Perfect inflationary storm coming soon

Just because we have not had a problem with inflation for more than 6 years now doesn’t mean that we should treat is as nothing but superstition like the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones.

OPEC’s intent to cut back oil production for the first time in 8 years (See Bloomberg story on OPEC) taken together with the depreciation of the Philippine Peso to a seven-year low and the Duterte Budget Secretary Ben Diokno’s promise of record deficit spending to more than 3% of GDP – the highest in seven years – should be a cause for concern for the inflation hawks. (Btw, the Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Dulay has curiously not released the BIR’s collection performance for any period since the new administration began – not even for the Mr. Duterte’s First 100 Days report.) The 3 events taken together may just lead to the perfect inflationary storm. As it is, the inflation rate has risen from 1.9% in June 2016 to 2.4% in November. Even more worrisome, food inflation has reached 3.3% – which hurts the poorest Filipino families the most.

Are the local businesses out there worried about this awakening demon? Are there concerns for the marginalized sectors of society who bear the brunt of the inflationary pain? Or am I alone in worrying about the Pandora’s Box of cost-push inflation?

Inflation is coming!

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Can the Pan de Sal Shrink Even More?

In this installment of Pinoy Ekonomiks, we use the ever shrinking pan de sal as a metaphor for the demon of inflation (My daughter says that Jollibee’s peach mango pie is a more interesting metaphor, though.)

The Philippine Statistics Authority reported on July 5 that inflation rose by 1.9% in June, up from the 1.6% recorded in May. Former UP Economics Professor and now NEDA Director-General Ernesto Pernia attributed the increase to the residual effects of the weakening El Niño and the slight recovery of oil prices. Gas and other fuels, housing and electricity prices pushed non-food inflation to 0.9%. Disturbingly, food prices rose by 3% with the drought in some provinces affecting different food groups, notably vegetables and livestock. The immediately preceding NEDA Secretary Arsenio Balisacan has expressed concern about the higher than average increase in the cost of food and its impact on poverty levels. Balisacan has stressed that “Food price inflation [is] the main culprit. The very high prices of food wipe out the gains in per capita income of poor Filipinos. If not for inflation, we would have inclusive growth.”

This installment of Pinoy Ekonomiks tackles the topic of inflation and examines whether this should cause concern to the general public during these times of change.

What is inflation?

Inflation is a term used to refer to the general level of prices going up. When there’s inflation we will need more money to pay for goods (like dinorado rice or a loaf of pan de sal) and services (like the cost of the jeepney ride from Ayala to Mantrade). Inflation can be generally attributed to money in circulation growing at a faster rate that the production of goods and services in an economy – in short, too much money chasing too few goods.

Money is the lifeblood of commerce. It is the medium or the means by which all exchanges of goods and services in an economy occur. Naturally as the economy grows, the government has to print more money in order to permit the market to operate efficiently. In a well-managed economy, the level of prices of goods and services should remain stable and inflation should be well in control.

When government prints money faster than the rate of growth of the economy (usually measured through GDP growth), this tends to push prices up as more money compete for a limited supply of items. For the ordinary citizen, this translates into getting less for the same money that he or she used to be able to get. When inflation is not controlled over a long period of time, the economic disruption it causes can ultimately slow GDP growth.

Philippine inflation

Ilang Cornetto lang ang 500 pesos?  (Photo credit: Jamich FB page)

Inflation and the poor

Inflation affects different people to different extents. When inflation rises, fixed wage earners straightaway have to spend more of the money to buy the same things that they used to be able to buy for less. The owner of the neighborhood 24-hour grocery can at least raise the prices of some or all of the goods he sells in order to offset the impact of inflation.

While inflation usually causes the purchasing power of the entire nation to fall, its ugliest effect is the wholesale transfer of wealth from poor people and the middle class to the wealthy individuals and the large corporate monopolies. Many economic studies have observed that the most important contributing factor to increasing poverty and hunger is inflation in the cost of living.  Even short-term spikes in inflation are extremely painful for the poor.

Poverty statistics simple

Give us this day … lower inflation (Photo credit BusinessWorld)

Can government affect inflation?

Politicians love to spend but do not want to raise taxes because higher taxes are extremely unpopular. When the government spends more than it earns through taxes, it will have to borrow money from financial institutions. This is called deficit spending or deficit financing. When the government expands the money supply to finance its debts, it feeds the beast called inflation. The more aggressive the deficit spending, the more uncontrollable the beast becomes.

Without any question, run-away inflation destroys economies. We can see this in the tragic spectacle of 500+% inflation in Venezuela today. This has led to a complete meltdown in law and order and demonstrates the appalling incompetence of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Unfortunately, we do not have to look far for more examples. The massive deficit spending of the Marcos regime in the late 70s and early 80s led to a stunning collapse in the Philippine economy that took two decades to recover from.

