The slow burn of food prices is squeezing the world dry

A new Oxfam report reveals the crushing effects of roller-coaster food prices.

The G8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland next month is likely to witness the usual awkward moment as global leaders sit down to groaning dinner tables and discuss global poverty and hunger. Assuming our political masters don’t have time to go and sit with poor people beforehand to see how their lives have changed in the last five years, they might at least consider skimming some new research from Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies into exactly that.

It reveals that a profound (and largely unrecognised) shock is transforming the lives of poor people around the world. In 2007, the world’s food system went into a prolonged spasm, as thirty years of steady and falling prices came to an end, and an era of high and roller-coaster prices commenced (with no end in sight). The findings are published today, under the title Squeezed.

Squeezed finds that the angry riots in 30 countries that characterised the first days of the food price spike have given way to a cumulative "slow burn" effect, as food price volatility has permeated almost every aspect of poor people’s lives: how they select, buy, grow and prepare food, how much and what kind of food they eat, their future dreams, and the relationships that bind families and communities together (or drive them apart).

Most families have reacted to high prices by eating lower quality food – fewer ingredients, replacing the fresh products that give flavour to staples with a stock cube or instant noodle seasoning: less nutritious, but at least it stops the kids complaining. That shift to cheaper food has raised horsemeat-type fears of adulteration – dodgy food chains are a universal concern.

Poor people are also trying ever harder to grow, gather and process their own food, as well as (in the case of women), find yet more ways to earn a few extra cents by going out to work, often in the so-called "informal economy". That has squeezed women’s time in the home so much that in many countries, free time is in danger of becoming an exclusively male concept. That produces knock-on effects, notably on elderly relatives (often women) who are required to take over part of the work of cooking, cleaning and raising children. Not surprisingly, exhaustion and anxiety are undermining many relationships – between old and young, husband and wife. Stories of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence are commonplace.

The food price spike also seems to be a tipping point in a shift away from relationships built on reciprocity (help me and I’ll help you in return, when you need it). People too ashamed to ask for help from friends and neighbours, and wary of not being able to return the kindness, are increasingly turning to the state to provide "social protection", for example through giving money so people can buy what they need and food for work schemes.

Communities’ ritual cycles of births, marriages and funerals are also being undermined, as families unable to afford the celebrations put them off for an ever-receding "better year". In the words of one woman from Bangladesh "only the rich arrange birthdays and marriages. We are busy just to win our bread."

Every sign suggests that this era of food price volatility is now the "new normal". Governments and aid donors need to respond in three key areas: social protection, wider policy and the care economy. On social protection, the key is to get schemes in place before the next big shock hits – crises are terrible times to introduce new laws and institutions. These should include automatic triggers so that when a price spike hits, poor people do not have to wait for decisions from parliaments or presidents before receiving help.

More broadly, governments need to tackle some of the structural causes of food price volatility, building up food reserves and dismantling grain trading cartels. Above all, they need to invest in small farmers both as producers and consumers of food, as climate change disrupts farming in more and more countries.

Finally, policy makers need to recognise that the unpaid economy of the home is profoundly affected by all this, and needs to be taken into account, for example by supporting both women and substitute carers to cope with the increased pressure on their waking hours.

As for those dinner conversations at the G8, Squeezed highlights the need to tackle some of the underlying drivers of chaos in the global food system. The big powers need to address the "land grabs" that are diverting land away from food production in many poor countries, adding to price pressures. Cracking down on tax evasion and tax havens would help curb capital flight and boost poor country government revenues. A shock as profound as that to the food system requires action from every quarter if there’s to be enough food for everyone.

Dr Duncan Green is Strategic Adviser at Oxfam.

PHotograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?