Many of the anti-government demonstrations currently rocking the Arab world are fueled, at least in part, by rising food prices and high unemployment rates, especially among the youth of the nations that are at the heart of the unrest.
Despite a 4.7 percent growth rate in Egypt last year, ordinary Egyptians have had to cope with double digit inflation for two years in a row. Meanwhile one out of ten Egyptians is out of work. In Tunisia, the unemployment rate hovers near 15 percent; in Jordan, it’s almost 17 percent. In Iran, inflation reached a record high of 25 percent in 2009.
The culprit? Writing for The Wall Street Journal, George Melloan points at the American Federal Reserve and its inflating of the money supply. Most recently, in November of last year, the Fed announced to buy $600 billion worth of United States Treasury bonds with newly printed money. The purpose of this second round of quantitative easing was to increase liquidity in financial markets and encourage banks to ease their lending practices to private businesses.
Since much of global trade, particularly in basic commodities like food and fuel, is denominated in American dollars, markets around the world are affected when the Fed floods them with new money. Poor countries that are heavily dependent on imports are hit especially hard. Nations that are dependent on exports for their growth, like China, try to maintain stability by inflating their own currencies to buy up dollars — a move that has been criticized by the Americans because it would give Chinese exporters an “unfair” advantage over their Western competitors.
China and India blame the US Federal Reserve for their difficulties in maintaining stable prices. The International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, always responsive to the complaints of developing nations, are suggesting alternatives to the dollar as the preeminent international currency.
China and Russia have already announced plans to consider alternatives to the dollar while the G20, currently chaired by France, is contemplating an enhanced role for IMF special drawing rights; a unit of account fashioned from a basket of currencies that is made available to the foreign currency reserves of central banks.
At the latest summit of G20 leaders in South Korea, the world’s largest economies failed to reach agreement on a balancing of trade proposal from the American side. Surplus economies as China and Germany won’t imperil their recoveries but the United States, struggling with high unemployment and the likelihood of several of its states defaulting, remain mired in recession.
The Federal Reserve’s expansionary monetary policy may seem to make sense from a domestic point of view but as Melloan puts it, “when the Fed sneezes money, the weak economies of the world, and the poor masses who are highly vulnerable to price rises in the necessities of life, catch pneumonia.”
Even at home, prices are on the rise. Gasoline prices will likely skyrocket in the months ahead as a result of the unrest in the Middle East but also because of the administration’s refusal to allow new drilling for oil and natural gas. Because of high inflation in China moreover, the costs of cheap consumer goods will probably increase.
About the only person failing to acknowledge a problem seems to be the man most responsible — Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Answering questions in Washington DC recently, the chairman said it was “unfair” to accuse the Fed of exporting inflation when other central banks have similar tools at their disposal.