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Retail therapy and speed money merchants in urban India

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How India's retail sector is divided. Chart: Reuters

How India’s retail sector is divided. Chart: Reuters

Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been rolling into India at a steady pace, whether in banking and finance,whether in insurance (general insurance and health), pharmaceuticals, automobiles (particularly automobiles), information technology, food and beverages (very much so), and engineering and manufacturing. And then there is retail, which has so incensed all those who have firmly believed that India and Bharat need none of this and that the swadeshi and swarajya of the Independence movement are, 66 years on, needed even more than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. And I count myself amongst those so incensed.

It comes as a surprise then to read about the ‘brake on the economy’ that low-level corruption is in India, as a recent Reuters report has put it. The report is well done, and is right to probe the methods of corrupt underlings, but I find it bordering on the absurd that these practices – in short, hand over the moolah for the licence you want – are treated as hindering India’s ‘growth story’ (as the country’s finance minister monotonously calls it, ignoring the ecological idiocy of desiring more growth, unmindful of the millions of new deprivations his story has no place for).

Reuters has reported: “India is the next great frontier for global retailers, a US$500 billion market growing at 20% a year. For now, small shops dominate the sector. Giants from Wal-Mart Stores Inc to IKEA AB have struggled merely for the right to enter, which they finally won last year.”

This breathlessness, well captured by Reuters, is part of P Chidambaram’s favourite fairy tale. But of course, real life in curbside India is full of smoke and mirrors. Reuters said that a “daunting array of permits – more than 40 are required for a typical supermarket selling a range of products – force retailers to pay so-called ‘speed money’ through middlemen or local partners to set up shop”.

All that mall space unused, built atop what were once green fields. Chart: Reuters

All that mall space unused, built atop what were once green fields. Chart: Reuters

Speed money is a colourful term, and suited to the technicolour life and times of the retail business in India. Reuters sounds prudish when it reported, citing interviews with middlemen and several retailers, that the “official cost for key licenses is typically accompanied by significant expenses in the form of bribes”. The added cost, said Reuters, erodes profitability in an industry where margins tend to be razor-thin, and “creates risk for companies by making them complicit in activity that, while commonplace in India and other emerging markets, is nonetheless illegal”.

Commonplace and illegal as much as underpaying workers in the USA, I presume, which is what the retail capitalists do. See this report about workers at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Yum! Brands, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Papa John’s going on strike in New York City demanding wages that are twice the current $7.50 an hour, which is described as impossible to live on. As for Walmart, it’s rankly exploitative imprisoning of its workers, paying them just above minimum wage but denying them freedom of association (the USA is a member state of the ILO, the International Labour Organisation) and medieval working conditions can hardly, in any country, make it a paragon or corporate virtue.

But the Reuters report, useful as it is in explaining the very broad-based and low-level graft that layers our cities like a fog, cannot venture into the area of the demands of international finance capital led neo-liberalisation. This seeks to prise open our economy – aided eagerly by the astoundingly greedy political class in India (Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Calcutta and every other large city) – for profit maximisation. Never mind the few bleating complaints about streetfront corruption repeated by Reuters, there is optimism aplenty amongst financiers, business people, bankers, commodity brokers, the realty sector, the automobile and FMCG sectors, all fed by the fact that the United Progressive Alliance government of India is more than willing to bend, break and jettison wholesale regulations that favour the proletariat in order to satisfy international capital and Indian big business.

Only last December (2012) both the houses of Parliament in India were told that there would be an inquiry following media reports concerning the submission made by the global retail giant Walmart to the US senate that it had spent around Rs 125 crore (Rs 1.25 billion or about US$23.2 million) during the last four years on its lobbying activities, including the issues related to “enhance market access for investment in India”. Now, really, what’s a bit of ‘speed money’ compared to a sum like that? Or compared to the US$100 million (about Rs 455 crore) that Walmart is reported to have funnelled into India (to its Indian partner Bharti Enterprises) and at a time when multi-brand retail was not permitted?

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Diego Rivera’s socialist murals, 80 years later, as a visual anthem for global resistance

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In The Uprising (1931), a woman with a baby at her hip and a working man fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures’ skin tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labour unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both US and Latin American audiences. The battle here stands as a potent symbol of universal class struggle.

In New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a new exhibition has opened that displays the artistic work of Diego Rivera, whose socialist murals of the 1930s depicted the onrush of capitalism and its effects on labour and rural cultivators in Mexico. The heroines and heros of the Occupy movement in the USA could not have asked for a more fitting epilogue to their struggle, for Rivera’s work is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago, and indeed more so, for in 1931 western capitalism had not the ravening tools it employs today.

Diego Rivera’s name is synonymous with epic murals of social revolution in the first decades of the 20th century. The powerful appeal of socialist politics following the Russian Revolution was felt by broad layers of the population in Mexico, especially with the economic collapse of 1929, and could not be ignored. Rivera’s connection with socialism went deep, for the power of his work was bound up not just with the radical nationalist Mexican Revolution, but also with the establishment of the first worker’s state in Russia in 1917.

Inspired by his experience of New York City, the panels also show a modern metropolis at the height of a building boom made possible by the legions of available labour during the Great Depression. The skyscrapers that came to define the city’s iconic skyline all went up in an astonishingly short period of time. Rivera took on New York subjects through monumental images of the urban working class and the social stratification of the city during the Great Depression. [See ‘The Socialist Art of Diego Rivera’ for more.]

Occupying Wall Street

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The immediate area around the New York Stock Exchange, “Wall Street,” has been closed to the public and protestors who are encamped at a nearby park, chanting, singing and dancing along with marching and bugling on surrounding streets accompanied by phalanxes of cops and motor scooters, to cheers and thumbs-up from tour buses and hand shakes from passersby and street workers.

