Originally appeared on Daily News
By Ravi Ratnasabapathy
The Government has imposed price controls on a number of basic foods in order to control the cost of living. For the purpose of study, we wanted to ascertain the products subject to controls, as well as the prices at which they were supposed to be sold.
A list of price controlled items is a straightforward piece of information that should be readily available to any consumer.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be available anywhere. The website of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) lists a few items; gas, cement, milk powder, chicken, rice, and pharmaceuticals. The other items were not listed.
The information on the CAA website is outdated (eg. A controlled price from 2014 is listed for chicken although chicken was removed from the list of controlled items in April 2017). On inquiring from the CAA over telephone, we were asked to refer to the website. A list was eventually compiled after a field visit to the CAA by extracting the relevant information from copies of the gazettes.
How are price controls to be enforced if a list of items subject to control is not readily available?
The proper approach would be to ensure that list of controlled prices is displayed at every outlet, so customers know if they are being overcharged and can then make their purchasing decisions accordingly.
Having compiled a list, we compared the controlled prices with the weekly market prices published by the Department of Census and Statistics in its survey of the main markets in the Colombo district in the period September 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.
It is evident from the table we have collated that the controlled prices are not being followed in most instances.
The surveys of traders by Breakthrough indicate that 67% of retailers and 46% of wholesalers react to raids by the CAA by temporarily adjusting prices. They later revert to business as usual. Trying to enforce retail level price control across the informal trade and public markets is a practical impossibility. The CAA annual report (2014) states that 22,402 raids were carried out that year and 25,287 in 2013. This is small fraction of 205,573 retail outlets (general as well as those specialised in food, beverages and tobacco) in the country.
In any case if the controlled prices were strictly enforced, then the usual distortions such as shortages and queues would become obvious with unpalatable political consequences.
The CAA is successful in enforcing prices on items supplied by large businesses or corporates such as in cement or milk powder. Whether this actually keeps prices low is questionable.
Large businesses are relatively easy to monitor and they are open to pressure to supply even at a loss; on the implicit understanding that they will be allowed to recoup this at some point, as noted in the articles included in the appendices to this report. It is very clear that the only item consistently being sold at the controlled price is milk powder produced by a multinational. Wheat flour, which is also produced by large corporates tends to track the controlled price closely. The majority of the other items were being traded at prices above the controlled price.
During the period under survey, price controls were imposed on Nadu rice (December 26, 2017) coconuts (December 6) and revised on dhal and kata (December 6) with minimal impact on prices.
The impact of taxes on prices is particularly interesting. When some taxes were reduced in November 2017 (dhal, potatoes, Big onions), prices declined on these items over period of weeks, sometimes falling below the controlled price. When taxes were later raised (potatoes to Rs.30/kg on February 24, B onions to Rs.40 on May 2) prices rose again eventually breaching the controlled price. In the case of dhal prices eventually fell below the original controlled price (159/kg) following the reduction in tax – but prices did not respond significantly when the controlled prices was reduced to Rs.130 (December 6, 2017).
This underlines the case for reducing specific food taxes if there is any serious intention to control prices.
It is also worth noting the difference in prices between imported and local items, potatoes, and big onions. Locally produced items are not subject to tax or price control, but when available, these retail at prices higher than the controlled price and are sometimes higher than the (taxed) imported items.
Instead of attempting to protect agriculture through taxes (which raises prices for consumers) the government should facilitate the modernisation of the sector, supporting investments that improve productivity (eg. mechanisation, drip irrigation, greenhouses, quality seeds etc).
Addressing the inefficiencies within local agricultural is the sustainable way to lower prices: increased productivity raises farmer incomes and lower consumer prices in the long term.
The scheme itself is ill-conceived and there seems little intent or capacity to enforce. Reducing taxes, increasing competition and productivity in local agriculture is a surer path to lower consumer prices.
“Price Controls in Sri Lanka: Political Theatre”, a new report by the Advocata Institute finds that consumer price controls lead to unintended outcomes including lower quality.
To read more on Price Controls and download full report: www.research.advocata.org/pricecontrol
A video documentary: https://youtu.be/zG5hV94G7Qc