The wanton fiscal practices of the Marcos years have served as backdrop to the fiscal caution practiced by the Aquino administration over the last six years. The wisdom of the fiscal conservatism displayed by the immediately preceding government has been widely recognized by the international credit rating institutions, by the multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and by businessmen and investors generally. The Philippines achieved investment grade status under President Aquino.

The current Budget Secretary, Benjamin Diokno however has come out with guns blazing, claiming “The Department of Finance [under Aquino] sees underspending as virtue, calling it “fiscal space,” but to me I see it as epic incompetence.” Diokno added that the administration of Mr. Duterte plans a further hike in infrastructure spending to up to 7 percent of the economy this year, higher than the 5 percent target of the previous government.

The Budget Secretary assured that “The Duterte administration will not spend money for spending’s sake.” Diokno further told the Inquirer, “The economy is deficient in all types of infrastructure—highways and bridges, ports and airports. Specific infrastructure projects to be pursued by the Duterte government include “small, medium and large-scale projects [that] will be done in all regions—[both] highly developed and lagging—simultaneously, not sequentially.”

Benjamin Diokno

We need more spending, my preciousss (Photo credit TV5.com)

The Budget Secretary’s intentions are clearly laudable but, sadly, begs the question. Many of the infrastructure projects to be pursued by the current administration were in fact already drawn up during the Arroyo and Aquino administrations. Spending on the array of projects already on the drawing board would have been the easiest thing for the previous administration.  Recall that politicians just love to spend our money. This is precisely what Marcos did several decades back – with much gusto. Clearly there is more than meets the eye here.

There was a lot of debate about the Philippine economy’s “absorptive capacity” around the time the country achieved investment grade status. Some analysts argued that the Philippine economy needed to hike its absorptive capacity in order to utilize large inflows expected following the country’s enhanced credit status. Borrowed funds should be channeled carefully to the most productive infrastructure investments in order to avoid asset bubble formations, the analysts added.

We will explore the concepts of absorptive capacity and asset bubbles in the next installment in this series. For now, suffice it to say that economists argue that there are a whole set of macroeconomic, institutional, policy, technical, operational and other constraints, (e.g., corruption) that keep an economy from gaining the greatest benefit from a sudden and massive increase in government spending. It appears that there is such a thing as indigestion from too much money – like winning the Lotto and not knowing what to do with all the cash.

Confused about money

I don’t have the absorptive capacity for this….

Before we embark on aggressive spending, there should be an extensive and open discussion on the economy’s absorptive capacity. The nightmare of the Marcos years leads us to appreciate the dangers of irresponsible public finance. We now recognize that there is a fine line between bold and decisive public spending and reckless and simplistic deficit financing. Clearly an increase in spending should be lock-in-step with a reform program that expands the economy’s absorptive capacity. What does this reform program look like under the Duterte administration, Secretary Diokno?

Peach mango pie

Photo credit Kim Agnes, Pepper.ph

Despite all the good intentions, reckless and simplistic deficit spending can only feed the demon of inflation – and shrink the pan de sal and the peach mango pie yet again. In an economy where people can only purchase the products they need in small sachets and the common pan de sal is already tiny, the smallest mistake can be truly costly.

Sachets

Photo by Katherine Visconti, Rappler.com

Next Week:  We discuss absorptive capacity and asset bubbles in a post entitled: Lotto Winners Do Not Really Win

Featured Image: Photo credit to Amalissa Uytingco, The Culture-ist

References

Inflation rises by 1.9% in June 2016, Rappler.com, July 5, 2016.

http://www.rappler.com/business/economy-watch/138730-philippines-inflation-june-2016

Inflation is Eating Our Lunch, Lila Ramos Shahani, The Philippine Star, March 16, 2015.

http://www.philstar.com:8080/opinion/2015/03/16/1433983/inflation-eating-our-lunch

Duterte admin to hike infrastructure spending to up to 7% of GDP, Ben O. de Vera, Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 3, 2016

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/789048/duterte-admin-to-hike-infrastructure-spending-to-up-to-7-of-gdp

Gov’t underspending is ‘epic incompetence’ – Diokno, Chris Schnabel, Rappler.com, August 7, 2015.

http://www.rappler.com/business/economy-watch/101830-government-underspending-benjamin-diokno

Phl economy needs better absorptive capacity – analysts, Prinz Magtulis, The Philippine Star, May 8, 2013

http://www.philstar.com/business/2013/05/08/939486/phl-economy-needs-better-absorptive-capacity-analysts