By Hiren Doshi
A price cap on milk products in Vietnam led to shortages, illegal production and distribution, distortions in the market and a dramatic drop in profitability of manufacturers.
In 2014, The Ministry of Finance in Vietnam set ceiling prices on 25 milk products (which was later increased to cover almost 600 products) for children below the age of six in a move to contain constant price hikes on the dairy market. This move was in response to hyperinflation in price of milk powder in few years preceding 2014 and was aimed to help make the milk for children affordable for the citizens. Vietnam has around 10 million children below the age of 6 and was considered price sensitive to milk prices.
The price of powdered milk had approximately increased 30 times since 2008 until 2014, at between 3-20 percent at a time. The retail price of powdered milk in Vietnam was about 1.4 per litre USD and almost 1.5X as compared with Thailand and Malaysia making it among the highest in the world. Powder milk market in Vietnam was very competitive, with almost 800+ milk products catering for children under 6 years old, forcing the manufacturer to routinely spend far in excess of permitted advertising and marketing cost which then translated into higher cost for the consumers.
The regulation which was to be in effect for 12 months brought down the recommended wholesale price ceiling 15-20% below the prevailing wholesale prices. The price ceilings were based on three grounds: the results of inspection at five dairy firms, price developments of the dairy market and prices of similar products on regional markets. Retailers were also mandated to reduce their costs, be reasonable with their profit margins and charge retail prices which did not exceed 15% over the wholesale ceiling.
Some of the consequences in response of price ceiling were as below:
1. Some milk suppliers in Vietnam pulled products whose prices was to be capped under the regulation from shelves and replaced them with new ones a week before the ceiling prices become effective. They worked around the regulation by launching new products with new labels but similar ingredients at much higher prices, and reducing weights of products.
2. Even though the ceiling on advertising spend for milk products was abolished, spends on advertising and marketing by milk producers came down due to limited margin after the price ceiling.
3. According to the research carried out by Nielsen in 2015 in Hanoi and HCM City, it indicated that milk products for children less than six years old were reduced 10 percent and 9 percent in terms of quantity and price, respectively against the previous year, after enacting the price ceiling. This means the consumption actually went down after the price ceiling was in force. This was counter intuitive to the very reason of putting the price ceiling in place.
4. After price ceiling was extended for one more year after being in effect from June 2014, Nielsen noted that milk prices in Vietnam have been no higher than prices found in the middle group in Asia. Its statistics in July 2015 revealed that average milk prices in the high end segment in Vietnam were similar to those in other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines.
5. In April 2015, the European Union removed milk production quotas which existed for more than 30 years, leading to the worldwide drop in milk prices. In 1984, quotas were applied to limit the over-abundant supply in Europe, and milk farms that produced over their quotas were fined. This made the cost of importing powder milk cheaper than sourcing milk from local cow farmers.
6. In early 2016, prices of milk sourced from cow farmers in Vietnam were about VND12,000-14,000 (US$0.54-0.63) per kilo, nearly double that of milk shipped from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and European countries, which sold for about VND7,000-9,000 ($0.3-0.4) per kilo.
7. One interesting outcome of locally sourced milk becoming non-competitive was that local cow farmers sold record number of cattle in the last 12 months. For instance, in Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City, nearly 10,000 cattle of 40,000 being reared were sold in the last 1 year.
Price ceiling on milk products for children under six was introduced in response to large and frequent price increase of milk, making milk prices in Vietnam one of the highest in the world. It was meant to increase the consumption of milk and help reorganize the milk industry ecosystem which keeps the low prices sustainable. In the end this move did not make any of the stakeholder happy – consumers continued to complain about high prices, manufacturer’s sale & profit dropped while the poor cattle suffered change of ownership during the worst crisis for local cow farmers.
Hiren Doshi is a GCPP-13 alumnus.[This and the other two essays on Price Controls was submitted as part of the Economic Reasoning coursework. The question asked students to identify instances of price controls in the world; who the intended beneficiaries were; and what were the unintended consequences of the price control. The 3 best answers were picked. The other two were on Price Control on Prescription Drugs in Europe and Price Control on Gasoline in the US in the 1970s].