China's Cheap Vegetables Problem
When China suffers inflation, food prices are always a significant part of the problem. But the conundrum China's leaders face with this latest round of inflation is somewhat bizarre: While the country's consumer price index is running at a near three-year high, vegetables are so cheap that tons and tons of them are being left to rot away in the fields.
Of course, vegetables are still expensive in the cities, and only in the cities, and that's exactly where the problem is. According to the official Xinhua News Agency (in Chinese), fat, juicy Chinese cabbages are selling at one yuan per 500 grams in city markets -- ten times the price the cabbage growers can fetch in the countryside.
Why, with urbanites paying such princely sums, are farmers leaving their cabbages on the ground? Because middlemen, transportation companies and the government itself are pocketing the bulk of the price differential.
Logistics-induced costs accounts for two thirds of the total cost for vegetables nationwide, Zhou Wangjun, vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission's price section, is quoted by Xinhua saying.
It turns out the problem isn't limited to produce. Referring to official statistics, Xinhua also said logistics-related costs constitute as much as 21.3% of China's gross domestic product, compared with just around 10% in developed countries. In a rather baffling example, Xinhua said it costs between 6 and 8 yuan to move one kilogram of goods via land transport from Shanghai to Guizhou, a province in the southwest, while it costs only 1.5 yuan to fly the same amount from Shanghai to New York.
According to estimates by Wang Tongsan (in Chinese), a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 82% of the world's toll-charging highways are in China, with road tolls accounting for as much as 50%-70% of logistics costs nationwide.
In the current climate, the logistics squeeze has had dire effects on more than just urban grocery budgets. Earlier this month, according to a report in the China Economic Times (in Chinese), the recent plunge in vegetable prices triggered the decision of a farmer in Shandong province to end his own life.
Transport-related charges, some of which are a result of arbitrary decisions by local governments, also were at the heart of a trucker strike that gummed up Shanghai's large container handling ports last week. The strikes fizzled out yesterday as authorities pledged to cut some of the fees and offered new relief to the truckers.
Economic officials and central bankers in Beijing have repeatedly stressed the importance of managing inflation expectations in the country's fight against rising consumer prices, but the vegetable price dilemma is a stark reminder that taming the China's inflation tiger won't be so easy.
Source: CME News For Tomorrow