It’s a reminder that prices in emerging markets are hardly as stable as those of us in developed economies might expect — and also that instability may come from the most innocuous places. While inflation is usually far from the minds government officials in the West, bankers and policymakers in Asia often face the unenviable task of combating rising prices in vitally important market areas. A failure to do so could have disturbing consequences: in 2010, more than a thousand students in Guizhou province responded to rising food prices by rioting in their school cafeteria, leaving behind a “chaotic scene” with smashed doors and shattered glass. “Inflation is politically volatile in China,” wrote the South China Morning Post, “because it erodes economic gains that underpin the ruling party’s claim to power.”
India, too, has seen its share of food inflation this year, and with similarly dangerous outcomes. Since the early summer, the Premise data science team has tracked the rising price of onions with keen interest. A staple of Indian cuisine, inflation in the root vegetable’s prices has the power to change the course of a nation: in the country’s 1998 elections, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party was unceremoniously booted from office in an outcome blamed on the skyrocketing price of onions. Onion prices played such a large role in the 1977 Indian elections that former prime minister Indira Gandhi called it the onion election.
As the price of onions and other vegetables continued to rise this summer the rupee weakened, almost as if in lockstep. The exchange range shot up, from around 60 rupees per dollar in June to almost 70 rupees per dollar by August. Most frighteningly, social unrest in the country became stronger. In August, a truck carrying 9,000 kilograms of onions was stolen in a robbery that an Indian police officer, Bhawani Singh, told the New York Times was unlike anything he had ever known to happen.
premise — india vegetable index
Given the political and social upheaval that has been known to accompany such increases in vegetable prices, these price adjustments can lead to market moving events. At the end of October, more than three months after Premise first saw vegetable prices begin to increase, Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, raised the repurchase rate to 7.75 percent from 7.5 percent. In what was likely a response to the rate hike — at least in part — the yield on 10-year bonds issued by the Indian government fell 12 basis points to 8.54 percent. In a statement, Rajan reiterated the importance of “break[ing] the spiral of rising price pressures in order to curb the erosion of financial saving and strengthen the foundations of growth.”
The price of onions, a critical staple in India, has gone up 31.36% in the past 30 days.