China and the Great Pig Panic

Pork is so important to the Chinese diet that many people here simply know it as rou, or "meat." So you can imagine Beijing's concern last year when an outbreak of deadly blue-ear disease hit Chinese hog farms, infecting hundreds of thousands of animals and necessitating an enormous cull. Discouraged by their losses and by rising feed-grain prices, many farmers soon gave up on raising hogs. Pork supplies dropped by a tenth, driving prices up about 55 percent, to more than $4 a kilo today.

Now, as the country heads into its Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 7—when millions head home for pork-rich family banquets—concerns over the shortage are intensifying. Already reports of "pigjackings" are popping up in the news: one gang of thieves was arrested in Shenzhen last summer when a member tried to ride off on a motorcycle with 125 kilos of stolen pork strapped to the back. "They used to [steal] motorbikes," explained a local newspaper. But those sell "for 1,000 RMB, while 125 kilos of pork [now] sells for at least 3,000 RMB [about $420]."

That price is making everyone in China nervous—especially the government. Even as they face the possibility of a U.S.-led global economic slowdown, Chinese planners are struggling mightily to restrain a white-hot economy. Last year China's GDP grew a startling 11.4 percent, the highest rate since 1994, and the full-year inflation rate was 4.8 percent, much higher than the 3 percent limit China's leaders attempt to maintain. On Jan. 16, Beijing imposed short-term price controls for large-scale producers of staples such as grain, edible oils, milk, eggs, cooking gas—and pork. It claims that the measures are helping, and will be lifted once prices stabilize. But analysts in Hong Kong expect China's consumer price index to top an annualized rate of 7 percent in January, the highest level since the mid-1990s, and food prices to rise three times faster than the average. Dong Tao, chief regional economist at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, warns that with easy credit and rising wages adding to the inflationary impact of the food crunch, "inflation is getting out of control."

For a variety of reasons, China's pork shortage seems sure to worsen, driving prices still higher and having other destabilizing effects—around the world. The harder China fights inflation by restraining domestic demand (with spending cuts or higher interest rates) the slower it will grow, and the less it can help bail out the global economy. Restraining demand for pork will take truly draconian efforts.

To understand why, start by considering just how hooked on the meat the Chinese really are. Their addiction parallels Americans' oil habit—as could the consequences. Pork has been a mainstay of the Chinese diet for millennia, and leaders long found ways to weather cyclical or regional crunches in supply and demand. Usually, when supplies dropped due to problems with weather, harvests or disease, some farmers give up pig cultivation—but others would take it on once shortages make it lucrative again. Recently, however, this hog cycle has been pushed out of whack.

The government is terrified that shortages and hyperinflation will inflame social tensions. Beijing traditionally maintains a "pork reserve"—vast warehouses stuffed with frozen carcasses—which operates much like America's strategic oil reserve. It releases stocks onto the market during natural disasters, crisis points in the hog cycle, and when it needs a feel-good boost politically—like now. In early January, the Commerce Ministry announced plans to release more pork reserves onto the market before the New Year holiday. The government also doubled subsidies to pig farmers to encourage them to raise more hogs.

But the price of pork may have slipped beyond even the Chinese government's control. Price caps are being undermined by independent-minded small farmers and lax enforcement. Attempts to increase supply are being hindered by recent winter storms, which have snarled traffic and prevented shipments from reaching their markets. And in the long term, demand for pork and inputs for raising pigs (such as corn) are growing so fast, some experts fear China may not be able to supply itself much longer.

Over the past 20 years, as China has boomed, meat consumption has doubled. Meat still accounts for only six percent of rural food consumption, but the figure is now triple that in the fast-growing and wealthier urban population. And 65 percent of the meat Chinese eat is pork. Jing Ulrich, JPMorgan's chairman of Chinese Equities, says most countries experience an even more dramatic shift toward a meat diet when per capita income reaches $3,000. China's is currently $2,616—meaning that a big acceleration in demand is coming.

Then there's the grain problem, the consequences of which could be even more far-reaching. Even if more and more Chinese turned to raising pork, local pigs would still get more expensive, because the inputs—the raw ingredients required to raise an animal—are becoming costly. This could have effects far beyond China, by driving up the price of those inputs—especially feed grain—worldwide. For China's grain self-sufficiency is eroding. It has only 7 percent of the world's arable land (to feed 22 percent of the global population), and even that figure is shrinking. Much of the remaining farmland has been ravaged by pollution and water shortages. And over the past 15 years, many farmers have switched from growing grain to cash crops—or have abandoned farming to become migrant workers.

There are other strains. Like many countries, China had been pushing aggressively to produce ethanol from corn, and by 2006, ethanol was gobbling up more than a tenth of China's corn output. That prompted the government last July to bar ethanol production from feed grains.

Still, supply pressures are mounting. It's a safe bet that China will soon become a net corn importer, predicts one industry source, who asked to remain anonymous because such predictions could rattle world markets. Ulrich agrees that the shift is "upon us" in 2008 and compares this turning point to 1993, when China went from exporting oil to being a net importer of crude for the first time in its history.

Today, of course, China is the second biggest petroleum consumer in the world. We all know what kind of impact the growing race for oil has had on geopolitics. If China's appetite for pork has the same effect on global feed-grain supplies, watch out: China's hunger for more meat could soon start affecting everyone's pocketbooks.