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‘Germany is not head of the class of the Union’

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A 'debt meter' shows the level of Germany's debt, which is currently over 80 percent of GDP. By European standards, that is nothing to boast about. Photo: Der Spiegel / Carsten Koall

About the euro and Germany, and about Europa and the Germans, there’s not a lot that can be read on the matter that helps clear it up. We need some help from inside Europe to do that – instead of clueless yammering about ‘markets’ from American economists, or instead of smug garbage about Euro politics from barmy Brit commentators, and instead of overaged tripe about the EU from the World Bank and the IMF. Without further ado, here’s the help.

Jacques Attali, the influential former advisor to Mitterrand, has sent a blunt warning to Angela Merkel, the German Bundeskanzlerin. Writing in Slate.fr Attali has said that Merkel either must agree to the purchase of defaulted European bonds by the European Central Bank and the issuance of European bonds, or she will end up holding the smoking gun of Europe’s suicide. In a translation of Attali’s short but astringent article, helpfully provided by Sign and Sight, we are told that he rids Germans of their most cherished illusions. “Germany is not head of the class of the Union, who winds up having to pay for the sins of all the others. Its public debt is close to 82 percent of its gross domestic product, practically as bad as France. Ten of its banks, all owned by the government, which provide twenty percent of the credit outside of the financial markets, are currently in very poor condition. Germany’s energy consumption will increasingly rely on Russian gas, which today represents 37 percent of its imports. Its demographics are so catastrophic, that Germany will already have less inhabitants than France in 2060, and 44 percent of the Germans are over 65 in comparison to 35 percent of the French, which will make it particularly difficult for Germany to repay its debts.” Over to you, Angie, if you dare.

"We are deeply ashamed," the German parliament declared in a joint statement issued on Tuesday condemning the crimes committed by a neo-Nazi terror cell. Photo: Der Spiegel / Michael Gottschalk / dapd

Here is part of the French original:

Elle n’est pas le bon élève de l’Union, qui refuse de payer pour les erreurs des autres. Sa dette publique est de 82% du PIB, pratiquement égale à la dette française; dix de ses banques, toutes publiques, qui fournissent 20% des crédits au secteur non financier allemand, sont en très mauvaise situation. Sa consommation d’énergie dépendra de plus en plus du gaz russe, qui représente 37% de ses importations. Sa démographie est catastrophique au point que, en 2060, il y aura moins d’Allemands que de Français et que 44% de la population allemande aura plus de 65 ans contre seulement 35% en France, ce qui rendra particulièrement difficile le remboursement de la dette publique allemande. Enfin, l’avenir de l’industrie allemande n’est pas si prometteur qu’elle le croit: selon une récente étude anglaise, sur les 100 entreprises les plus innovantes du  monde, 11 sont françaises et seulement 4 sont allemandes.

What is it about Deutschland, Germans and the idea of Europe that invariably gets all tangled up in knots? Eurozine has presented an interview, originally carried by the magazine Esprit, with Jan-Werner Müller who talks about “German contradictions”.

This situation now has to be addressed by leaders who are clearly not great believers in moral-historical justifications for European unity, and who often obfuscate the issues: Germany’s foreign minister has just called for ‘more Europe’ while a Christian Democratic minister recently even demanded the creation of the ‘United States of Europe’ – without saying what in practice this would mean. So I fear that Germany has no real road map of how it wants to relate to Europe, other than preserving what has already been achieved in the way of economic gains and personal freedoms (e.g. travel), while at the same time minimizing the costs.

To be sure, there are also some voices who advocate a much more assertive global role for Germany in conjunction with core Europe (of course France in particular) – for instance the political theorist Herfried Münkler, who in a recent article in Der Spiegel openly expressed his concern that Europe is being destroyed by its periphery (e.g. Greece), instead of adopting a global strategy to increase its power. He explicitly called for ‘all power to the centre’ so as to re-empower European elites and for Germany to exercise more leadership, rather than hoping for some illusory democratization of the EU as it is. This is a coherent stance that may well become attractive for a German government, especially if the current approach of muddling through makes neither Germans nor other Europeans really happy – and fails to solve the Euro crisis.

