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Bernanke and Ethanol Sink Egypt

Decades of autocratic government and a lack of free elections are, of course, the main drivers of the political upheaval in Egypt. But did the sinking dollar and skyrocketing food prices trigger the massive unrest now occurring in Egypt — or the greater Arab world for that matter?

Thousands of demonstrators gather near a huge banner reading 'leave' in Arabic at Cairo's Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters flooded Cairo for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their relentless drive to oust President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Khaled Desouki | AFP | Getty Images
Thousands of demonstrators gather near a huge banner reading 'leave' in Arabic at Cairo's Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters flooded Cairo for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their relentless drive to oust President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

In addition to Egypt, the people have taken to the streets to varying degrees in Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen. Local food riots have even broken out in rural China and other Asian locales.

While the mainstream media focuses on the political aspects of this turmoil, they are overlooking the impact of rising inflation, driven mainly by record food prices. For example, former Bush advisor Dan Senor notes that Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. Yet because of skyrocketing prices, Egyptian inflation is now over 10 percent, while some experts estimate that Egyptian food inflation has risen as much as 20 percent.

So I have to ask this tough question: Is Ben Bernanke’s ultra-easy QE2 money pump-priming partially to blame?

Commodities are priced in dollars, and the Federal Reserve has been overproducing dollars for more than two years. Consequently, emerging markets throughout the world -- and the food sector in particular — are suffering from rising inflation.

The CRB food index is up an incredible 36 percent over the past year, including 8 percent year-to-date. Raw materials are up 23 percent in the past year. Inflation breakouts have occurred in China, among various Asian Tigers, and in India, Brazil, and other Latin American countries. Even Britain and Germany are registering higher inflation readings.

In dollar terms, the price of wheat has soared 114 percent over the past year. Corn has surged 88 percent. These are incredible numbers.

And let’s not forget that the world’s poor are the hardest hit by food-price inflation. They literally can’t afford to buy bread. It brings to mind the French Revolution in the 18th century. When you see this kind of mass protest in the streets, spreading from country to country, you see a pattern that cannot be explained by local conditions alone.

The dollar is the world’s reserve currency. And the rise of dollar food prices is a global phenomenon. It is a monetary phenomenon, as much as anything.

And that’s why one can argue that the worldwide revolt against soaring food prices is an unintended consequence of U.S. Fed policy. That policy is aimed at reigniting inflation here at home. But unwanted dollars circulating worldwide are hitting foreign inflation rates first. We may well catch this inflation virus before long.

To be fair, not all of the food inflation can be blamed on the Fed. A good part of this problem can also be placed at the doorstep of bipartisan U.S. policies to subsidize ethanol.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2001, only 7 percent of U.S. corn went to ethanol. By 2010, the ethanol share was 39 percent. So instead of growing wheat, our farmers are growing corn in order to cash in on ethanol subsidies. Egyptians who can’t afford to buy bread and have taken to the streets in protest might be very interested to know this.

Not even Al Gore still believes that ethanol provides any environmental benefits.

As the world watches events in Egypt play out, be mindful that if the U.S. fixed its mistaken monetary and energy policies, the forces of freedom and democratization would have an easier time of it in the rest of the world.

Questions? Comments, send your emails to: lkudlow@kudlow.com

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