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Four points higher, the FAO Food Price Index for 2012 January

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In the first major indication of the way food prices will move in 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced that its Food Price Index rose by nearly 2% or four points from December 2011 to January 2012. This is the Index’s its first increase since July 2011. A close look at the FAO Food Price Index shows that prices of all the commodity groups in the index have risen (oils increasing the most). At its new level of 214 points, the index is about 7% lower than what it was in January 2011 (when it reached 231).

In 2010 July, the Food Price Index has begun a steep upward climb it maintained for 7 months until 2011 February, from 172 to 237. Now, this 4 point jump in a month is the sharpest since the rise from 231 in 2011 January to 2011 February. “There is no single narrative behind the food price rebound – different factors are at play in each of the commodity groups,” said FAO’s Senior Grains Economist Abdolreza Abbassian. “But the increase, despite an expected record harvest and an improved stocks situation, and after six months of falling or stable prices, highlights the unpredictability prevailing in global food markets,” he added. “I can’t see that the usual suspects – the value of the dollar and oil prices – were  much involved in January. But one reason is poor weather currently affecting key growing regions like South America and Europe. It has played a role and remains a cause for concern,” he concluded.

What FAO is seeing and saying is routinely misunderstood or deliberately miscast by the mainstream business and financial press. An example of this can be seen in a recent opinion found on Forbes, the business magazine, which links “a slowing UN FAO food price index” and “falling commodity prices” to the global economic slowdown. This, the magazine has said, is “putting further downward pressure on food inflation”. Of course this is completely untrue, as wage labour, informal sector workers and middle class residents in many cities and towns of the South know.

Thus the ‘market’ view is that global demand for agricultural products appears to be slowing. This view exists because this sort of media represents the interests of its owners – the 1% targeted by the Occupy movement. Ever since 2011 July, when the FAO Food Price Index ceased its steady upward march, organs and media representing the interests of the global money markets and the interests of the speculators have attempted to leaven their crooked discussion of the matter by saying that the global dynamic in food and commodity markets took a structural turn. Their insistence on linking “quantitative easing in the USA” and what they call “emerging market demand” (meaning mainly China and India) for food staples has been a consistent feature of this disinformation.

What we are seeing is that the FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 223 points in January, up 2.3% (5 points) from December. International prices of all major cereals with the exception of rice rose, with maize gaining most, 6%. Wheat prices also gained, though less significantly. Prices mostly reflected worries about weather conditions affecting 2012 crops in several major producing regions. Fears of decline in export supplies in the Commonwealth of Independent States also played a part.

[The FAO Food Price Index data sheet is available here (xls).] [The FAO Deflated Prices data sheet is available here (xls).]

According to FAO’s latest forecast world cereal production in 2011 is expected to be more than sufficient to cover anticipated utilization in 2011-12. Production is expected to reach 2,327 million tonnes – up 4.6 million tonnes from the last estimate in December. That would be 3.6% more than in 2010 and a new record. FAO lowered slightly from December 2011 its cereal utilization forecast for 2011-12, to nearly 2,309 million tonnes, still 1.8% higher than in 2010-11. That would put cereal ending stocks by the close of seasons in 2012 at 516 million tones, 5 million tonnes above FAO’s last forecast.

A sober note has been sounded in the Jakarta Globe. The Indonesian newspaper reported the Asian Development Bank warning that Indonesia and other nations in Southeast Asia should be prepared for a possible rise in food prices, which might stoke inflation. Changyong Rhee, chief economist at ADB, is reported by the newspaper as having said the global financial turmoil, marked by the euro zone debt crisis and a possible slowdown in the US economy, might increase the volatility of prices for food and other commodities. According to the ADB, research funding [in agriculture] is being depleted amid climate change, making it difficult for food production to keep up with growing demand. “Food price increases have become more persistent than in the past,” he said in Jakarta. “It has a major impact on food security for millions [of people].” The Jakarta Globe reported that the FAO Food Price Index has risen by 50% in the last four years, compared with a 16% increase from 1991 to 2006.

Grain market report, February 2011

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The International Grains Council has released its monthly grain market report, covering the movements in and events of February 2011. Here are the main observations and forecasts.

Outlook for 2011-12: Although forecasts of production and consumption are tentative at this time, global wheat supply and demand is projected to be broadly in balance in 2011-12. Strong prices will boost plantings in a number of countries in 2011, the global area forecast to increase by 3%, to 224m. ha., the largest since 1998. Although there are concerns about crop prospects in some major producers, world production in 2011 is forecast to increase by 24m. tons, to 672m., second only to the 2008 record.

