Have you heard the hubbub about eggs? People say that they’re expensive. My wife told me that if she’s going to pay an arm and a leg, then she may as well get the organic, pasture raised eggs. Absolutely. That’s what the substitution effect predicts. As the price ratio of low-quality to high-quality eggs rises, we’re incentivized to consume more of the high-quality version. It has to do with opportunity costs.
Consider a world in which the low-quality eggs cost $2 and the high-quality eggs cost $6 per dozen. Every high-quality egg costs 3 low-quality eggs. You might still choose the high-quality option, but you know that you’re giving up a lot by doing so. Consider the current world where low-quality eggs are priced on par with high-quality eggs. Now, the opportunity cost of consuming the fancy, pasture-raised eggs has fallen. When consuming one high-quality egg costs you one low-quality egg, it’s much easier to opt for the high-quality version. You’re not giving up as much when you purchase it.
For vegetarians, the recent price swing has probably been rough. Not eating meat, they’re facing the price squeeze more so than their omnivorous counterparts. Through the magic of math, median wages, and average retail prices, the figure below charts the affordability of eggs and dairy products.* The median person has been facing falling egg affordability for two decades. Indeed, it’s only been the past few years, punctuated by the Covid crisis, that consumers experienced more affordable eggs.
Dairy products, however, have become much more affordable. The median American can now afford 50% more of their namesake cheese. Further, we can afford 20-25% more whole milk and cheddar cheese. So, the vegetarians are not so poorly off after all.
I make a hobby of reading, and sometimes acting on, investment advice, particularly regarding high-yielding securities (many of my holdings are now yielding over 10%/year). One of the best authors on the Seeking Alpha investing site writes under the name of Colorado Wealth Management. He mainly writes on REIT (real estate investment trust) stocks, but recently opined on the wisdom of raising interest rates to combat inflation regarding some of the major components of CPI.
His article, Why High Yields Will Be Popular Again, may be behind a paywall for some readers, so I will summarize some key points. He kind of sidesteps the influence of massive federal deficit spending that injected trillions and trillions of new dollars into the economy for COVID, which I think has been the major driver for this inflation; and the reignited deficit spending which is already on the books for November and likely even huger for December of this year. However, he does make some interesting (and new to me) points regarding food prices in particular.
He sees the price 2021-2022 price increases in some major food items as being driven by supply constraints, rather then by excessive demand. Specifically eggs, coffee, and vegetable oils have been hit by exogenous factors which have constrained supply; raising interest rates will not help here, and may even hurt if higher rates make it harder for farmers to recover and re-start high production. I’ll transition to his charts and mainly his excerpted words, in italics below:
Avian Flu, Culled Hens, and the Price of Eggs
The background here is that tens of millions of chickens, including egg-laying hens, have been deliberately killed (“culled”) this year in an attempt to slow the spread of avian flu. This, of course, cuts into the egg supply and raises egg prices. We went through a similar cycle in 2015 with avian flu, where culling led to a rise in egg prices, but then prices fell naturally as a new crop of chicks grew into egg-laying hens. Similarly, the current shortage in eggs should correct itself:
Raising interest rates has never produced additional eggs. Raising interest rates and driving a recession (with larger credit spreads) only makes it more difficult for farmers to get the funding necessary to replace tens of millions of hens that were culled to slow the spread of the avian flu….If interest rates don’t work, what will? The cure for high prices is high prices. We can see how it played out with the Avian flu in 2015:
Is Jerome Powell going to lay even one egg? Probably not.
Are farmers going to focus on turning their chicks into egg-laying hens? Absolutely.
Since eggs go into several other products, it drives inflation throughout the grocery store. Even if a product doesn’t use eggs, the drop in egg production means more people eating other foods.
Drought in Brazil and the Price of Coffee
Coffee prices have been rising rapidly. Well, domestic prices have been rising rapidly. Global prices actually declined since peaking in February 2022:
So, what drove the price up? Brazil normally produces over 35% of the world’s coffee and bad weather in Brazil (not to mention the pandemic impacts) drove dramatically lower production in 2021. As the shortfall in production became evident, global prices began rising rapidly. That’s why the global [wholesale] prices were ripping higher in 2021, not 2022. However, [retail] consumers are seeing most of the impact over the last several months.
War in Ukraine and the Price of Sunflower Oil
Margarine requires vegetable oil. Soybean, palm, sunflower, and canola oil are the key ingredients. What country produces the most sunflower oil? Ukraine. This is one of several inflationary impacts of the war. You can see the impact of reduced supply in the following chart:
Government Bungling in Indonesia and the Price of Palm Oil
What happened to palm oil? How could it soar so much and then fall so hard?
The first issue is that dramatic increases in the price of fertilizer made production more expensive. … That contributed to a reduction in supply. However, Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil. Yet exports of palm levy were subject to a huge levy. That made exporting far more expensive. Despite the levy, it was still worth producing and exporting palm oil. Then the Indonesian government decided to simply ban exports over concern about higher domestic prices. Banning exports for a country that produces 59% of the world’s total palm oil exports had a predictable impact.
If you guessed that the supply of palm oil couldn’t be sold domestically, you’d be right. The ban was lifted. However, it was only after:
“High palm oil stocks have forced mills to limit purchases of palm fruits. Farmers have complained their unsold fruits have been left to rot. There were 7.23 million tonnes of crude palm oil in storage tanks at the end of May, data from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) showed on Friday.“
With palm oil prices at all time-record highs, nearly triple the level from two years prior, the supply was left to rot. Each business tried to make the best decision they could, given the ban on exports. Rather than record profits for mills and record profits for farmers, the produce was wasted. That’s supply constraints for the global market, and it destroys the local economy.
Global prices are plunging now as mills seek to unload their storage. As bad as the higher prices were for the rest of the world, no one suffered worse than the farmers whose product became worthless as a result of government failure.
Contrary to today’s popular opinion, higher interest rates won’t do anything to improve production of vegetable oil.