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Food speculation – 450 economists tell the G20 to take action, now

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The World Development Movement has been bringing to public attention, and to policymakers in Britain, the effects of financial market speculation in food. Recently, a WDM campaign group circulated a letter amongst economists in all countries addressed to the finance ministers of the countries that make up the G20. They met in Paris, France, on 15 October.

I am honoured to be amongst the 450 who have signed the statement. Those who have lent their names to the statement are amongst a group of economists, social scientists, academics and activists who are witnessing – every day no matter where they live – the impacts of relentless food inflation on the lives of poor households whether urban or rural. This statement is one way to remind the G20 powers of their social responsibilities.

Here follows the text of the letter, which is available on the original site here:

11 October 2011

Dear G20 Finance Ministers,

We write to you ahead of the October meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers to urge you to commit with your counterparts to take effective action to curb excessive speculation on food commodities. Excessive financial speculation is contributing to increasing volatility and record high food prices, exacerbating global hunger and poverty.

While there are many pressures on food prices, fundamental changes in supply and demand cannot fully account for the dramatic price fluctuations that have occurred in recent years.

In June, a report for the G20 by international organisations including the IMF and the OECD noted that “too much speculation can cause frequent and erratic price changes” in futures markets.

Evidence suggests that financial speculators are less likely to make trading decisions based on information regarding supply and demand and are more prone to herding behaviours than commercial traders. Excessive speculation undermines the price discovery function of futures markets, driving real prices away from levels determined by supply and demand.

The High Level Panel of Experts on food security for the Committee on World Food Security at the FAO reported in July that “tighter regulation of speculation is necessary.” The panel suggested that “Increasing transparency, by requiring exchange trading and clearing of most agricultural commodity contracts, and setting lower limits for noncommercial actors could be the first set of measures taken by the countries that house major commodity exchanges.”

Increasing market transparency is vital, but will not go far enough to tackle excessive financial speculation. We therefore urge you to support the establishment of position limits to cap the proportion of agricultural commodity derivatives markets that can be  held by financial speculators.

Limits could be set at a level that would maintain sufficient liquidity in the markets while preventing an excessive concentration of purely financial actors. The US has already passed legislation including provisions to introduce such limits and the G20 should act to prevent regulatory arbitrage between exchanges.

Position limits would be more effective in tackling excessive speculation than position management powers, which rely on the use of judgement by exchanges and provide little assurance that powers will be exercised effectively. Clear limits would provide regulatory certainty, promoting stable and sustainable derivatives markets to the benefit of food producers, consumers and broader economic stability.

With around 1 billion people enduring chronic hunger worldwide, action is urgently needed to curb excessive speculation and its effects on global food prices.

Yours sincerely,

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The stranglehold of finance capital over the state

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Women collect coal scraps from an overburden dump for a nearby open pit coal mine. Overburden is the fertile soil (formerly used for agriculture) that has to be removed to get at the coal underneath. In the process small pieces of coal are also picked up which are scavenged by local villagers to be sold for cash. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

Is ours the age of the struggle between the state and the market? Or is it the age in which the state bowed to financial control over it? From a perspective which integrates labour, environmental stewardship, cultural safeguarding and a just human development, the state is firmly in the grip of finance and its liberalisers.

What has come to be called neo-liberalism is in short the expression used to describe the relentless and growing control of resources of every sort, be they mineral, human or environmental. If there has been a problem of neoliberalism it is that it failed to increase the rate of profit consistently and never achieved levels comparable to those of the ‘Golden Age’ between 1948 and 1973. The series of ‘booms’ of various kinds, which caught the attention of investors, bankers and speculators, have had much to do with the seeking to replicate the conditions of those years (in Deutschland they called the period ‘die Fette Jahre’, the fat years).

Boys carry large lumps of coal that they have scavenged from an open pit mine near Dhanbhad. They will carry this coal several kilometres to sell in a local market. As mining has displaced agriculture, scavenging for coal on the edge of mines has become one of the means of survival for those who have been displaced from an agricultural life by mining. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The essence of financial liberalisation, seen in its totality, is to ensure the stranglehold of finance capital over the State, Prabhat Patnaik has explained in a commentary in People’s Democracy (the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India Marxist). This may appear paradoxical at first sight: as the term ‘liberalisation’ appended to ‘financial’ suggests, the basic aim of the process is to liberate finance from the shackles of the State, ie, to ensure not the control of finance over the State but the negation of the control of the State over finance. But the remarkable aspect of financial liberalisation consists precisely in this: what appears at first sight as the liberation of finance from the shackles of the State is nothing else but the acquisition by finance of control over the State.