There has been no sign of the commercial media. Mainstream media in the Asia-Pacific region have ignored the historic occupation entirely, not because of their failure to see the beginning of an American democratic awakening, but because the channels of cross-holding and control are now well-established.

These mercantile cables are tightly wound around the “emerging economies” and their growing middle class populations whose consumption patterns are seen as replacing those to be lost by social movements such as this in the West.

“On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”

According to their website, the mission of the leaderless resistance movement is to flood thousands of people into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months in order to persuade President Barack Obama to establish a commission to end “the influence money has over representatives in Washington.” Demonstrators gathered to call for the occupation of Wall Street, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in New York.

Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. The original call for this occupation was published by Adbusters in July; since then, many individuals across the country have stepped up to organize this event, such as the people of the NYC General Assembly and US Day of Rage. There’ll also be similar occupations in the near future such as October2011 in Freedom Plaza, Washington D.C.

This is from their statement:
“We agree that we need to see election reform. However, the election reform proposed ignores the causes which allowed such a system to happen. Some will readily blame the federal reserve, but the political system has been beholden to political machinations of the wealthy well before its founding. We need to address the core facts: these corporations, even if they were unable to compete in the electoral arena, would still remain control of society. They would retain economic control, which would allow them to retain political control. Term limits would, again, not solve this, as many in the political class already leave politics to find themselves as part of the corporate elites. We need to retake the freedom that has been stolen from the people, altogether.”

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.

From miscalculation to emergency, the wheat crisis of 2010

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Wheat trade, CBOT

Wheat trade on the CBOT, 2009 April to 2010 September. Chart from CME

The wheat supply and price crisis from June 2010 onwards has meant that consumers, producers and food industry processors are now struggling with price increases of as much as 90%. The wheat problem of 2010-11 is lurching from crisis to miscalculation to emergency at all scales. And even then, some big international commodities traders are counting windfall profits.

In the first week of August, Reuters reported that Russia’s worst drought on record has devastated crops in parts of the country and caused international grain prices to spike as markets placed bets that without shipments from one of the world’s leading exporters, global supplies would be restricted. Soon thereafter, Bloomberg reported that the share prices of US agricultural companies including Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Potash Corp of Saskatchewan rose in New York trading amid speculation that US wheat exports will jump as importers seek alternatives to Russian grain.

According to the average estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will forecast that global wheat stockpiles before the 2011 harvest will drop to 171.09 million metric tons, from 193.97 million tons a year earlier. That will be smaller than the USDA’s 174.76 million ton estimate last month. The USDA has cut its estimates every month since May, when it predicted stockpiles at 198 million tons.

Photo: USDA, Amber Waves, 2010 SeptemberFarmers in Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat grower last season, lost between 50% and 60% percent of crops in the drought-stricken central and Volga River regions this year, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sergei Korolyov has told a conference in Moscow.

The Russian government’s ban left some of the world’s largest wheat importers scrambling to secure alternative supplies. Typically, Cargill, one of the world’s biggest grain agglomerators and foodgrain logistics companies, attacked Russia’s ban, saying that this amounted to “trade barriers”. Cargill’s cynical and profit-driven reaction indicates the rush to profit from what is clearly a foodgrains disaster in Central Asia and which has major implications for foodgrains importing countries in developing Africa and Asia.

Wheat trade, CBOT

Wheat trade on the CBOT, 2010 June to 2010 September. Chart from CME

Still, over a 3-6 month period, rising wheat prices will probably pinch foodgrains suppliers (who also take powerful positions in the international agricultural commodities trade) because they have signed contracts to supply wheat at lower prices than are prevailing in September. But, since the beginning of July 2010, wheat prices have jumped straight up. Increasing demand from important regions of the world and other supply problems beyond Russia’s drought, such as floods in Canada, crop failure in Ukraine and foodgrains storage and movement problems in India will substantially add to the 2010-11 global wheat crisis.

The uncertainty has also spread to corn. Reuters has reported crop forecaster Informa Economics stating that the USDA report will show the corn yield at 164.8 bushels per acre, below the USDA’s August estimate of 165 bushels. Informa also told clients that the USDA’s final yield estimate for 2010 was likely to be significantly lower at 158.5 bushels per acre. Informa’s estimate of the USDA’s likely final yield count helped propel Chicago Board of Trade corn futures to their highest level in nearly two years.

Photo: USDA, Amber Waves, 2010 SeptemberEarlier last month (August 2010) the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) monthly report, which provides USDA’s comprehensive forecasts of supply and demand for major global crops, said that global wheat supplies for 2010-11 are “reduced sharply with world production lowered 15.3 million tons, mostly on reductions for FSU-12 (former Societ Union) and EU-27 (European Union) countries”. It said production for Russia is lowered 8.0 million tons as continued extreme drought and record heat during July and early August have further reduced summer crop prospects. Kazakhstan production is lowered 2.5 million tons reflecting the same adverse weather conditions as in Russia. Ukraine production is lowered 3.0 million tons as heavy summer rains damaged maturing crops and hampered harvesting in western and southern growing areas.

WASDE also said EU-27 production is “lowered 4.3 million tons with yields reduced for northwestern Europe on untimely heat and dryness”. Yields are lowered for southeastern Europe as heavy rains from the same weather pattern that affected Ukraine reduced output. Production is also lowered for Algeria, Brazil, Uruguay, Belarus, and Croatia. Partially offsetting are increases for India, the United States, Australia, and Uzbekistan.