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The IMF, its directeur général, and a New York hotel maid

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Friday afternoon, South Asia

"Do you really think I've nothing better to do?"

The business zine ‘Emerging Markets’ has reported that French finance minister Christine Lagarde “has emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as IMF chief as the chances of former Turkish politician Kemal Dervis receded”. Apparently, there were hopes that Kemal Dervis would become the first emerging market politician to head the IMF, but these have faded Lagarde emerged as frontrunner to succeed DSK.

The zine has said that “senior policy officials” consulted by it said they were backing the French finance minister (pic left) in the wake of Strauss-Kahn’s dramatic resignation. A key ally of former Turkish economy minister Kemal Dervis, a leading contender for the role, acknowledged that his chances of clinching the top job had receded.

Asked whether Dervis woud become managing director Homi Kharas, a deputy to the former Turkish finance minister now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Emerging Markets: “Unfortunately I think it’s unlikely.” He said Lagarde’s appointment could undermine the IMF’s legitimacy if her candidacy is secured solely through a political deal among rich nations. “Major countries at the end of the day are prepared to forgo the principle of technocratic appointments for the short term expediency of having a politically trusted friend and that seems to be the way that the world is currently governed.”

The result will be a revolt against the Fund by developing countries, he added. “What we will see from the emerging nations is that they will vote with their feet. “Developing nations can make [international financial institutions] less relevant as global institutions and restrict them to being essentially institutions that play in the arena of the spheres of influence of the rich countries. That is what is happening more and more.”

Wednesday evening, South Asia

The IMF is obviously very slow to learn, or chooses not to, or has jettisoned Strauss-Kahn. Following its first bland, utterly non-committal and quite unconcerned statement about l’affaire DSK, it has come out with a second which, if possible, bests the first at idiocy in the face of a massive loss of moral face.

Here is the statement:

The IMF logo seen during a news conference in Bucharest, March 2009. Photo: Reuters/Bogdan Cristel/Files

“The following can be attributed to William Murray, an IMF spokesman, in response to questions regarding contact with the Managing Director and on speculation in media about his status: ‘We have not had contact with the Managing Director since his arrest in New York. Obviously, it will be important to be in contact with him in due course. We are aware of widespread speculation about the Managing Director’s status. We have no comment on this speculation, other than to note, as we did earlier this week, that the Executive Board was briefed informally on developments regarding his arrest in New York. We continue to monitor developments. Meanwhile, Mr. John Lipsky remains acting Managing Director, and the Fund continues its normal work’.”

This sounds a lot like the IMF is saying – “well it’s just one of those things, let’s just say not very much out of the ordinary is happening and let’s assure you that we’re still doing what we do best, which is wreck the lives of people in developing countries”.

Under Francois Mitterrand, Strauss-Kahn served as a minister, then became a corporate lobbyist in the 1990s. As finance minister in the 1997-2002 Jospin “Plural Left” government, Strauss-Kahn privatized several public firms—France Télécom, Crédit Lyonnais bank, and defense firm Thomson-CSF. After resigning as minister in 1999 in a bribery scandal, he remained a major figure inside the PS and corporate circles, taking the IMF post after being nominated by Sarkozy in 2007.

As IMF chief, he has overseen deep social cuts impoverishing workers in many indebted countries—Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, and Pakistan—in exchange for IMF loans. He recently oversaw financial negotiations with the military dictatorship in Egypt, as it tries to combat the resistance of the working class following the departure of Hosni Mubarak.

Zhu Min, Group Executive Vice-President, Bank of China, speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China 28 September 2008. Photo: World Economic Forum

The ‘Letter from China’ blog in The New Yorker points to some of the turmoil over leadership of the IMF, and what is slowly being seen as Asian pressure over what has so far been Western dominance of the Fund and Bank senior positions.

