Ethiopia devalues currency => prices jump => consumers complain => government issues price controls to stop price gouging => goods disappear from market shelves. Yep, no surprises here.
Price Controls Cause Chaos in Ethiopian Markets
Price controls on many staple food items ordered by Ethiopia’s government early this month have reduced grocery bills for many low-income families. But now shopkeepers are upset and some basic items are disappearing from store shelves. Economists are concerned about the long-term effect of the government’s price-fixing strategy.
Confusion has been the order of the day at shops and markets across the Ethiopian capital this month. The government surprised businesses on January 6, the Ethiopian Christmas Eve, by announcing price caps on such items as meat, bread, rice, sugar, powdered milk and cooking oil.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the caps were a response to price gouging by merchants taking advantage of global price hikes. He vowed to put a stop to what he called “market disorder.”
The news was seen as a Christmas gift by many cash-strapped consumers, who had seen food prices jump after the government devalued the local currency, the Birr, by 17 percent in September.
In the first days after the price controls went into effect, Shenkut Teshome was among shoppers who rushed to markets to scoop up goods at newly lowered prices. He applauded government intervention as the only way to save impoverished Ethiopians from starvation.
“People are hoping they can buy with their salary a fair material at a fair price,” said Shenkut. “[Prices] were exaggerated and people cannot afford to buy with their salary and live at the same time, paying rent, this and that. The main thing is that they have enough food for their children.”
The price controls, however, have triggered chaos and tension in the local marketplace. Arguments, even occasional fistfights have been reported between irate shoppers and business operators as price controlled goods, such as cooking oil and oranges, have disappeared from shelves.
One customer at a local shop, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quipped that the net effect of the price controls is that nothing has changed. He said that earlier, goods on the shelves were too expensive to buy. Now the prices are lower, but the goods have disappeared.
Business owners said the past few weeks have been unbearable. Customers are unhappy, some products they bought before the price caps must be sold below cost, and neighborhood government representatives drop by several times a day to check that they are in compliance.
Shopkeepers contacted for this report all said they were afraid to give their names, but one who agreed to speak anonymously said she was ready to give up.
She said, “This is way too much for us. We are small traders. We don’t make much money. We get everything on credit, so when this stock is gone, we are closing up shop.”
Representatives of Ethiopia’s Trade Ministry did not respond to numerous interview requests for this report. But government officials have been quoted as saying price controls were needed because retailers had raised prices blaming global price increases and the devaluation, although such factors had had no influence on the availability of their products.
In addition, four economists not affiliated with the government, all of whom have previously spoken to VOA on the record, declined to be quoted this time, saying the subject was too sensitive. But all four privately predicted that price fixing would not help in solving Ethiopia’s deep-rooted economic problems.
There is a little more in the story, none of it surprising. See also “Nations Seek to Prevent Uprisings by Controlling Food Prices.”
- In Texas a State Representative has introduced an anti-price gouging bill in the new legislative session. Nothing in the text of the proposed bill explains why the state needs a new law when it already has a law on price gouging.
- A buyer complains about price gouging by sellers on eBay. “There was a time when you didn’t have to pay over retail to buy items off ebay. Not anymore.” Other buyers call the complainer an idiot (in somewhat nicer terms).