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African swine fever could drive up inflation in emerging markets as pork prices soar

Key Points
  • "If the disease spreads and increases in severity, it would probably make a notable contribution to inflation in parts of Asia ... and Eastern Europe," James Swanston, assistant economist at Capital Economics, said in a note last week.
  • He singled out Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia, Poland and Romania, saying that pork is a relatively large part of the consumer price index basket in those countries — at around 2%. That compares with less than 1% in most other emerging markets, and about 3.5% in China.
  • The bigger risk for soybean exporters in emerging markets is that demand for the oilseeds — used as feed for hogs — could get hit, particularly if Chinese consumers shift to other meats, according to the firm.
A hired hand feeds a sow which recently gave birth to a new litter at the Grand Canal Pig Farm in Jiaxing, in China's Zhejiang province.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

African swine fever, which has already ravaged pig herds in China and pushed up food prices there, could also drive up inflation in the other emerging markets, according to research firm Capital Economics.

Outbreaks of the disease have been detected not just in China, but also in parts of Southeast Asia, Japan, Poland and Russia.

The Chinese government said in April it had culled more than a million pigs in a bid to control the outbreak, but some experts — such as Rabobank and TS Lombard — estimated that the number of hog culled could be more than 100 million.

"The most obvious channel through which this will impact (emerging markets) is via higher inflation," James Swanston, assistant economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note last week.

"If the disease spreads and increases in severity, it would probably make a notable contribution to inflation in parts of Asia ... and Eastern Europe," he said.

He singled out Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia, Poland and Romania, saying that pork is a relatively large part of the consumer price index basket in those countries — at around 2%. That compares with less than 1% in most other emerging markets, and about 3.5% in China, Swanston wrote.

Data from China's National Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday showed that food prices in the country spiked 7.7% in May compared to a year ago, as pork prices surged 18.2% also in the same period.

The rise in inflation in China "probably has further to run," while consumer prices in the other emerging markets would also be pushed up — by around 0.3 percentage points — if pork inflation were to rise to 15%, according to Capital Economics.

Recent spikes in prices have caused pork inflation in emerging economies to rise by as high as 15%, Swanston wrote.

Soybean demand may be hurt

The decline in pig populations would affect demand for soybeans, a type of oilseeds used as feed for the hogs, according to Capital Economics.

Perhaps the "bigger risk" for emerging markets is that soybean exporters could see "a permanent reduction" in demand for the oilseeds as China shifts away from pork consumption, Swanston cautioned in the note.

Pork has been a staple in China, which consumes about half the global supply of pork — but the declining supply could drive consumers to other meats, experts have said.

According to a March report from Capital Economics, China's consumption of poultry and beef has doubled since 1970, and is set to grow further.

"Looking ahead, China should start to increase its poultry consumption ... Chicken feed requires less protein, so if China is eating more poultry, demand for soybeans and corn could wane," Capital Economics said in March.

In a double whammy, the trade war between U.S. and China has already led to falling soybean imports from the Asian giant.

Last year, China's soybean imports from the U.S. hit its lowest in a decade. More recently, customs data showed that soybean imports in February fell to their lowest monthly level in four years — or 17% lower than a year ago, in part due to heavy tariffs on American soybeans.

Correction: This story was revised to delete the reference to the disease being in Australia. The Australian government says there have been no reported cases of ASF in the country.

— CNBC's Huileng Tan contributed to this report.

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