United States to serve as a model for others.  Small countries tend to be trade-dependent, and open to new ideas.  They are often more free to experiment than are large countries. The results of the experiments include some useful lessons.

[TV interview on BNN.]