A change in the tide, cheap food?

Well, are food prices going to rise? After all, governments have successfully held prices down for decades. Milk is cheaper in the shops in cash terms than it was back in the 1990s. Is the tide changing?
One advantage of living on the side of Morecambe Bay is that you get used to the tides. I once spent some time in Scarborough and yes the tide goes out, but frankly it’s not what I’d call spectacular. Here in Morecambe Bay when it goes out, it literally goes miles. Over seven miles at times. So when the tide changes, things obviously change. And I’m wondering whether we’re about to see another turn of the tide. The combination of carbon zero, Brexit, and Covid has been a perfect storm.

Now since Peter Mandelson and New Labour announced they were “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich so long as they pay their taxes,” the economy has shifted. I don’t get upset about the ‘gig economy’ because for most self-employed people that’s what self-employment is. But we’ve had industries growing up as parasites on others. So Airbnb can become what is effectively the world’s biggest hotel chain but dumps all the capital, maintenance and staffing costs onto its ‘partners.’ Similarly Uber managed to become one the biggest taxi companies without owning a single car or employing drivers, but instead pushed all those costs down the supply chain onto the shoulders of its ‘partners.’ It has taken court cases and old fashioned trade unions to get Uber to start to change its ways.

Then we’ve had over a decade of Quantitative easing. To quote from the Guardian (and in turn from the Bank of England) “QE enriches those who have already accumulated enough assets such that they generate sufficient income without the need to liquidate their accumulated capital base. As the Bank itself determined in a 2012 paper analysing, among other things, the distributional effects of QE, “the top 5% of households own 40% of the assets,” and hence they have been the primary beneficiaries of the rampant asset price inflation following the financial crisis of 2008 and large devaluation in sterling.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2016/sep/28/quantitative-easing-qe-pernicious-effects-favour-wealthy-tax-middle-class

But all these attempts to ‘drive cost out of the system’ are starting to run into the sand. So now haulage has started to be a serious cost, at two levels. Shipping costs have gone through the roof. I was talking to an old chap who used to go round farms and sell tools from a van. His business model, twenty years or so ago, was to fill a forty foot container from suppliers in China and over the next couple of years, he’d sell the contents and that’s how he made a living. He retired about four years ago, and after three years he discovered he was going out of his mind with boredom. So he started up again and aged seventy he’s back on the road. But when he tried to get his container, the Chinese suppliers were still there, but the cost of a container for somebody just hiring one occasionally, had gone up from £2,000 to over £20,000. As he said, suddenly there was no money in it.

Then we have the shortage of wagon drivers. Plus a shortage of people to do field work, and the shortage of labour has crept into other industries as well. The problem is, a lot of these people are working for the ‘living wage,’ if they are lucky. I saw one care firm boasting it paid £9 an hour, but then you discover that this doesn’t include travelling time between the homes of your clients, and for that time you’re not paid but will get your petrol or bus fare. So the laws of supply and demand should lead to wages going up.

Now a lot of well-paid people are demanding that we import cheap labour from abroad. Keep prices down. Heaven forfend that they have to pay more for a skinny latte.

Admittedly with the end of furlough, we could see people coming back onto the job market. Apparently a lot of those on furlough work in aviation, foreign travel and suchlike. Frankly are there jobs for them to come back to or are they facing redundancy? It might be as good a time to become redundant as any, especially if you’re willing to splash out on your HGV.

But the other parts of the perfect storm are hitting at the same time. Even if you do keep people on minimum wage, that’s going to have to rise to cover the increasing prices. I’ve already mentioned haulage, the increase in the cost of a container alone could add about 20p to a kilo of oranges. But then, just as UK government advisers are telling the government we can import food, just like Singapore does, the Singapore government are stressing they’re increasing the proportion of food produced at home. For small city state this is tricky, but their current plan is to go from 10% self-sufficiency to 30% self-sufficiency by 2030.

https://www.gov.sg/article/food-security-its-not-just-about-the-eggs

Even wealthy Singapore states ““Although import source diversification has served us well, COVID-19 underscores the importance of having a buffer in case of global supply disruptions.”
 

So if Singapore worries that food might not be out there to import, why on earth should we assume it will be out there to import cheaply?

And then we’ve got carbon neutrality. This is pretty well going to jack the price up of a lot of things. If you’ve got gas central heating, when your boiler gives out, you probably won’t have gas central heating any more, you’ll have to buy a heat pump. Similarly have you considered how you’ll charge up your next ‘electric’ car? A neighbour of ours has had Three Phase electricity brought to his premises because it makes charging a car faster and cheaper.  How many people can do that? I know people who cannot even park their car within sight of their flat, never mind dangle a cable out of their fifth floor window to charge it. As a country we will need a lot more infrastructure to cope with the shift to charging cars, and a lot more generating capacity. None of it is cheap and somebody will have to pay for it. Don’t expect cheap electric at any time soon.

