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Abstract

When food prices spike in countries with large numbers of poor people, public intervention is essential to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. For governments, this is also a case of political survival. Government actions often take the form of direct interventions in the market to stabilize food prices, which goes against most international advice to rely on safety nets and world trade. Despite the limitations of food price stabilization policies, they are widespread in develop-ing countries. This paper attempts to untangle the elements of this policy co-nundrum. Price stabilization policies arise as a result of international and do-mestic coordination problems. At the individual country level, it is in the na-tional interest of many countries to adjust trade policies to take advantage of the world market in order to achieve domestic price stability. When countercy-clical trade policies become widespread, the result is a thinner and less reliable world market, which further decreases the appeal of laissez-faire. A similar vi-cious circle operates in the domestic market: without effective policies to pro-tect the poor, such as safety nets, food market liberalization lacks credibility and makes private actors reluctant to intervene, which in turn forces govern-ment to step in. The current policy challenge lies in designing policies that will build trust in world markets and increase trust between public and private agents.

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