Food Price Increases Won’t Be Solved by Raising Interest Rates

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.

Some Countries Use Too Much Fertilizer, and Some Use Too Little

In a world where China and India continue to build huge, CO2-belching coal power plants, and a world where global supply chains can no longer be taken for granted, you might think that a small, crowded country like the Netherlands would prioritize home-grown food production over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from a relatively small volume of cow manure. But this is Europe, the land of eco-utopianism, and so you would be wrong.

Cow poop does emit nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and ammonia (which can potentially pollute local water if uncontained). In a burst of green virtue,  the Netherlands has, “unveiled a world-leading target to halve emissions of the gasses, as well as other nitrogen compounds that come from fertilizers, by 2030, to tackle their environmental and climate impacts.” This target is expected to result in a 30% reduction in livestock numbers and the closure of many farms. Dutch farmers are not amused, and have vented their ire by dumping hay bales on highways and smearing manure outside the home of the agricultural minister. Protests over green policies hobbling local farmers have spread to Germany and Canada.

All this raised in my mind the question, could we really get along with using much less nitrogen-based fertilizers? I found a great article by Hannah Ritchie on, “Can we reduce fertilizer use without sacrificing food production?”, which provides lush tables and graphs on the subject.

First, it’s estimated that artificial nitrogen fertilizers (where hydrogen, mainly derived from natural gas, is reacted with atmospheric nitrogen at high pressure over catalysts to make ammonia and derivatives) allow the world’s population to be about twice as high is it would be otherwise. Put another way, take away nitrogen fertilizers, and half of us die. So any campaign to massively scale back on fertilizer usage would result in mass starvation. You first…

That said, Ritchie’s article pointed out that some countries such as China seem to be (inefficiently) using much more fertilizer than they need to get similar results, some countries (e.g. America) seem to be about in balance, and some areas (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa) would benefit from using more fertilizer. So globally we could probably use a bit less fertilizer if the profligate countries used (a lot) less, while the deprived countries used a little more.

I’ll conclude with two charts from Ritchie’s article. The first chart shows, for instance, that Brazil uses twice as much fertilizer per hectare or per acre as the U.S, and China uses three times as much, while Ghana uses about a tenth as much.

The second chart shows estimated nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). An NUE of 40%, for instance, shows that 40% of the nitrogen in the fertilizer is converted to nitrogen in the form of crops, while the other 60% of the nitrogen becomes pollutants. In China and India, only about a third of the applied nitrogen is fully utilized, compared to two thirds in places like the U.S. and France. ( Some countries have a very high NUE – greater than 100%. This means they are undersupplying nitrogen, but continue to try to grow more and more crops. Instead of utilizing readily available nutrients, crops have to take nitrogen from the soil. Over time this depletes soils of their nutrients which will be bad for crop production in the long-run).

Good Old Lemons

This post doesn’t have a darn thing to do with economics, statistics, or finance. This is a post about citrus storage.

There are problems with buying citrus.

  • If you get a big Sam’s Club size bag of limes, then they start going hard and thin-skinned by the end of a week.
  • A bag of grapefruit? There’s usually one in the bag that’s goes moldy almost immediately and you know what they say about one bad grapefruit spoiling the bunch.
  • Mandarins shrink and get hard to peel.
  • Lemons – even if you refrigerate them – get soft and un-zest-worthy.

There is a solution. Now, our lemons and limes last upwards of 6-8 weeks with hardly a symptom of age. Mandarins don’t shrivel and grapefruits remain edible. No, silly goose, the answer isn’t free markets and the price system.

Maybe it’s all of the additional vitamin C that I’m getting. Maybe it’s the warm and fuzzy feeling of money well spent. But I’m now excited each time that we purchase citrus. And I get a cozy feeling of satisfaction whenever I see a nice lemon that definitely should not still be any good.

The answer is really simple. You too can achieve such amazing results. All you have to do is:

  • Rinse your citrus under water, rubbing gently to remove any invisible bad-guy germs. In reality, you’re probably getting rid of mold spores.
  • Place the wet citrus into a ziploc bag, seal, and refrigerate. The refrigeration further retards the growth of any unwanted spores. The sealed bag prevents too much air flow and drying.( I don’t bother refrigerating grapefruit and oranges because I eat them quickly enough).

That’s it. You too can have 8 week old limes and lemons that you bought on sale or in bulk that are nearly as fresh as the day that you purchased them.