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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,

How the G20 ministers said ‘agriculture’ but meant ‘trade and commodities’

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Under the presidency of France, the G20 called a meeting of its member countries’ agriculture ministers to consider the food production and food price problems. They have releaed a “ministerial declaration”. This declaration is being called a “renewed commitment” to tackling hunger by part of the financial media, or is being called “weak” and a mere restating of positions by the more critical, or is being called an empty document full of vague promises and no reform by some activists.

Sandatu Kalug, 58, a lifetime rice farmer in Maguindanao Province lost his entire paddy crop to heavy flooding in June 2011. Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

In fact, it is a strong statement alright. It supports the current model of agri-business, of international investment in arable land, it supports the operations of the global agriculture commodity markets and trading systems, and it ensures that the flows of finance and capital between the world’s financial markets and the commodity markets will continue with less restrictions rather than more control.

All this is done in the name of small farmers and poor consumers. They have talked about a new global agriculture market information system (Amis) so that governments can share better data about the state of food stocks and global production. This is nonsense – it is the bankers, food traders, commodity funds, retail food industry and foodgrain exporters who will use this new knowledge and data. They imply that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will run the Amis and they will exploit the new data. Private sector players, such as the large grain traders for whom knowledge of stocks and harvests represent a key competitive advantage, are simply ‘urged’ to participate – they will, at a profit which further loots the urban and rural poor.

There are five main objectives the G20 ministers made commitments to. However, like earlier inter-governmental statements over the last few years concerning agricultural production and access to food, it’s always safer I find to consider what is being meant here.

If we look at the five objectives and take the first:
“i. improve agricultural production and productivity both in the short and long term in order to respond to a growing demand for agricultural commodities”

There is a growing demand for “agricultural commodities”. So investment and research and trade arrangements and enabling policy are to be deployed to help fulfil this kind of demand?

“ii. increase market information and transparency in order to better anchor expectations from governments and economic operators”

Do governments and “economic operators” (what are these? food traders? commodity funds? integrated retailers?) have the same kinds of expectations? Is better “market information and transparency” to benefit only government and “operators” or do food producers and consumers also require them?

To make best use of the land, the Jumma tribes of Bangladesh's CHT practise a form of ‘shifting cultivation’, growing food in small parts of their territory, before moving on to another area and allowing the land to recover. Photo: IRIN/Courtesy of Christian Erni/IWGIA

“iii. strengthen international policy coordination in order to enhance confidence in international markets and to prevent and respond to food market crises more efficiently”

Confidence in international markets may be a concern for governments and economic operators, but in what way are they essential for food producers and consumers, who have since late 2007 suffered through price spikes amplified by these same international markets? The implication here is that responses to “food market crises” can be provided by – among other measures such as policy direction – these markets, which I find troublesome especially given the evidence since 2007.

“iv. improve and develop risk management tools for governments, firms and farmers in order to build capacity to manage and mitigate the risks associated with food price volatility, in particular in the poorest countries”

What are these risk management tools? Are they commodity hedge funds? Are they trading agreement? Are they bilateral agreements and FTAs? Are they commodities exchanges? Who will wield these tools? In poor and the poorest countries farmers have little or no capacity to manage and mitigate existing risk – they surely cannot bear the additional risks brought about by price volatility, but in what way will these tools help and function?

“v. improve the functioning of agricultural commodities’ derivatives markets.”

To what end? Agricultural commodities derivatives markets tie up crop production and food-in-stock, but for whom do they do this? If the functioning of these markets is to be “improved”, who will benefit from this improvement? Will it be the smallholder farmer and if so in what way? How many farmers of the South are directly connected to the agricultural commodities derivatives markets as beneficiaries? Are consumer coops connected?

These are some questions that come to mind when reading these five objectives. I see that Sarkozy has stated, “”We all know that agricultural production is insufficient to meet demand”. This may be so, for certain crops in certain regions, but against the background of these five objectives, I have to question: demand from whom or what and to what end?

[See ‘The priorities of the agriculture G20’, Nicolas Sarkozy’s address at the G20 and you can get the G20 ministerial declaration here]

A vegetable seller waits for customers at the Wakulima market in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN

Here are a few sentences from paras 18 and 19 of the ‘ministerial declaration’:

“18. We commit to creating an enabling environment to encourage and increase public and private investment in agriculture. In particular, we stress the need to support public-private partnership on investments, based on a value-chain approach, for services (such as access to financial services, agricultural education and extension services), and for infrastructure and equipment for production (such as irrigation), for agroprocessing, for access to markets (such as transport, storage, communication) and for reducing pre and post-harvest losses.”

“19. We encourage countries, international organizations and the private sector to increase investment in developing countries agriculture, and in activities strongly linked to agricultural productivity growth, food security and generation of income in rural areas, such as agricultural institutions, extension services, cooperatives, research, roads, ports, cold chain, power, storage, irrigation systems, information and communication technology, climate change mitigation and adaptation. We also encourage them to enhance public-private partnerships in this field, in particular to improve market and value-chain operators’ cooperation and procurement from smallholders.”

This is a direct and unambiguous call for greater industrialisation of agriculture, for the strengthening of the tools of globalisation that have given rise to the agri commodity markets and products like derivatives, for the intensification of corporate R&D in agbiotech and with the support of national agricultural reseach systems in various countries – and at the likely cost of traditional knowledge and ecological approaches to cultivation. This sounds to me like an unambiguous statement of support for the food trading and food retail industries and their vast ‘verticals’ (as they call the integrative links these days), and finally for the systems of finance and banking that undergird the globalisation of food.

Early price indicator for 2011 foodgrain

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Agrimoney has reported that London wheat for January delivery hit £198.40 a tonne on Thursday, beating the previous record for a spot contract of £197.50 a tonne set in September 2007.

“The peak came despite an uncertain performance by Chicago wheat, the global benchmark, which dipped in and out of negative territory in thin pre-holiday trade, and after disappointing US weekly export sales data. However, in London, prices continued to be boosted by data showing a doubling in UK wheat shipments in 2010-11, at a time when domestic demand has been lifted too by fresh capacity at plants converting the grain into ethanol.”

The buying was reflected too in wheat prices in Paris, where the January contract touched a two-year high of E250.00 a tonne, a two-year high and a “big psychological level for many in the market”, according to a grains analyst Agrimoney spoke to.

The market was finding that, despite the rises in prices of more than 80% in Paris since June, and more than 90% in London, “demand for wheat, and in particular milling quality wheat, has simply not been rationed”. And fundamentals both inside and outside the European Union “seem to offer little hope for a half to further price increases.

On 20 December, Reuters had reported (this is via Futurespros) that Chicago wheat futures rose more than 1 percent on Monday, taking the monthly gains to around 18% as weather concerns in top exporters United States and Australia continued to underpin the market.

“Chicago Board of Trade March wheat rose 1.45% to $7.64 a bushel.  CBOT front-month wheat has risen nearly 18% so far in December, the biggest monthly gains since July when the grain market jumped more than 40% as a severe drought ravaged crops across the Black Sea region. CBOT wheat is on track to post its first annual gain in three years after dropping 42% in the past two years, helped by a drought which decimated the Russian crop and halted exports and rains which reduced the quality of Australian wheat.”

Written by makanaka

December 24, 2010 at 11:19