As pressure builds on Strauss-Kahn, said the blog, today’s Huanqiu Shibao is decidedly less cautious: “If a Chinese person takes the post”—of managing director—“it will greatly promote economic exchange between China—the country with the largest trade volume and holdings of foreign reserves—and the international community.” Another Huanqiu article referred to speculation in the Western press that China’s top official at the IMF, Zhu Min, a Johns Hopkins-and-Princeton-trained economist, is among the oft-mentioned candidates. The story concluded gloomily that Western reports generally see Zhu as insufficiently experienced, and likely to reach only a deputy managing director “this time, in part because “Europe and America will oppose the appointment of a Chinese person to lead the IMF.”

Monday evening, South Asia

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, is lead from a police station Sunday, May 15, 2011 in New York where he was being held. Photo: AP

In Europe and in the multilateral financial institutions, positions are cautiously being taken over the Strauss-Kahn case. So far, the Euromedia has focused a great deal on the effect l’affaire DSK is having on the French presidential election and the challenge to Sarkozy. But what about the IMF and World Bank? Silence. What about the men and women who run these enormously powerful and influential organisations – what do they have to say about this case and its reflection on their collective values? More silence.

We have heard from The Economist, which has long been a staunch ally of the Fund and the Bank. “Whatever the fall-out on French politics, Mr Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has left the IMF reeling. One insider called it a ‘disaster’,” the commentary noted. “Although he had been expected to leave within a couple of months, Mr Strauss-Kahn, unless quickly exonerated, will now presumably be forced out far sooner. That leaves the fund without a political heavyweight at the top in the midst of important negotiations with European policymakers over Greece’s debt crisis.”

What is noteworthy is the ways in which these institutions are discussed by the biggies of global and international economics. Only 10 days ago, Joseph E Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University, a Nobel laureate in Economics, and the author of ‘Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy’, had this to say about the IMF and DSK.

“For progressives, these abysmal facts [growing inequality, recession, unemployment] are part of the standard litany of frustration and justified outrage,” wrote Stiglitz. “What is new is that the IMF has joined the chorus. As Strauss-Kahn concluded in his speech to the Brookings Institution shortly before the Fund’s recent meeting: ‘Ultimately, employment and equity are building blocks of economic stability and prosperity, of political stability and peace. This goes to the heart of the IMF’s mandate. It must be placed at the heart of the policy agenda.’ Strauss-Kahn is proving himself a sagacious leader of the IMF. We can only hope that governments and financial markets heed his words.”

I really wonder what Prof Stiglitz thinks of his encomiums now. Reality outside the cozy models of macroeconomics can be startlingly, starkly different.

Sunday evening, South Asia

Le Nouvel Observateur's website on Sunday was entirely Strauss-Kahn.

The Sunday lurched on about L’affaire DSK and in my view the most confused reactions have come from the media in France. They seem confused about what they ought to feel and say. There are some responses concerning the blow to the honour and prestige of France dealt by the sordid allegations, but there is also a sense of bemoaning the end of a challenger to Sarkozy, and quite a few mutterings that this is a dreadful plot to trap Strauss-Kahn.

Here is a selection of the reaction and early views on the impact of L’affaire DSK.

Euronews has reported that lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, said on Sunday that their client will plead not guilty to accusations of trying to rape a maid at a New York hotel. “A spokesman for the New York Police Department said Strauss-Kahn faces charges of a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. The IMF chief does not have diplomatic immunity and was set to appear in court later on Sunday.”

Business Insider has quite bluntly said that ‘IMF Throws Dominique Strauss-Kahn Under The Bus’. “The IMF is not exactly standing up for the man,” they wrote, referring to the bland and shifty IMF statement issued today. “The IMF has already had to investigate and apologize for one Strauss-Kahn sex scandal (an affair with a subordinate). Strauss-Kahn survived that one, after apologizing publicly to the IMF and his wife. His surviving this one, at least with his job intact, seems unlikely.”

