The Sunday Mail
Numbers from the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe show prices over the last year have been on a downward trend.
This is often interpreted as the economy correcting itself; but we should seek better clarity than such specious conclusions.
It is inadequate to say “the economy is correcting itself”.
The economy is never wrong.
An economy is a web of interaction between market agents, in most cases under the monitoring of regulators.
So, we must take heed: There are more precise explanations to general price trends and they can only be identified by focused analysis of market agents and their regulators.
Therefore, if prices are falling, it is not the economy correcting itself; either market forces between market agents are pushing downwards or a regulatory effect exists, or both.
Immediately I can say that we lack pricing policy clarity in certain sectors.
Clarity brings clear expectations for all market agents.
Either businesses are allowed to set prices as they want or prices become subject to regulation and monitoring.
In instances where our businesses are price-makers, consumers must be allowed an expectation to shop on an open market; including globally without facing high tariffs.
In instances where businesses are subject to price regulations, consumers can understand the expectation for them to shop on a more confined market.
Such policy clarity helps to create an equitable economy between buyers and sellers.
In a more contextualised context within our economy, I will categorise three reasons why we need to get our pricing policy right.
First, without pricing policy clarity, unfortunately in certain sectors like durables, prices have been artificially high for a long time.
While an “equitable” economy between buyers and sellers is rather subjective, I think there is general consensus of profiteering concerns.
Such profiteering may have had a cumulative effect of decreasing long-term consumer demand.
Artificially high prices depress consumers’ demand in the long term, and perhaps the falling prices have become a long-term indicator of this pervasive problem.
High prices have been a strain on a market with little wealth creation.
Consumers have failed to sustain this pressure, resulting in low aggregate demand pushing down prices.
If this is the case, because all prices are traceable, regulators must make it their diligence to intervene and balance market prices with sustainable demand in respective sectors, so as to keep the economy on a growth projectile.
Second, pricing policy clarity is essential to create globally competitive price structures within our local supply chains.
Perhaps the most telling event in recent months is the global decrease in oil prices of about 40 percent, yet prices in Zimbabwe over the period saw no significant change. In this instance, it’s beneficial if regulators have a grasp of market forces, especially demand from the consumer.
Energy and Power Development Minister Samuel Undenge highlighted that oil sellers are still holding onto old stocks that were purchased at high prices.
Well, with better market demand projections, his ministry would work hand in hand with sellers to purchase stocks that would have shorter holding times, so as to stay closer to current market prices.
Prolonged holding times are uncompetitive. We miss out on opportunity windows for cheaper commodities when prices fluctuate.
That was a poor excuse by the minister.
If sellers are still holding onto stock of over six months, then our holding times are too long and uncompetitive; an issue solved by better demand projections from the local market.
For example, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (Zera) must be able to answer fundamental market questions like: How much fuel is expected to be used by industry in the first quarter of 2015?
A more competent regulator is necessary here because fuel costs are a great proportion of production costs for local industry, and a large chunk of citizens’ expenditure.
There are significant macro-economic interests at stake. For a country battling a $3 billion trade deficit, I’m curious as to why Industry Minister Mike Bimha has not raised concern about the effect six months of substantially high fuel costs have on the competitiveness of our industrial exports?
It seemed ironic that Zera chief executive Gloria Magombo said it was simplistic to compare Zimbabwean fuel costs to regional peers. Is the existence of a regulator like Zera not to ensure that fuel prices are indeed comparable and competitive to regional peers? If as she said, Government fuel taxes and subsidies are factors to consider, who is she leaving to answer those queries on fuel costs? It’s Zera’s mandate to correspond with Government in examining whether fiscal policy is economical, or the lower costs for industry and positive externalities surpass those intended fiscal returns.
Third, a lack of pricing policy clarity has made us miss where exactly sanctions hurt the economy.
Let’s be fair to businesses in Zimbabwe, the effect of financial sanctions on enterprise has been grossly understated.
What financial sanctions do is make money expensive!
The cost of capital for local businesses is too high.
Sanctions deprive our banking sector of global interbank platforms, making funding costs extremely high compared to other countries where money is cheaper to source.
These costs are then passed onto the commercial market.
Before business even begins, you can appreciate that the economy is already running at a higher price level in all operations.
Now, this effect on price levels is pervasive throughout the economy; high overheads, high operating expenses, high shipping (considering fuel costs too), and the pressures caused by much lower velocity of circulation of money within the economy.
I’m not saying having competent pricing policy will remove the effect of financial sanctions entirely, but clarity helps mitigate what we can by identifying cost drivers we can help ease.
Anyhow, we may demand businesses to cut prices to make the market happy or for consumer-protection, but what effect will it have on our already globally-uncompetitive businesses?
Regulators must be wary of trying to please disgruntled consumers and unintentionally pressuring an already disadvantaged business environment.
A bonus point on this matter is perhaps investigations into a procurement programme for essential commodities that require importing.
I’d imagine that for a country fighting higher costs of capital and suffering from limited access to reserves, we need a competent body that tries out hedging for necessary commodities.
Maybe even look into the global market for arbitrage opportunities.
For instance, now that oil is around US$50 a barrel on the global market, can we not lock in that price and purchase supplies at this lower cost?
We should start being actively engaged in finding lower costs wherever we can, and be opportunistic! Recent interviews by many regulators show unjustified levels of comfort!
We need cost creativity and a heightened level of awareness.
As the riddle goes, pricing policy may prove to be priceless for our economy. Let’s not underestimate this concern. At this point, lowering prices throughout the economy is an overwhelming challenge, maybe even our greatest economic obstacle to getting ourselves going again.
Let’ not leave this important aspect to lax analysis; instead an elevated understanding of our market forces and regulatory aptitude is needed.