The Washington Post Is Badly Confused About International Trade: Blames Bernanke for Higher Food Prices

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Tuesday, 08 February 2011 05:26

We have been treated to articles in the Post and elsewhere about how employers can't find qualified workers even though the unemployment rate remains near double-digit levels. The Washington Post editorial page gave us new evidence for this claim in an editorial that said there was at least some truth to claims that the Fed's quantitative easing policy was responsible for higher food prices in Egypt and elsewhere.

The editorial tells readers:

"International commodity prices are set in dollars, so QEII means more dollars chasing the same supply of goods. The Food and Agricultural Organization calls the dollar's post-September 2010 weakening a "leading factor" in commodity inflation."

Both parts of this are wrong. Yes, food commodities, like other commodities, are typically traded in dollars, but this means absolutely zero in terms of food price inflation in other countries unless their governments have made a decision to link their currency to the dollar.

This one is easy to see. Suppose that the Fed's action reduces the value of the dollar by 10 percent so that the price of wheat goes from $5.00 to $5.50 a bushel. That might sound like a 10 percent increase in the price of food. However, if the value of the dollar has fallen by 10 percent measured in wheat, it should also fall by 10 percent measured in Chinese yuan, Indian rupees, and Egyptian pounds. This means that there is no change in the price of wheat for people in these countries. (This is not true if the country has linked its currency to the dollar, but then the blame for higher food prices lies in this decision to link the currency, not the Fed's actions.)

Of course, some food is sold under long-term contracts, which will usually be written in dollar terms. In this case, the people of Egypt or other countries will get cheaper food as a result of a weakening of the dollar.

The second part of  the Post's story is also wrong since there is little evidence of any decline in the dollar associated with QEII. The Fed's data show the dollar falling a bit less than 3.0 percent in the months since QEII was announced. That is about the same decline as we saw the prior four months, so there does not seem to be much case of a plunge in the dollar due to QEII.

In short, the fact that food is priced in dollars does not affect the cost of food in Egypt and the dollar did not fall because of QEII, so there is not much of a case here. In fairness, the Post recognized that QEII was not the main cause of higher food prices, but it was wrong to treat it as any part of the cause, except insofar as it boosted growth in the U.S. In that way, the Fed would be as much to blame for higher food prices as Microsoft and Facebook if they announced a huge new investment plan.