The New York Times has pronounced in a headline, ‘Arrest Throws French Politics Into Disarray’. This is hardly so. What has thrown France and its suffering workers into disarray is not such conduct, but the imperial ambitions of Sarkozy in Africa and his government’s ramshackle social spending at home. “For months, France has been buzzing with speculation that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the popular chief of the International Monetary Fund, would quit his job in Washington to take on President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential elections,” the NYT said. “On Sunday, French politicians and media met news of his arrest in New York for alleged sexual aggression with stunned disbelief and expressions of national humiliation. The incident threw Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s political party, the Socialists, into confusion and set the stage for a new political calculus that could allow the National Front, the far-right party led by its founder’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, to become a more dominant force during the election campaign.”

The Guardian has got to the point. “The allegations threaten to severely damage the standing of the IMF, where Strauss-Kahn was leading the response to the global financial crisis.” The newspaper reported that Strauss-Kahn had been on his way to Europe to discuss the worsening European debt crisis. A meeting in Berlin with Angela Merkel scheduled for Sunday has been cancelled. He was also scheduled to meet European financial ministers on Monday and Tuesday and was to have discussed how best to tackle Greece’s debt crisis and finalise Portugal’s €78bn bailout package. The British newspaper also provided the information that the Sofitel hotel in New York where Strauss-Kahn was staying is in the heart of the theatre district, and he had a US$3,000 (£1,850) a night suite.

In Paris, France Soir asked in disbelief: “Accusé d’agression sexuelle, DSK est-il victime d’un complot? DSK est-il victime d’un complot, d’une manipulation? Quelques heures après le coup de tonnerre et l’annonce de l’arrestation du patron du FMI, les déclarations en ce sens sont de plus en plus nombreuses.” Melodrama apart, what this means is that France Soir has said that Strauss-Kahn could well be the ‘victim of a conspiracy’ and the ‘target of manipulation’.

A more bizarre response has come from Liberation, which usually seems to have its finger on the pulse of things. “Pour 2012, DSK semblait le mieux armé pour répondre au désarroi des Français, épuisés par la crise et désorientés par le règne foutraque de Sarkozy: l’expérience internationale, la crédibilité de l’économiste, la fibre sociale, le savoir-faire d’un négociateur hors pair leur laissaient penser qu’il saurait mieux que tout autre défendre leurs intérêts et ceux de la France.”

Roughly translated, this means: “For 2012, DSK seemed best equipped to respond to the distress of the French, who are exhausted by the financial and social crisis and disoriented in the reign of Sarkozy. With his international experience, the credibility of being an economist, his knowledge of the social fabric and negotiating skills left them thinking that he would defend their interests and those of France.” What exactly is Liberation talking about? Perhaps it’s not a good idea to get their writers to consider anything serious on a Sunday morning.

The New York Daily News on the IMF head

[Earlier post] It’s too early to tell the whys and wherefores, but here’s a small selection of reportage about the astounding Strauss-Kahn incident. The French media have lots to say too, since the IMF head is/was expected to run for president of France.

Update: The IMF has released a very short statement on the bizarre affair. Here is the text from the IMF website:

Ms. Caroline Atkinson, Director of External Relations at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), issued the following statement today: “IMF Managing Director Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York City. Mr. Strauss-Kahn has retained legal counsel, and the IMF has no comment on the case; all inquiries will be referred to his personal lawyer and to the local authorities. The IMF remains fully functioning and operational.”

The Boston GlobeThe head of the International Monetary Fund was taken into custody and accused of a sexual assault yesterday, just before he was to fly to Paris from John F. Kennedy International Airport, authorities said. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of attacking a maid earlier in the day at a Times Square hotel, authorities said.

