By Jo Winterbottom
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Anyone hoping that recent falls in commodity prices would provide a boost to powerhouse Asian economies and help lift the developed world out of recessionary danger will be disappointed. The region's focus remains firmly on inflation.
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Commodities from crude to corn have slid in the last quarter, with many showing the most dramatic losses since 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. The turnaround follows sharp gains earlier in 2011 when investors flocked to commodities on signs of strengthening economies.
Asian countries such as India and China saw demand suffer little from the higher prices of the first half, and worry now that softer prices will only whet the appetites of swelling populations, growing better off after years of dramatic economic growth.
Fuel and food costs drive inflation for many countries in the region and Brent oil prices are still up nearly 7 percent this year while corn is averaging $6.47 a bushel this year, up from $5 in 2010.
Both India and China are showing enviable rates of growth at least six times that of the United States, even if expansion has slowed. Domestic demand is driving much of the growth, rather than exports to the developed world.
Both countries have populations already in excess of one billion and in India's case, it is adding nearly an Australia of people every year, with a growing middle class that wants more and has more to spend.
"Rising incomes and populations in developing Asia will continue to drive demand for agricultural commodities and changing dietary habits will further increase these pressures," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight.
Exports from China, dubbed the world's factory, are still important to maintain its growth of close to 10 percent but the economy is now mainly driven by domestic investment and consumption.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE?
Domestic concerns have just prompted Indonesia, southeast Asia's largest economy and the world's top producer of palm oil, to hike taxes on crude palm oil exports in order to favor its own refining industry.
It is also expecting its domestic market for biofuels to help it weather any fall in exports of the product because of the global slowdown.
The resulting boost to domestic agricultural industries would be a "blessing in disguise," Agriculture Minister Suswono says.
Asian countries are also increasing trade with each other, moving further away from the United States and Europe, just as those economies look to them to power recovery.
"Development of trade relations mean (Asian) countries rely less on the U.S. and Europe than three years ago. China is the fastest growing trading partner for India," said Ulrich Bartsch, senior economist at the World Bank. "Asia is increasingly becoming its own growth pole."
The difference in the impact of the fall in oil prices on both growth and inflation perceptions is a stark reminder of the discrepancy between Asia and the Western economies.
For many Asian energy consumers, the impact of this quarter's 8.6 percent fall in Brent crude is minimal because energy prices are subsidized or set by the government.
So lower prices curb budget deficits or boost surpluses but do little to put ready cash back in the hands of drivers.
In China, the world's second-largest oil importer, the drop has not brought any relief at the pump, where retail gasoline prices are still at record highs.
And with winter just around the corner, the government is likely to keep retail prices high to protect its state refiners to ensure they produce enough to feed energy-guzzling heaters and coal trucks.
On the other side of the globe, cheaper gasoline is "like a tax cut" to U.S. consumers, says Sarah Emerson, director of Energy Security Analysis Inc.
"Maybe they'll buy another pair of shoes or splurge on steak instead of chicken for dinner. This is the direct stimulus they're getting from lower prices for gasoline and auto-diesel," she added.
China is grappling with record pork prices which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said will delay its escape from high inflation -- running well above target and near three-year highs of 6.5 percent.
Pork and poultry prices in China are likely to be fueled further by stubbornly high soybean and corn prices. So the world's second-largest corn consumer is focusing on raising domestic production and taming booming demand, but is still facing the need for rising imports.
"I can't see China cranking growth. Inflation is still uncomfortably high," Credit Suisse's Deverell said.
Rice prices are on the rise due to domestic politics in top exporter Thailand. The Thai government plans to raise the price it pay farmers for their rice, which will keep more supplies at home and drive up the export price.
"Rice prices ... risk pushing up inflation not just in Thailand but across Southeast Asia," Neumann said.
Countries across the region, where rice is a staple for the poor, are scrambling to avoid a price surge.
Asian policy makers will be warily watching developments in the rice market, whose potential contribution to regional inflation threatens to outweigh any boon conferred by falling grain prices.
With currencies in the region also depreciating against the dollar, which is used to price many global commodities, what little relief there is from lower import costs is reduced.
And the developed world should count its blessings at the temporary relief in prices as it pins its hopes on Asia to pull it out of recession. In the end, Asia's precipitous growth is likely to drive those prices back up.
"The downturn in commodity prices ... is taking place against a megatrend of shifting economic power from West to East," said Biswas.
"The rise of China and India is driving a longer-term uptrend in commodity prices."
(Additional reporting by Emily Kaiser and Jane Lee in SINGAPORE, Selam Gebrekidan in NEW YORK, Fayen Wong in Shanghai, Michael Taylor in Jakarta; Editing by Simon Webb and Clarence Fernandez)