From noodles to gasoline, inflation is not just an issue in China

April 8, 2011

noodlesBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

These days I’m increasingly convinced that inflation is not just a China issue but a global problem and one that is becoming worse.

Yesterday when I posted a photo of rice noodles on my Chinese Twitter-like mini blogging account, I didn’t expect it would lead to quite such an active online discussion. I paid HK$16 (about US$2) for the bowl of noodles in the canteen of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). My friends from Geneva to New York to Shanghai “complained” that the price was way too cheap.

Well, the University Canteen is intended for students and I am indeed a HKU post-graduate student, part-time.

My friends in Shanghai told me a bowl of beef noodles costs about 30 yuan (US$4.6). In New York’s Chinatown, you might be charged US$4, according to a colleague, who is trying to break her daily Starbucks coffee addiction to save money in the Big Apple. Let’s face it — In many cases, a pay rise you receive won’t keep up with inflation these days. To address the problem, central bankers around the world — except the U.S. Fed — are apparently coming to a common understanding: that increasing interest rates is becoming a more realistic option.

The European Union is joining China to become the latest member of the international community to fight inflation via rate increases. The European Central Bank raised interest rates for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis on Thursday, signaling it is ready to tighten policy further if needed to help balance rising prices.

Given the big picture for globalization nowadays, the rate rise in Europe will certainly have an impact on a variety of domestic sectors in China. I believe your inbox will soon be full of research notes from investment banks helping you analyze the impact, so I won’t elaborate here.

But I do have a question for China, and maybe for Europe, too. Can rate increases really help China and the world solve the inflation problem? What we learned from the G20 meetings is that a key problem to solve  is global imbalances and there are some “imbalance indicators” that China already rejected. From a microeconomic perspective, such imbalances refer to the income gap, which rate increases don’t really help.

According to a Reuters poll of leading economists and analysts in China this week, the country is expected to see at least one more rate increase and the central bank is likely to raise banks’ required reserve ratio three times this year, possibly as soon as this month. Nevertheless, most analysts polled said it would still be a challenge for Beijing to keep its pledge and stop inflation rising above 4 percent.

This week is certainly a very busy week for China and the global market. Just one day after China’s central bank increased its benchmark lending and deposit rate on Wednesday to help curb inflation, the government announced it will raise gasoline prices by 500 yuan per tonne and diesel by 400 yuan per tonne from Thursday.

According to some research notes, after the newest gasoline price hike, retail prices for No.93 gasoline, the most commonly used type in China, is 7.79 yuan/liter, and the price level is expected to rise over 8 yuan in the coming months and may hit 10 yuan or exceed 10 yuan by the end of this year.

That is to say Chinese drivers will soon pay more for gasoline than their counterparts in the United States. Is that the price must China pay to be the world’s No.2 economy, and the price that Chinese consumers should pay for?

The news has not gone down well with everyone. One Chinese netizen on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like mini blogging service, which is very popular in China, joked: “My feeling is that I just happened to pick up 1 yuan on the street, like a beggar, and then I was robbed 100 yuan by a policeman.”

Some analysts are starting to wonder if China’s inflation is starting to get out of control and many banks like Goldman Sachs now estimate China’s March Consumer Price Index readings will exceed 5 percent. And considering that the government felt the need to hike the gasoline price tax, April’s data may look even uglier, possibly heading toward 6 percent in terms of growth on year.

The rate hike won’t cool off growing public angers on rising property prices in China either. Most ordinary Chinese have to face the reality — if you’re not rich, you just can’t afford to buy, even if the central bank raises interest rates 10 times a year. And those who are rich don’t care how much mortgage rates are raised, they can pay in cash.

Don’t just blame China — almost the same thing is happening in the West. A friend in Paris told me prices had risen more than 50 percent from last year for some downtown properties — even faster than in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Let’s talk about noodles again, which are certainly far more affordable to buy than a flat. If such day-to-day products are cheaper in Hong Kong than most places in mainland China, what about traveling to Hong Kong to buy your necessities if you earn Chinese currency yuan, which is growing stronger than the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar? If you live in the nearby southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, this is already happening.

In the global battle with inflation, everybody has their own way of dealing with the situation. So I will keep going to my university for the cheap (and delicious) noodles. What about you?

George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong. He’s also a part-time post-graduate student, studying international relations at the University of Hong Kong.

Photo: Chinese spicy rice noodles I bought in the canteen of the University of Hong Kong on April 7, 2011. Reuters/George Chen

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