With 2010-11 southern hemisphere maize harvests only just underway and planting intentions for the next crop still uncertain, forecasts for 2011-12 are largely nominal. Given initial planted area assumptions and, assuming trend yields, larger maize harvests are forecast in several key producers, including the US and China. World production is expected to set a new record but, unless yields are exceptionally high, a second consecutive drop in world supplies is projected. Based on underlying strong demand, maize availabilities are projected to remain tight, with closing stocks set to fall for a third successive year.

Commentary: Grain and oilseed prices continued their upward march in early February, with some values nearing the peaks seen in 2008. However, in renewed day-to-day volatility, markets then fell back sharply, partly on concerns about the impact of political turmoil in parts of North Africa and Near East Asia. There was little fundamental change in this year’s overall global supply and demand situation, although there were still uncertainties about the final outcome of ongoing maize and soyabean harvests in the southern hemisphere, as well as prospects for 2011-12 crops.

In wheat markets, tightening milling grade availabilities and heavy international buying, including of feed wheat, spurred further substantial price gains early in the month, while worries about winter wheat crops in the US and China also featured. Several countries announced they would reduce or remove import duties. In the second half of February, nearly all earlier gains were reversed as the political unrest in some countries triggered a wave of selling in commodity futures. While maize (corn) prices also fell back somewhat, they still registered significant net gains. These reflected more fundamental future supply concerns, with evidence of continued heavy industrial and feed demand and speculation about the additional plantings required in the US to prevent a further decline in stocks.

In contrast, oilseed prices registered a sharp fall despite initial strength, with markets also noting the improved crop prospects in South America. Trends in international rice prices were mixed in the past month, export values in Thailand firming somewhat while those in Vietnam falling back as the main harvest gathered pace. Dry bulk ocean freight markets, especially in the non-grain sector, initially declined further due to excess capacity, but then displayed a firmer trend, with higher bunker fuel prices also a factor.

Grains supply and demand in 2010-11: The latest assessment of the global grain situation in 2010-11 shows little overall change from last month. Mainly due to revisions to the southern hemisphere crop estimates there is a 2m. ton increase in the world grain production estimate for 2010-11, to 1,728m. tons (1,793m.). However, this is accompanied by an increase of 3m. tons in the consumption forecast, mostly because of higher than anticipated use of maize for ethanol (in the US) and of wheat for feed. Total consumption of grains is now placed at 1,790m. tons, up from 1,761m. in 2009-10, therefore exceeding output by 62m. tons. This is reflected in a drop in stocks at the end of 2010-11 which, at 341m. tons, will be the smallest since 2007-08.

Wheat: World wheat production in 2010-11 is placed only marginally higher than before, at 648m. tons, with an increase in the estimate for Argentina balanced by a reduction for Australia. The forecast of consumption is almost unchanged, at 661m. tons (649m.), as a larger feed use estimate is offset by smaller figures for food and industrial use. Feeding of wheat is being boosted by competitive prices relative to maize and by ample lower-grade export availabilities in Australia and Canada. Strong export demand for these supplies contributes to an increased forecast of world trade, up by 0.9m. tons, to 123.6m. The forecast of world wheat stocks at the end of 2010-11 is unchanged from last month, at 185m. tons, down by 13m. from the start of the season.

Maize: World maize production in 2010 is forecast at 811m. tons, 2m. higher than last month but down 2m. from the previous year’s record. Yield prospects improved in Brazil but declined in Argentina and South Africa. The consumption forecast is raised by 3m. tons, to a record 845m., some 30m. higher than last year. Industrial use is up 2m. tons from before, reflecting increased demand from US ethanol and HFCS manufacturers. World closing stocks are forecast to fall by 22%, to a four-year low of 119m. tons. US carryovers are placed at just 17.1m. tons (43.4m.), lowering the stocks-to-use ratio to 5%. Global trade (July-June) is forecast to increase by 8% to 93m. tons.

Rice: At 450m. tons, the forecast of global rice production in 2010-11 is placed slightly lower than in January, but is still 10m. higher than in the previous year, following bigger crops in India and China. Increased use in those countries is expected to result in a 2% rise in consumption, to an all-time high of 447m. tons, while the larger global outturn will also enable an increase in ending stocks, to 96.9m. (93.9m.). At 30.5m. tons, global rice trade in calendar 2011 is forecast to expand by around 1%.

