Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Stuck in the Middle

The Deputy PM thinks middlemen are the culprits for high prices (excerpt):

Zahid: Higher prices of goods and services the work of 'cartels', not GST

BAGAN DATUK: The rise of market prices were not caused by the Goods and Services Tax (GST) but the actions of middlemen and “cartels” who manipulated prices for their own gain.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also chairman of the National Cost of Living Action Council, said these middlemen and cartels also made things worse by accusing the government of raising the prices of goods and services when it was they who were the ones responsible.

“They blame GST as the main cause, but these cartels and middlemen are the ones who, before this, avoided paying the Sales and Service Tax (SST). It is because of these people that the government decided to (do away with SST and) implement GST….

…Zahid said it was true that there had been an increase in production, import, foreign exchange costs at one time, but this was due to the fact that the ringgit had fallen against the dollar.

However, he said, the ringgit had now risen against the Greenback but the prices of goods had yet to come down.

Despite the “cartels/middlemen” explanation being a fairly widespread belief, I’d like to see some evidence for it first. While the DPM might be using this to deflect the perfectly valid point that GST is not wholly and certainly not primarily responsible for higher prices, I don’t see it reflected in any of the (patchy) census data on distributive trade. If this was true, profits (value-added, less wages) in the wholesale/retail sector should be rising. Instead, margins have been declining, largely due to higher wage bills.

That last point is mostly wrong too. Based on the interaction between prices and the exchange rate, there has been very little passthrough of exchange rate movements into domestic prices, which implies margins shrank when the Ringgit declined, and just reverted to “normal” as the Ringgit regained value. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been isolated cases of direct passthrough into prices (I’m looking at you, Apple), but there hasn’t been a general wave in that direction. Moreover, the exchange rate should be completely irrelevant for prices of services.

What disturbs me most about this, however, is that the last two times I’ve heard this sentiment being publically aired by a top government official was in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Both were cases of hyperinflationary environments, and governments who’d prefer to scapegoat rather than address the real causes of price increases.

Would addressing distributional inefficiencies and monopolies/oligopolies reduce prices? If they exist, quite possibly. However, any such improvement would be a temporary one-off reduction in the price level, and won’t change underlying inflation.


  1. Afternoon Sir,

    Whats the "real causes" of price increase? Second, how significant is the "imported inflation" has on our local food price.


    1. 1. You have to look at each specific category of goods/services, as there are different reasons for each. Which means there's no single solution.

      2. Pretty much all of it is imported inflation. However, the exchange rate had an impact on imported food prices in only temporarily in 2016 (down, then up). Otherwise, zero effect

    2. Thank you sir