Food price inflation may be one of the most serious problems facing the world, but it is one that monetary policy has little power to tackle, central bankers said on Monday.
With the price of food rising by more than 40 percent a year, the issue is high on the agenda at meetings at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel which began on Sunday.
"Food pressure is a global problem, we have to observe, monitor, but we cannot use monetary policy tools to manage this problem," said Polish National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek. "Food pressures could be one of the most serious problems that we have to face now."
"It's certainly going to be one of the big issues here," Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said on his way into the talks.
Top central bankers including U.S. Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Donald Kohn and new Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa are joining other Group of Seven colleagues and policymakers from developing nations at the meetings.
European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, who chairs the global economy session, will hold a news briefing later on Monday.
The May meeting comes as a rapid rise in food costs and prices of other commodities such as oil is fuelling historically high inflation rates from the euro zone to China, and creating a headache for central bankers also concerned about the economic impact of nine months of financial market turmoil.
EMERGING MARKET INFLATION
Finnish central bank governor Erkki Liikanen said food prices were a concern not only for inflation, but also for living standards in many developing nations.
A 43 per cent rise in global food prices in the year to March sparked violent protests in Cameroon and Burkina Faso as well as rallies in Indonesia following reports of deaths from starvation.
“They have an impact on the situation of many poor people around the world," Liikanen, who also sits on the ECB's Governing Council, told reporters. "It's a challenging situation in many developing countries in a way which we have not seen for some time."
In China, rising food prices helped push inflation to a near 12-year high of 8.0 per cent in the first three months of 2008, although China's central bank chief said this was partly driven by strong seasonal spending and should ease.
"After the spring festival, including the second quarter ... the inflation rate, the CPI, could decline," People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said on Sunday. "But it doesn't mean for the whole year whether there is a continuous trend for higher CPI or not. It's still uncertain."
On Monday, however, Zhou played down any direct short-term link between high Chinese inflation and economic performance, focusing more on the potential impact of the US slowdown.
"The US may import a little bit less from China. We could see this phenomenon but not very significantly. Basically China exports still grow quite strongly," he said, citing export growth to Asia and Europe.
China had the option of raising interest rates to control inflation, but there was a range of instruments available for that purpose, Zhou added, without elaborating.
At the BIS meeting, central bankers are also likely to discuss the success of joint efforts to ease persistent tensions on international money markets.
The Fed, the ECB and the Swiss National Bank announced a third phase of liquidity injections on Friday, offering extra funds to US banks and promising to offer extra US dollar funds to European banks past the end of the year.
Still, liquidity is not a problem for all countries: Poland's Skrzypek said money markets there were over-supplied with funds, which had to be sterilised. (Reuters)