Russia: From Market to Gosplan

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/24/2007 12:10:00 AM
In case you're not an IPE junkie (which is probably a good thing), I am making a reference in this post's title to the World Bank's 1996 World Development Report entitled From Plan to Market. The report concerns the transition from state- to market-dominated political economies post-Cold War, especially in former Soviet bloc countries. Gosplan, of course, was the former Soviet agency tasked with writing up five-year plans for the USSR. As you will read below, Russia has decided to impose price controls--just as China has--which the Financial Times says are designed to ensure that Putin's party stays in control when as another election cycle rolls around. Call it public choice theory, Russian style.

In a way, the reimposition of price controls is of a piece with Putin's recent moves to reclaim the USSR's glory days by sliding back to a more, shall we say, centrally planned era. After all, he's said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the catastrophe of the century." Sending bombers to patrol I don't know what, suppressing political opposition, and now determining prices of basic goods--the evidence is overwhelming. Comrade Putin, you've done the hammer and sickle proud:

Russia is introducing Soviet-style price controls on some basic foods in an effort to prevent spiralling prices from denting the Putin administration’s popularity ahead of parliamentary polls in December.

The country’s biggest food retailers and producers have reached an agreement, expected to be signed with the Russian government òn Wednesday, to freeze prices at October 15 levels on selected types of bread, cheese, milk, eggs and vegetable oil until the end of the year.

Russia’s move is the latest sign of surging agricultural prices becoming an international political issue. Big retailers will limit their mark-up on those goods to 10 per cent.

China has also agreed to food price controls; Egypt, Jordan, Bangladesh and Morocco are increasing subsidies or cutting import tariffs to lower domestic prices. Rich countries are not im­mune: Italian consumer groups organised a pasta boycott last month in a protest over prices.

The Russian economy ministry is also examining whether to increase a 10 per cent export tariff on wheat planned for November to 30 per cent to keep its domestic market well supplied. That prospect has pushed wheat prices up 6 per cent in Chicago in the past week, giving Moscow’s fight against rising food prices an effect beyond its borders.

Russia’s agriculture ministry said the food pricing arrangement was voluntary. But industry insiders said they had come under heavy pressure. “We were told in no uncertain terms that we have to freeze prices on certain products,” said one Russian food industry executive, who asked not to be named. “Everybody understands what the government is doing. It is part of their election campaign.”

Russian food prices rose steeply in September, with vegetable oil up 13.5 per cent, butter up 9.4 per cent and milk 7.2 per cent, thanks to global agricultural price increases. Given a big low-income population and meagre pensions, the price rises are among the few factors capable of deflating President Vladimir Putin’s 80 per cent-plus approval ratings...

Russia has fought off inflation in recent years but rising food prices mean it has already exceeded this year’s 8 per cent inflation target, with the final figure likely to top 10 per cent.

Food prices have risen globally thanks to increasing demand and changing diets in developing countries, more frequent floods and droughts damaging harvests, and the biotech industry’s growing appetite for grains.

Russia, like many countries, faces the additional challenge of fighting food inflation while pumping money into the financial system to combat the global credit squeeze.

But, as Izvestia newspaper commented, Moscow has “found its solution in the past”, with price freezes harking back to Soviet times.

“The reaction of the Russian authorities to the recent inflation spike has been even more predictable than the price surge that triggered it,” Dresdner Kleinwort said in a note to investors.

Industry insiders said price freezes might restrain headline inflation but would not reduce the overall rate.