The problem with following the FAO food price index
Can a cultivator tilling a five acre plot of land in Senegal use the FAO Food Price Index? Can a vegetable vendor on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, use the index? Can a corner shop in Quetta, Pakistan, follow the index? Can commodity traders in the world’s most active agricultural commodities and futures exchanges use the index? My answers to these questions are: no. no. no and yes.
Why should it be this way? It shouldn’t, especially since FAO also keeps track of consumer price indices in many countries. But let’s look at why it is this way.
Here is what the new update to the FAO Food Price Index has said, in two words, “remaining steady” (this is the 2013 February 07 update). I quote:
“The FAO Food Price Index averaged 210 in January 2013, unchanged from the slightly revised December value. Following three months of consecutive declines, the Index stabilised in January, as a rebound in oils/fats prices offset a decline for cereals and sugar. Dairy and meat values remained generally steady.”
Concerning cereals, the update said that the cereal sub-index averaged 247 in 2013 January, down nearly 3 points from 2012 December. Now here’s an odd sentence: “The values of the monthly index have been falling since October, mostly on improved crop conditions”. We’ve read news about drought conditions all over the place, in the USA, in Australia, in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, about unseasonal conditions in South America, for well over three months, so this sentence makes little sense. The cereals explanation added: “Large exports of feed wheat have weighed negatively on maize quotations in spite of tight availabilities”.
Now, let’s see what the FAO Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) has said in its 2013 February Market Monitor (pdf):
“Wheat production in 2012 fell to below the 2011 record. Early prospects for 2013 point to a larger crop in spite of a possible decline in the US production. Maize production fell well below 2011 in spite of upward adjustments to the estimates in China and North America – utilisation in 2012/13 exceeding 2011/12, contrary to earlier expectations, mostly on larger feed use in China, Russia and the US. Rice production prospects for 2012 little changed, with large declines in Brazil and India dampening world growth to less than 1% – utilisation in 2012/13 still anticipated to increase by 7 million tonnes.”
Here we have what sounds like two different FAO voices speaking – the Food Price Index voice, which sees broad stability, and the AMIS voice, which sees declining production and more utilisation (as the food economists like to call it). True, the Food Price Index reflects what has occurred in the last month, and is not a forecast, but, as we see below, it is based on quotations, and not what households and small vendors actually pay for food, and there lies the rub.
Because, the FAO Food Price Index consists of the average of five commodity group price indices weighted with the average export shares of each of the groups for 2002-2004. There are in total 55 commodity quotations “considered by FAO commodity specialists as representing the international prices of the food commodities”. For the cereals sub-index, it is compiled from the International Grains Council (IGC) wheat price index, itself an average of nine different wheat price quotations, and one maize export quotation; there are three rice components containing average prices of 16 rice quotations. Fascinating yes, but relevant to those in Senegal, Jakarta and Quetta who see 60% of their monthly income being used to buy food? I don’t think so.
“The FAO food price index is a trade weighted Laspeyres index of international quotations expressed in US dollar prices for 55 food commodities,” explained FAO’s 2009 ‘State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, High food prices and the food crisis – experiences and lessons learned’. You see why no local translation is possible for the many hundreds of millions under the food inflation hammer.
Why the international trade and export quotations numbers dominate is revealed, in a roundabout way, by a regular paragraph in the AMIS Market Monitor. The monthly pronouncement has this to say about investment flows (that is, money chasing foodgrain), for 2013 February: “Managed money was a significant seller of wheat, maize and soybeans as futures prices attained early January lows prior to USDA stocks report”. Pay attention to that term, ‘managed money’, which means funds run by banks and big investment agencies. “Managed money reversed its position in wheat from long (bullish) to short (bearish) but maintains long positions in maize and soybeans.” Now the confusion should clear somewhat. The index helps traders and exchanges deal better with volumes of grain (and dairy and meat and edible oil). AMIS helps them with a great deal more sophistication.
And what do the primary beneficiaries of the index have to say about the FAO Food Price Index being so benign at the start of 2013? “With corn and soybean prices down sharply from drought-driven record highs reached last summer and holding ‘significant’ risk for further declines, grain farmers should consider hedging their 2013 crops earlier than normal,” is an abstract from a report by the CME Group, a company that advises investors about all kinds of commodities, including agricultural. This tells us why the FAO Food Price Index cannot serve those struggling with soaring food bills in small town Asia and Africa.