WNYC News Blog – NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne confirmed that Strauss-Kahn, the 62-year-old managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was being questioned by detectives from Manhattan’s Special Victims unit about an alleged sexual assault said to have taken place around 1 p.m. Saturday at the Sofitel Hotel. “The 32-year-old maid reported that Strauss-Kahn emerged from the bathroom naked and sexually assaulted her,” said Browne.

Update: Al Jazeera has carried a brief and generally unflattering profile of the IMF head. It has called him an architect of France’s economic recovery in the late 1990s, Strauss-Kahn, popularly known in France as “DSK”, served in a Socialist government as finance minister between 1997 and 1999. He cut the public deficit to qualify France for the euro and took steps that led to the privatisation of some state firms.

The profile has said that Strauss-Kahn, 62, was forced to resign from Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin’s government in 1999, after he was caught up in a corruption scandal, but a court later cleared him. A former professor of economics at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, Strauss-Kahn has come in for criticism over his luxurious style, seen by some as inappropriate for someone who wants to become the leader of the French left. Despite being based in Washington, he has continued to spend a lot of time in France, and the New York Post newspaper reported that he had a deal with Air France to get on any flight. New York police pulled him off a Paris-bound flight on Sunday night.

Some early reactions from the press in France:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, popularly known in France as 'DSK', served in a Socialist government as finance minister between 1997 and 1999. He cut the public deficit to qualify France for the euro and took steps that led to the privatisation of some state firms. Photo: Al Jazeera/AFP

Le Parisien – En Direct.  DSK arrêté à New York pour “tentative de viol” présumée – Dominique Strauss-Kahn était venu au siège du Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France pour y rencontrer des lecteurs. Le patron du FMI et favori des sondages pour la présidentielle 2012 en France.

Le Monde – Le directeur général du Fonds monétaire international (FMI), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a été arrêté samedi 14 mai à l’aéroport JFK de New York et placé en garde à vue pour une agression sexuelle présumée dans un hôtel de la ville.

RTL.fr – Le mot utilisé et qui fait parler tout Internet est “sodomy”, qui signifie avant tout “agression sexuelle”. Le directeur général du FMI, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62 ans, a été placé en garde à vue samedi à l’aéroport JFK, à New York, où il est interrogé.

nouvelobs.com – Le directeur général de l’institution avait fait l’objet d’une enquête concernant une liaison qu’il avait eu avec une subordonnée. Le directeur général du FMI Dominique Strauss-Kahn, arrêté samedi à New York suite à des accusations d’agression sexuelle.

Le Monde – L’arrestation samedi 14 mai à New York de Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accusé d’agression sexuelle, pourrait donner un coup d’arrêt à la potentielle candidature à la primaire socialiste pour la présidentielle de 2012 du directeur général du FMI.

It looks very like prescience for, on 6 April, Bretton Woods Project published an article titled, ‘Heading for the right choice? A professional approach to selecting the IMF boss’. This said: “In 2009, the IMF agreed to ‘adopt an open, merit-based and transparent process for the selection of IMF management’. It was a commitment that was long overdue. The informal ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ made at the end of World War II that European governments could select the head of the IMF so long as the US got to choose the World Bank boss had long been regarded as outdated and illegitimate.”

The impression that the rich governments which have run the IMF have dragged their heels on this enormously important issue is hard to avoid. “It matters who the head of the IMF is, and it matters how they are chosen. It matters for the legitimacy of an organisation that, through the stringent conditions often attached to its loans, has a powerful hand in economic policy making – and hence politics – in many countries, particularly poorer ones.”

I am sure that those who have long been calling for IMF reform will be wondering about this week-end’s events concerning Strauss-Kahn. They are: ActionAid, Afrodad, Bond, Bretton Woods Project, Cafod, CRBM, Christian Aid, CIDSE, 11.11.11. Halifax Initiative, Eurodad, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Forum Syd, New Rules for Global Finance, The Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development, Oxfam, The Social Justice Committee of Montreal, SLUG, WDM, TWN and Weed.