Only 16 points under the 2008 peak, FAO’s food price index

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International prices of most agricultural commodities have increased in recent months, some sharply. The FAO Food Price index has gained 34 points since the previous Food Outlook report in June, averaging 197 points in October, only 16 points short from its peak in June 2008. The upward movements of prices were connected with several factors, the most important of which were a worsening of the outlook for crops in key producing countries, which is likely to require large draw downs of stocks and result in tighter global supply and demand balances in 2010-11.

Another leading factor has been the weakening of the United States Dollar (US Dollar) from mid-September, which continues to sustain the prices of nearly all agricultural and non-agricultural traded commodities. The increase in international prices of food commodities, all of which accruing in the second half of 2010, is boosting the overall food import bill in 2010 closer to the peak reached in 2008.

Seedlings waiting to be transplanted in village of Gbarnga-ta, 15km from Gbarnga in Bong county, where CRS and Caritas NGOs support farmers to diversify their crops as part of their nutrition push. Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

Seedlings waiting to be transplanted in village of Gbarnga-ta, 15km from Gbarnga in Bong county, where CRS and Caritas NGOs support farmers to diversify their crops as part of their nutrition push. Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN

The pressure on prices to rise was first felt in the cereal market, most notably for wheat and barley, in August. This prompted FAO to call for an extraordinary meeting on 24 September 2010 to discuss the underlying causes and possible remedies. The meeting clearly identified the importance of reliable and upto-date information on crop supply and demand to cope with unexpected developments in world markets. More transparency and a better understanding of the role of commodity futures markets and government responses were also viewed as necessary to address price volatility.

Amid fears of a repeat of the price surge experienced in 2008, FAO expects supplies of major food crops in 2010-11 to be more adequate than two years ago, mainly because of much larger reserves. The fact that supplies of rice, wheat and white maize, the most important staple food crops in many vulnerable countries, are also more ample lessens the risk of a repeat of the 2007-08 crisis in the current season. Nonetheless, following a series of unexpected downward revisions to crop forecasts in several major producing countries, world prices have risen alarmingly and at a much faster pace than in 2007-08.

Attention is now turning to plantings for the next (2011-12) marketing season. Given the expectation of falling global inventories, the size of next year’s crops will be critical in setting the tone for stability in international markets. For major cereals, production must expand substantially to meet utilization and to reconstitute world reserves and farmers are likely to respond to the prevailing strong prices by expanding plantings. Cereals, however, may not be the only crops farmers will be trying to produce more of, as rising prices have also made other commodities attractive to grow, from soybeans to sugar and cotton.

This could limit individual crop production responses to levels that would be insufficient to alleviate market tightness. Against this backdrop, consumers may have little choice but to pay higher prices for their food. With the pressure on world prices of most commodities not abating, the international community must remain vigilant against further supply shocks in 2011 and be prepared.

In an extraordinary meeting, FAO sizes up the turmoil in world cereal markets

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The FAO’s Committee on Commodity Problems has just concluded its Extraordinary Joint Intersessional Meeting of the Intergovernmental Group on Grains and the Intergovernmental Group on Rice (held in Rome, 24 September 2010). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN does not, it appears, want to cause any alarm bells to be rung in countries already worried by food inflation, and that is why its overall advise is at odds with the details highlighted during the day-long consultations.

Here are the main points of an advisory titled ‘Turmoil in Global Cereal Markets: Outlook for 2010-11, Short-Term Risks & Uncertainties’:

La Nina (colder-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean) often results in drier periods in Argentina and southern Brazil but wetter weather in Asia. It may strengthen through January
Any downgrading of wheat crops in southern hemisphere countries before harvest this year- Western Australia not so good
The final maize harvest in the USA (and China) – production may end up lower
Adverse growing conditions affecting secondary rice crops in Asia and main crops in southern hemisphere
Drought in Russia and delayed winter grain sowing (down 20%) – but some rains have arrived
Crop damage in Pakistan: implications for next season
Faster/slower economic recovery influencing demand prospects for feed and fuel: tightening maize supplies in the US if demand for ethanol rise faster than predicted
Larger than currently expected import purchases, maize by China for example
Trade measures, in particular further exports restrictions
Developments in outside markets such as currency (US Dollar), equity, energy and other commodity markets

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The rhetorical question is asked – “Are we ready?” – and the points supplied are: (1) We are not in a food crisis and grain prices may even come down a bit, (2) But all indications point to still high prices and volatile markets with many uncertainties lying ahead, (3) Food security under growing market instability and price volatility: Are we ready?

