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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

BRICS, agricultural commodities, G20 and experiments with truth

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There’s a flurry of activity around the start of the G20 and the IMF-World Bank meetings. Some of this activity has to do with food and agriculture, and with the agricultural commodity markets and its ties to the financial markets. While the G20 has a lot to do with the growing strength of the BRICS bloc and the IMF, what stands out is a trenchant and insightful commentary by Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 on the matter of agricultural commodities and the markets (exchanges rather) which control them.

Financial investment in commodities as a proportion of global oil production, 2001–2010. Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

It has attracted the attention of Emerging Markets, a periodical (online too) which talked about food price and agricultural commodities markets with Joerg Mayer, senior economic affairs Officer at Unctad. Emerging Markets has quoted Mayer as having said that the risk management strategies promoted by the World Bank “only make sense if you assume that exchanges are working well for hedging purposes – and our research shows that, when large numbers of financial investors are present, they don’t work well“. Hear, hear.

Mayer said that the World Bank’s approach would also be logical “if you assume that financial investors have no impact on prices, or that their presence improves [pricing]”. Of course to make such an assumption is to agree with an untruth, for Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 has said quite plainly that strong investment across agricultural commodities markets mean that they have “followed more the logic of financial markets than that of a typical goods market”.

The chapter ‘Financialized Commodity Markets: Recent Developments and Policy Issues’ from the report is worth reading closely and in full. Here is an indicative paragraph:

“The commodity price boom between 2002 and mid-2008 and the renewed price rise of many commodities since mid-2009 have coincided with major shifts in commodity market fundamentals. These shifts include rapid output growth and structural changes, both economic and social, in emerging-market economies, the increasing use of certain food crops in the production of biofuels and slower growth in the supply of agricultural commodities. However, these factors alone are insufficient to explain recent commodity price developments. Since commodity prices have moved largely in tandem across all major categories over the past decade, the question arises as to whether the very functioning of commodity markets has changed.”

Prices and net long financial positions, by trader category, selected commodities, June 2006–June 2011 (CIT = commodity index traders; PMPU = producers, merchants, processors, users). Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

Unctad’s research on the subject has shown that investors are motivated by “factors totally unrelated to commodity market fundamentals”. This is as bald an assessment of the behaviour of investors as you can hope to see from an inter-governmental organisation (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are incapable of stating truths like this one).

“Against this background, the French Presidency of the G-20 has made the issue of commodity price volatility a priority of the G-20 agenda for 2011, since excessive fluctuations in commodity prices undermine world growth and threaten the food security of populations around the world (G20-G8, 2011). These fluctuations are seen as being related to the functioning of financial markets and the regulation of commodity derivatives markets.”

Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 has argued for tighter regulation of financial investors, including limits on the positions taken by individual market participants; a rule to prevent banks that have insider information about commercially based market sentiment undertaking hedging operations for clients; a similar rule to prevent physical traders betting on outcomes they are able to influence; and a transaction tax or a requirement to hold positions for a minimum amount of time.

Instead, the World Bank’s analysts have generally argued that price volatility is driven by fundamentals, such as input costs, which other economists have failed to include in their calculations. This is an argument that cannot stand up to the merest suggestion of an examination of the cost of cultivation for, while inputs do cost more from one year to another in high-input farming (in Asia and Africa and South America, even with smallholders who are held to ransom by industrial agriculture companies) these are not the “fundamentals” the Bank-IMF crowd insist are responsible. The trouble is, they won’t admit to any others. Worse, they have enfleshed this delusionary tack with the help of their old collaborators, such as JP Morgan, which now has a hedging business that works on agricultural commodities markets and this year joined the World Bank/International Finance Corporation to launch an Agricultural Price Risk Management Facility, “designed to fund small players to hedge more effectively” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, etc).

Correlation between commodity and equity indexes, 1986–2011 (The data reflect one-year rolling correlations of returns on the respective indexes on a daily basis). Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

Said the chapter ‘Financialized Commodity Markets: Recent Developments and Policy Issues’ from the Trade and Development Report, 2011:

“Indeed, a major new element in commodity markets over the past few years is the greater presence of financial investors, who consider commodity futures as an alternative to financial assets in their portfolio management decisions. While these market participants have no interest in the physical commodity, and do not trade on the basis of fundamental supply and demand relationships, they may hold – individually or as a group – very large positions in commodity markets, and can thereby exert considerable influence on the functioning of those markets. This financialization of commodity markets has accelerated significantly since about 2002–2004, as reflected in the rising volumes of financial investments in commodity derivatives markets – both at exchanges and over the counter (OTC).”

We think the G20 participants (finance ministers, central bank administrators and similarly high-powered persons) ought to have mentioned the matter. Instead, this is what they said.

“The BRICS countries, represent quite a big share of the global economy. In today’s crisis period, internal demand of each economy is important, and we should find a way to enlarge internal demand in our economy.” – China Central Bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan. “We represent a group of countries where there is (an) enormous amount of demand for resources at home for poverty reduction … so there is going to be big, big tension between giving money to a multilateral institution for the purpose of restoring global stability and meeting our own aspirations at home.” – Reserve Bank of India governor Duvvuri Subbarao.

“Enlarge internal demand” and “enormous amount of demand for resources at home”? Isn’t that exactly the sort of prognosis the World Bank, IMF and IFC will happily enlist as fundamentals of food prince index drivers? As for the rest of us, it’s back to promoting and practicing ecological economics.

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