Unctad’s Global Commodities Forum is here

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The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), will hold the second Global Commodities Forum in Geneva on 2011 January 31-February 01.

The rationale for the first Unctad Global Commodities Forum 2010 was described last year as centred on developing countries and their dependence on on commodities for their economic well-being. “As demand for commodities in the long term is going to increase, thus posing major challenges for their sustainable and efficient production, there is a very real need to consider how to make the commodities markets more stable and policies better designed, so that the benefits would be more equitably distributed between commodity producers and consumers.” Unctad’s GCF 2010 said then that it was important that an appropriate economic return could be delivered to commodities producers, many of whom are in developing countries.

Policy actions to consider were said to include, inter alia, the development of policies to ensure that countries producing commodities do not face the so-called ‘resource curse’ and, of equal importance, measures that could be taken to mitigate or reduce the adverse effects of price and commodities market volatility, “which cause so much uncertainty and hardship to many of the most vulnerable people in developing countries”.

Moreover, said the Unctad GCF 2010 rationale statement, “there is a clear need to ensure that commodities markets are more effective in serving the interests of the real economy, and that financial market speculators do not, through excessive influx or unwinding of liquidity in commodity futures markets, disturb the performance of commodity producers, consumers and intermediaries”. (We will have to pay close attention to the proceedings of GCF 2011, and not only the statements or resolutions, to judge how far they have progressed from last year’s positions.)

Unctad said then that markets should serve the interests of these stakeholders whose livelihoods are involved in commodities production, shipment, consumption, rather than being subject to manipulation directed at the single-minded purpose of providing a short-term financial return. “Solutions must be found to ensure that the prevailing terms of trade between countries are balanced and that regulatory interventions are optimized, with a view to protect the most vulnerable stakeholders without providing an impediment to trade.”

Now, Unctad has described GCF2011 as focusing on the instability of mineral and agricultural markets and their interconnectedness, the effectiveness of commodity policies and the sustainability of the production and use of commodities, long-term energy and food security, and the role of innovation and early warning systems. “The second meeting of the GCF, organized by UNCTAD with the support of its partners, including the Governments of China, France and Switzerland, as well as Global Fund for Commodities, is a major multi-stakeholder meeting to discuss and find better solutions to perennial problems of the commodity economy,” stated Unctad. “The GCF will also address such key issues as the performance of commodity supply chains and the state of business practices and innovation.”

From the GCF 2011 programme material – themes of the second meeting of this Forum will include the following plenary and parallel sessions:

Plenary A: The State of energy markets: lower volatility and a new price zone for hydrocarbons (A1), The state of agricultural markets: the drivers of increased volatility (A2) The state of selected metals market: fundamentals, non-fundamental factors and terms of trade (A3) Commodity markets’ volatility and interconnectedness (A4), Overcoming market volatility through better regulation, data and transparency (A5); Commodity policy challenges for oil and gas-exporting countries (A6) Commodity policy challenges for minerals and metal exporting countries (A7) Trade and other policy options for modernizing agriculture in developing countries (A8).

Parallels B: Long-term sustainable supply & demand and technological innovation: hydrocarbons and other energy (B1), Long-term sustainable supply & demand in the energy sector: developing early warning systems (B2), New technologies and commodities: agriculture (B3) Long-term sustainable supply and demand and technological innovation and early warning systems for food security (B4), New technologies and commodities: energy (B5); Forecasting trends and strengthening early warning systems for producers, innovators and other supply chain participants (B6).

Parallels C: Current trends and next frontiers for commodity finance (C1), The emerging regulatory environment and trade finance: new challenges and opportunities for banks and other financiers (C2), Support institutions for commodity finance (C3), Shipping and international trade in commodities (C4) Commodity futures markets: do they obscure underlying market realities, or provide long-term signals and management tools? (C5) Risk management in commodity markets: paper and physical markets and the realities of commodity exporters (C6).

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.