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Posts Tagged ‘food crops

BRICS, agricultural commodities, G20 and experiments with truth

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There’s a flurry of activity around the start of the G20 and the IMF-World Bank meetings. Some of this activity has to do with food and agriculture, and with the agricultural commodity markets and its ties to the financial markets. While the G20 has a lot to do with the growing strength of the BRICS bloc and the IMF, what stands out is a trenchant and insightful commentary by Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 on the matter of agricultural commodities and the markets (exchanges rather) which control them.

Financial investment in commodities as a proportion of global oil production, 2001–2010. Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

It has attracted the attention of Emerging Markets, a periodical (online too) which talked about food price and agricultural commodities markets with Joerg Mayer, senior economic affairs Officer at Unctad. Emerging Markets has quoted Mayer as having said that the risk management strategies promoted by the World Bank “only make sense if you assume that exchanges are working well for hedging purposes – and our research shows that, when large numbers of financial investors are present, they don’t work well“. Hear, hear.

Mayer said that the World Bank’s approach would also be logical “if you assume that financial investors have no impact on prices, or that their presence improves [pricing]”. Of course to make such an assumption is to agree with an untruth, for Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 has said quite plainly that strong investment across agricultural commodities markets mean that they have “followed more the logic of financial markets than that of a typical goods market”.

The chapter ‘Financialized Commodity Markets: Recent Developments and Policy Issues’ from the report is worth reading closely and in full. Here is an indicative paragraph:

“The commodity price boom between 2002 and mid-2008 and the renewed price rise of many commodities since mid-2009 have coincided with major shifts in commodity market fundamentals. These shifts include rapid output growth and structural changes, both economic and social, in emerging-market economies, the increasing use of certain food crops in the production of biofuels and slower growth in the supply of agricultural commodities. However, these factors alone are insufficient to explain recent commodity price developments. Since commodity prices have moved largely in tandem across all major categories over the past decade, the question arises as to whether the very functioning of commodity markets has changed.”

Prices and net long financial positions, by trader category, selected commodities, June 2006–June 2011 (CIT = commodity index traders; PMPU = producers, merchants, processors, users). Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

Unctad’s research on the subject has shown that investors are motivated by “factors totally unrelated to commodity market fundamentals”. This is as bald an assessment of the behaviour of investors as you can hope to see from an inter-governmental organisation (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are incapable of stating truths like this one).

“Against this background, the French Presidency of the G-20 has made the issue of commodity price volatility a priority of the G-20 agenda for 2011, since excessive fluctuations in commodity prices undermine world growth and threaten the food security of populations around the world (G20-G8, 2011). These fluctuations are seen as being related to the functioning of financial markets and the regulation of commodity derivatives markets.”

Unctad’s Trade and Development Report 2011 has argued for tighter regulation of financial investors, including limits on the positions taken by individual market participants; a rule to prevent banks that have insider information about commercially based market sentiment undertaking hedging operations for clients; a similar rule to prevent physical traders betting on outcomes they are able to influence; and a transaction tax or a requirement to hold positions for a minimum amount of time.

Instead, the World Bank’s analysts have generally argued that price volatility is driven by fundamentals, such as input costs, which other economists have failed to include in their calculations. This is an argument that cannot stand up to the merest suggestion of an examination of the cost of cultivation for, while inputs do cost more from one year to another in high-input farming (in Asia and Africa and South America, even with smallholders who are held to ransom by industrial agriculture companies) these are not the “fundamentals” the Bank-IMF crowd insist are responsible. The trouble is, they won’t admit to any others. Worse, they have enfleshed this delusionary tack with the help of their old collaborators, such as JP Morgan, which now has a hedging business that works on agricultural commodities markets and this year joined the World Bank/International Finance Corporation to launch an Agricultural Price Risk Management Facility, “designed to fund small players to hedge more effectively” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, etc).

Correlation between commodity and equity indexes, 1986–2011 (The data reflect one-year rolling correlations of returns on the respective indexes on a daily basis). Chart: Unctad Trade and Development Report 2011

Said the chapter ‘Financialized Commodity Markets: Recent Developments and Policy Issues’ from the Trade and Development Report, 2011:

“Indeed, a major new element in commodity markets over the past few years is the greater presence of financial investors, who consider commodity futures as an alternative to financial assets in their portfolio management decisions. While these market participants have no interest in the physical commodity, and do not trade on the basis of fundamental supply and demand relationships, they may hold – individually or as a group – very large positions in commodity markets, and can thereby exert considerable influence on the functioning of those markets. This financialization of commodity markets has accelerated significantly since about 2002–2004, as reflected in the rising volumes of financial investments in commodity derivatives markets – both at exchanges and over the counter (OTC).”

We think the G20 participants (finance ministers, central bank administrators and similarly high-powered persons) ought to have mentioned the matter. Instead, this is what they said.

“The BRICS countries, represent quite a big share of the global economy. In today’s crisis period, internal demand of each economy is important, and we should find a way to enlarge internal demand in our economy.” – China Central Bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan. “We represent a group of countries where there is (an) enormous amount of demand for resources at home for poverty reduction … so there is going to be big, big tension between giving money to a multilateral institution for the purpose of restoring global stability and meeting our own aspirations at home.” – Reserve Bank of India governor Duvvuri Subbarao.

“Enlarge internal demand” and “enormous amount of demand for resources at home”? Isn’t that exactly the sort of prognosis the World Bank, IMF and IFC will happily enlist as fundamentals of food prince index drivers? As for the rest of us, it’s back to promoting and practicing ecological economics.

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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.