The extraordinary joint meeting briefly explained what it meant by “Increased volatility & speculation” with the following points: Markets liberalisation, decline of price supports; Deregulation of the financial service sectorl Declining margins in securities tradingl Rising demand for food in emerging marketsl Under-investment in agriculture; Lack of price transmission to producers; Sudden governmental interventions in export marketl Ease of access to electronic market place; Exchanges restructured today as for-profit corporations.

The dangers, current and expected, are set out in the briefing paper on ‘Agricultural Futures: Strengthening market signals for global price discovery’. This said:

Volatility in commodity foodstuffs is a result of both fundamental factors and speculative inflows of managed money. Sharply differing opinions exist on how institutional money flows have changed the nature of the markets, particularly since the expansion of limits. While financial firms argue that they add volume and liquidity to the market, others maintain that large order size creates volatility and jagged price swings. In the August 2010 price hike of wheat, the CME wheat price moved up limit and down limit within two consecutive days. High frequency trading is also a controversial issue – one that a CFTC editorial recently stated needed “reining in,” commenting that “parasitical trading does not truly contribute to fundamental market functions.”

Global undernourishment (image: Nature)Much debated also is the effect of passive fund money (index funds and swaps dealers), with experts on both sides arguing whether they have caused chronic price elevation and steep contango in some futures contracts. In its 2009 Trade and Development Report, UNCTAD contends that the massive inflow of fund money has caused commodity futures markets to fail the “efficient market” hypothesis, since the purchase and sale of commodity futures by swap dealers and index funds is entirely unrelated to market supply and demand fundamentals, but depends rather on the funds’ ability to attract subscribers. Despite the risk transfer nature of futures trading, in which gains and losses are equally offset, passive funds have successfully packaged and sold futures contracts as an alternative investment class to institutional investors. However, most would agree that these passive funds do not affect volatility levels since their only trading activity is a forward “roll” of their positions and the timings of these rolls are announced in their prospectus.

This is worrying because the FAO is now being a great deal clearer about the same problem it tried to describe in 2007-08,

Finally, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food, has released a briefing paper entitled ‘Food Commodities Speculation and Food Price Crises: Regulation to reduce the risks of price volatility’. His recommendations:

1. Given the numerous linkages between agriculture, oil, and other financial markets demonstrated above, comprehensive reform of all derivatives trading is necessary. The very first step would be to require registration, as well as clearing to the maximum extent possible of OTC derivatives, so that there is real time reporting of all transactions made, without information privileges for OTC traders, and in order to allow for effective supervision. The small minority of derivatives that cannot be cleared must nevertheless be reported without a time lag.

Islamabad Water Carrier

Islamabad Water Carrier: World Water Day was just another Monday for Nasir Ali, who was photographed on March 22 hauling water to his home in an Islamabad slum. Water shortages have become common for many people in the capital who must gather their daily water from government tankers or private trucks—when the precious resource is available at all. The nation’s acute rainfall shortage has also cut water supplies at hydroelectric dams, exacerbating disruptive power shortages and forcing officials to implement some rather dramatic solutions. Photograph by Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

2. Regulatory bodies should carefully study and acquire expertise in commodity markets, instead of regulating commodity derivatives and financial derivatives as if they were the same class of assets. It may be appropriate to assign the task of regulating commodity derivatives to a specific institution staffed with experts in commodity regulation, rather than have a single body regulating both financial and commodity derivatives.

3. Access to commodities futures markets should be restricted as far as possible to qualified and knowledgeable investors and traders who are genuinely concerned about the underlying agricultural commodities. A significant contributory cause of the price spike was speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds because other financial markets had dried up, or in order to hedge speculative bets made on those markets.

4. Spot markets should be strengthened in order to reduce the uncertainty about future prices that creates the need for speculation. However, these markets must also be regulated in order to prevent hoarding. Spot markets must be transparent, and holdings should be subject to strict limits in order to prevent market manipulation.

5. Physical grain reserves should be established for the purpose of countering extreme fluctuations in food price, managing risk in agricultural derivatives contracts, and discouraging excess speculation, as well as meeting emergency needs. Such measures and the abovementioned reform of commodity derivatives markets should be seen as complementary.