Food and energy prices, government subsidies and fiscal balances in south Mediterranean countries
Just before the global crisis soaring commodity prices pushed up inflation significantly, not least in EU neighbour countries at the Mediterranean. These price shocks affected public finances in the southern Mediterranean region, notably via government subsidies. Partly due to lags in the transmission of commodity prices into prices for final users the subsidies burden continued to be felt, despite the price falls registered in the wake of the credit crisis. We show that downward price rigidities play a role. Recently, commodity price pressures have re-emerged. We focus on food prices and analyse recent developments in food inflation in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the occupied Palestinian territories, Syria and Tunisia in comparison with other middle income economies. Subsidies on food and fuel are quantified per country for the period 2002-2010. The incremental government subsidies entail an estimated deterioration of the government balances of up to more than 2% of GDP in 2008 and, for most countries only slight improvements in the global recession year 2009. Ensuing longer-term challenges for public finances remain as inflation rises on the back of higher global economic growth. As recent events in Tunisia and Egypt illustrate, these can have important political implications. Finally, the paper discusses some options that can lead to more efficient government spending, even in the event of sharp swings in prices of basic necessities.
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