But if you get wages rising because of a shortage of workers, followed by costs rising because of increased haulage, energy costs, and rising wages, you then have the circle complete itself because workers will want more money because they’re struggling due to the increased cost of living. Will we see inflation back?
Personally, if I had a lot of money borrowed, I’d be keen to lock it in for as long as possible at as low a rate as possible. After all, I’ve farmed with an overdraught rate of 23%. It makes your eyes water.

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There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts

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14 thoughts on “A change in the tide, cheap food?

  1. robbiesinspiration September 7, 2021 at 4:49 am Reply

    It was bound to happen. Interesting post, Jim.

    • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 5:02 am Reply

      Thanks. The only constant is change, and I cannot imagine low interest rates surviving forever

  2. Eddy Winko September 7, 2021 at 5:02 am Reply

    You should put a few acres aside to rent out as allotments, there’s going to be a lot more people wanted to grow their own when they cant afford the food in the shops anymore 🙂 Mind you maybe the reduction in choice on the shelves as the shops can no longer source or afford the stock, may bring the price of the basics down. Tesco and the like might start to scale back and move to smaller outlets, or rent out there surplus shelves to other retailers. And maybe that big tide in Morecombe might eventually be harnessed to generate some electricity 🙂

    • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 5:05 am Reply

      The first plan for a bridge across Morecambe Bay was (from memory) from 1852, It’s regularly resurrected but intriguingly at least the last scheme was for wave turbines, with the bridge serving as the access road, So at least the dreamers are moving in your direction.
      But yes, there is already a little less choice, on average, in some of the retailers. You can still get, for example, oranges and clementines, but not five different sorts, every day

      • Eddy Winko September 7, 2021 at 6:52 am

        I remember they had similar dreams in Jersey, with some of the biggest tidal ranges in the world it wold be ideal for a small island, but a big waste to power incinerator took the prize 😦
        Thinking of Jersey that reminded me of an old complex of greenhouses from the days when they could still make money from tomatoes, that they turned into indoor allotments and them held a weekly market so that people could sell their surplus. Not sure if it worked out, but it was a nice idea.
        Someone once told me that choice was a sign of freedom, personally I think it just leads to waste 🙂

      • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 9:10 am

        too much choice does. In fact it can lead to stagnation as people sit staring at the alternatives

  3. rootsandroutes2012 September 7, 2021 at 5:41 am Reply

    So much of this is common sense, Jim, but I’ve rarely seen all the threads drawn together so as to reach the obvious conclusion… and I’ve NEVER seen it done by a politician of any party.

    • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 6:42 am Reply

      Nobody ever paid them to look further ahead than the next election 😦

  4. Cathy Cade September 7, 2021 at 10:07 am Reply

    Ah, inflation! I recall those days… when we paid 15% interest on our mortgage.
    On the plus side, we briefly received 10% on our savings after Dad died and left some money (until we spent it! Back then, I’m not sure we’d have survived those childrearing years without Dad’s money that had to stretch between us three kids and his two former wives).
    Inflation certainly encouraged saving – if you could – and discouraged getting into debt. For years we survived by shifting the credit card balance to whichever card was offereing the best interest rate for newcomers, whenever our current card’s offer ran out.

    • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 12:01 pm Reply

      yes the younger generation is going to have to learn a whole new suite of survival techniques 🙂

    • Dan Holdsworth September 8, 2021 at 10:01 am Reply

      If you’ve got spare money, put it into a stocks & shares ISA and buy into one of the managed portfolio investment trusts with that. Currently Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust is one of the leaders in that field (I don’t work for them, I just own a tiny fraction of their stock), but there are plenty of these. Essentially you’re buying expertise in investing.

      As for electricity, way back in the very early days of computing there was an interesting device that the home computer people had invented. It consisted of a mains motor on one end of a shaft, a flywheel in the middle and an AC generator on the other end. The flywheel smoothed out the power, and meant that brownouts, gaps and peaks didn’t affect the computer. These days, with Government looking to stick its beaky nose into everything we do, there is law in place that you cannot charge a car without having a smart meter in place.

      I would say that a similar contraption to that mentioned above, only with output at the DC voltage the car requires (with smoothing circuits built in) would pay dividends, since to any smart meter it would merely look like a motor-based load, and would not look like a car, thus the Power That Be wouldn’t be able to turn off your car’s charging, nor nick power back from its battery for the grid.

      • jwebster2 September 8, 2021 at 11:34 am

        Best investments I’ve ever made have been farm land 🙂

        As for smart meters, they’ll have to provide us with decent mobile coverage first. We haven’t got one and even if they insisted, it still wouldn’t work as they couldn’t get reception 🙂

  5. Dan Holdsworth September 10, 2021 at 4:19 pm Reply

    As far as smart meters go, I’m in very much the same sort of situation. I live in a Victorian-age terraced house and whilst there is mobile coverage up in the rooms, when you get down to the dingy little cupboard next to the back wall where the meter is situated, you can forget mobile coverage. The gas meter is in the cellar at the front, so likely even less well covered.

    In any case, I can do without the government being able to muck about with the power supply to my house.

    • jwebster2 September 10, 2021 at 4:33 pm Reply

      Yes, I share your doubts that governments will muck about with my meter to my advantage 🙂

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