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Facing inflation, Asia gets more aggressive

As social unrest grows over rising food and fuel prices, policymakers from Thailand to Indonesia are raising interest rates.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2008

India: Activists demonstrated last week in Mumbai (Bombay) against rising cooking fuel prices.

Arko Datta

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Bangkok, Thailand

Across Asia, the bugbear of inflation is back, and it's not just policy wonks who are feeling the strain. Faced with rippling social unrest over soaring prices for fuel and food, governments are struggling to cushion the blow, while keeping economic growth on track.

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With inflation rates at multiple-year highs in Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, and Indonesia, policymakers are reluctantly raising interest rates in a bid to keep a lid on rising prices. At the same time, Asian governments are having to slash fuel subsidies to stop their own budget blowouts, all the while keeping a wary eye on the political backlash.

Last week, Malaysia raised pump prices by 41 percent for gasoline and 67 percent for diesel, to the dismay of consumers accustomed to cheap fuel, and to the delight of an emboldened opposition that has begun planning nationwide anti-inflation rallies. Reaction was swifter in India, where protests broke out in West Bengal after double-digit fuel price rises that, analysts say, could dent the popularity of the ruling Congress Party.

As global oil prices stay high, the pressure on Asian central banks to tackle inflation is growing. The dilemma is how to raise interest rates without slowing the growth that underpins the popularity of many governments in the region. But there's little doubt that global price trends are forcing policymakers to act now.

"We're facing inflationary pressures not only here in Asia but around the world. The impact of higher global energy and food prices is driving the inflation numbers," says David Cohen, director of Asian economic forecasting at Action Economics in Singapore, who expects that India will raise interest rates, following Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

On June 9, US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke also raised concerns over oil-led inflationary pressures in a speech that some observers took as signaling future rate increases. The Fed has been cutting rates to try to head off a recession, something keenly watched by exporters in Asia.

Six months ago, Asian policymakers were bracing for economic pain from slowing exports to the US, says James McCormack, head of Asia-Pacific sovereign ratings at Fitch Ratings in Hong Kong. At the same time, they figured that weaker demand in the US and other major economies would crimp global commodity prices, trimming their own import bills. Instead, Asia is confronting soaring prices for oil and other essentials, forcing policymakers into an inflation-fighting corner.

"We may be starting to get on top of the issue, but it's a problem and we expect more action from policymakers," says Mr. McCormack, who recently downgraded his rating on Vietnam, where inflation is more than 25 percent.

US eyes inflation as well

Record-high energy and food prices are fueling inflationary concerns in the United States as well as the Pacific. US inflation rose 3.2 percent in the 12 months leading up to April – 2.1 percent when food and energy prices were excluded.

"The latest round of increases in energy prices has added to the upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations," said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, speaking June 9. "The Federal Open Market Committee will strongly resist an erosion of longer-term inflation expectations," he said, "as an unanchoring of those expectations would be destabilizing for growth as well as for inflation."

Bernanke said higher raw material costs have not rippled through to significantly higher prices for products. But, he said, "The continuation of this pattern is not guaranteed, and future developments in this regard will bear close watching.

Source: Wire reports

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