China’s Inflation Muddle

BEIJING – Even as the debt crises in Europe and the United States loom large and the global economic recovery falters, inflation is making a comeback worldwide. Indeed, emerging-market economies are bracing for a serious bout of it – together with the dire political consequences that it will bring.

China’s headline consumer price index (CPI) jumped 6.4% year on year in June, reaching its highest level since July 2008. Against the background of a shaky global recovery, concerns have grown considerably over a possible hard landing for the Chinese economy, caused by monetary tightening aimed at controlling inflation.

In China, food prices account for about a third of the CPI basket, with the price of pork bearing a large weight. As a result, the CPI is jokingly called the “pork price index.” In June, pork prices rose 57% year on year, contributing nearly two percentage points to the overall inflation rate. Unfortunately, macroeconomic policy can do little about the “hog cycle” and usually should not respond to it.

While China’s inflation problem should not be exaggerated, complacency would be dangerous. Current inflation is more broad-based than it appears, regardless of the controversy surrounding the adequacy of China’s CPI basket in reflecting the reality of underlying price movements. In fact, annual increases in non-food prices accelerated to 3% in June, up from 2.9% in May. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), living expenses increased by 6.1% year on year in May. Many worry that non-food prices may rise higher.