In his short essay, ‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson has explained that these booms were the result of the following factors which he enumerates as under:

The first and most fundamental was simply greater exploitation of the workforce, by increasing productivity on the one hand (making fewer workers work harder and longer) and decreasing the share of income going to labour on the other (paying workers less in real terms).

The second was the expansion of private capital into two new areas: first through the expropriation of the remaining ‘commons’ in the Global South, releasing value which had previously been embedded in nature and hence unavailable for the purposes of accumulation; then through privatising state-owned industries and public services, providing resources which-potentially at least-could be used directly for production rather than in the process of realisation or as part of the social wage.

The third was the emergence of new centres of capital accumulation outside the established core of the world system in East Asia and above all, in China, which contributed to a partial restoration of profitability as a manufacturer of cheap consumer goods for Western and, above all, US import markets, and as the source of loans to the US through Treasury Bonds, which are then loaned again to American companies and consumers.

The fourth, itself a result of profit rates failing to consistently reach what capitalists considered acceptable levels, was a fall in the proportion of surplus value being invested in production and the rise in the proportion being saved, to the point where the latter became greater than the former. The need to find profitable uses for surplus capital, where productive investment was insufficiently attractive, tended to draw industrial capitalists towards financial speculation. This did not mean that industrial capital became subordinated to financial capital – rather, their interests converged.

A series of murals painted by the Tribal Women's Artist Collective from Hazaribagh. The collective attempts to keep tribal artistic traditions alive in the face of population displacement from tribal areas due to the spread of mining and the conflict between the India army and Maoist guerillas. The designs and styles are unique to each individual artist and were traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The turn to finance had implications beyond a shifting focus of investment, which tends to be compressed into the term ‘financialisation’. But among all the complexities of arbitrage, derivatives, hedge funds and the rest, there are two essential points about financialisation which need to be understood. One is that, financial speculation, like several of the factors discussed here, can increase the profits of individual capitalists at the expense of others, but cannot create new value for the system as a whole. The other is that, in so far as profits were raised, one aspect of financialisation became more important than any other and consequently needs to be considered as a factor in its own right.

This, the fifth and final factor, was a massive increase in consumer debt. Credit became crucially important in preventing the return to crisis only after the post-1982 recovery had exhausted itself. In so far as better-off working class people have spent borrowed money on commodities which are above the minimum needed to reproduce their labour, it is a response to their situation under neoliberalism. But the main reason for increased debt has been the need to maintain personal or familial income levels.

Men transporting baskets of coal onto railway carriages at Sauanda railway yard. Most of the workers have migrated to work in the area having been displaced from their traditional livelihoods in the countryside. Lacking title deeds for land on which they have farmed and hunted for millennia, the rural adivasi communities are being displaced to make way for new industrial developments planned to capitalise on the land's mineral wealth. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The points that Patnaik, Davidson and several others have been making, with increasing urgency in recent years, is that the freeing of finance capital from all social obligations like priority sector lending targets and differential interest rates, not only increases its profitability, even while pushing petty producers and small capitalists deeper into crisis, but also allows it to pursue its own profit-seeking ways over a global terrain, which has the effect of subjugating the State to the thralldom of internationalised finance capital.

In short, financial liberalisation is the process through which a fundamental change is enforced on the bourgeois State: from being an entity apparently standing above society and intervening for the ‘social good’, which means keeping in check to some extent the rapacity of big capital, even while promoting it and defending its monopoly privileges, the State becomes exclusively dominated by financial interests (with which big corporate interests are closely enmeshed) and loses its relative autonomy vis-a-vis such interests. We have not the ‘rolling back’ of the State as neo-liberal ideologues suggest, but State intervention in the exclusive interests of finance capital.

[‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008’, Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Editorial Board of the journal International Socialism.]