Busted: Bankers and The Global Economy

September 24, 2010

U.N. Says World is at the Brink of Food Crisis through Speculation

Environmental disasters and speculative investors are to blame for volatile food commodities markets, says UN’s special adviser

The United Nations warned that the world is likely on the brink of a major new food crisis caused by environmental disasters and rampant market speculators today at an emergency meeting on food price inflation.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO meeting in Rome, Italy, on September 24 was called last month after a heatwave and wildfires in Russia led to a draconian wheat export ban while food riots broke out in Mozambique, killing 13 people. U.N. experts heard that pension and hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and large banks who speculate on commodity markets are likely to be responsible for inflation in food prices being seen across all continents.

In a new paper released this week, Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on food, says that the increases in price and the volatility of food commodities can only be explained by the emergence of a “speculative bubble” which he traces back to early this decade.

“[Beginning in] 2001, food commodities derivatives markets, and commodities indexes began to see an influx of non-traditional investors,” De Schutter writes. “The reason for this was because other markets dried up one by one: the dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after, and the U.S. housing market in August 2007. As each bubble burst, these large institutional investors moved into other markets, each traditionally considered more stable than the last. Strong similarities can be seen between the price behavior of food commodities and other refuge values, such as gold.”

He continues: “A significant contributory cause of the price spike [has been] speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds or in order to hedge speculative bets.”

A near doubling of many staple food prices in 2007 and 2008 led to riots in more than 30 countries and an estimated 150 million extra people going hungry. While some commodity prices have since reduced, the majority are well over 50% higher than pre-2007 figures – and are now rising quickly upwards again.

“Once again we find ourselves in a situation where basic food commodities are undergoing supply shocks. World wheat futures and spot prices climbed steadily until the beginning of August 2010, when Russia – faced with massive wildfires that destroyed its wheat harvest – imposed an export ban on that commodity. In addition, other markets such as sugar and oilseeds are witnessing significant price increases,” said De Schutter, who spoke today at The U.K. Food Group’s conference in London.

Gregory Barrow, of the U.N. World Food Program said: “What we have seen over the past few weeks is a period of volatility driven partly by the announcement from Russia of an export ban on grain food until next year, and this has driven prices up. They have fallen back again, but this has had an impact.”

Sergei Sukhov, from Russia’s agriculture ministry, told the Associated Press during a break in the meeting in Rome that the market for grains “should be stable and predictable for all participants.” He said no efforts should be spared “to the effect that the production of food be sufficient.”

“The emergency U.N. meeting in Rome is a clear warning sign that we could be on the brink of another food price crisis unless swift action is taken. Already, nearly a billion people go to bed hungry every night – another food crisis would be catastrophic for millions of poor people,” said Alex Wijeratna, ActionAid’s hunger campaigner.

An ActionAid report released last week revealed that hunger could be costing poor nations $450 billion a year – more than 10 times the amount needed to halve hunger by 2015 and meet Millennium Development Goal One.

Food prices are rising around 15% a year in India and Nepal, and similarly in Latin America and China. U.S.  maize prices this week broke through the $5-a-bushel level for the first time since September 2008, fueled by reports from U.S. farmers of disappointing yields in the early stages of their harvests. The surge in the corn price also pushed up European wheat prices to a two-year high of €238 a ton.

Elsewhere, the threat of civil unrest led Egypt this week to announce measures to increase food self-sufficiency to 70%. Partly as a result of food price rises, many middle eastern and other water-scarce countries have begun to invest heavily in farmland in Africa and elsewhere to guarantee supplies.

Although the FAO has rejected the notion of a food crisis on the scale of 2007-2008, it this week warned of greater volatility in food commodities markets in the years ahead.

At the meeting in London today, De Schutter said the only long term way to resolve the crisis would be to shift to “agro-ecological” ways of growing food. This farming, which does not depend on fossil fuels, pesticides or heavy machinery has been shown to protect soils and use less water.

“A growing number of experts are calling for a major shift in food security policies, and support the development of agroecology approaches, which have shown very promising results where implemented,” he said.

Green Party Parliament Member Caroline Lucas called for tighter regulation of the food trade. “Food has become a commodity to be traded. The only thing that matters under the current system is profit. Trading in food must not be treated as simply another form of business as usual: for many people it is a matter of life and death. We must insist on the complete removal of agriculture from the remit of the World Trade Organization,” she said.

You can read this article by Guardian environmental editor John Vidal, with reporting by various news agencies, in context here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/24/food-crisis-un-emergency-meeting-rome

April 16, 2010

Video: Holding Wall Street Accountable

President Obama is selling the strongest consumer protections ever, bringing transparency to financial dealings. He suggests closing loopholes to stop recklessness and irresponsibility and to hold Wall Street accountable while giving shareholders new power in the financial system. President Obama lays out what Wall Street Reform is about, and questions whether opposition from the Senate Republican Leader might have something to do with his recent meeting with Wall Street executives.

September 17, 2008

Bailout Fever Strikes U.S. Again

The world of insurance will never be the same. AIG, a major insurance corporation and the world’s largest insurer has averted the worst financial collapse in history by accepting an $85 billion Federal Reserve loan and giving the government a majority stake in the company. The U.S. Treasury was fearful of a “disorderly failure” that would lead to larger national failures.

American International Group was a wild card with failure creating an enormous and unknown measure of system risk to the entire economy. The federal government gets 79.9 percent take of the firm and senior managers give up their jobs.

panic on the street

panic on the street

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve loan with a 2-year term will allow AIG (in theory) to divest itself of assets in a timely manner without creating an immediate crisis. Stockholders have been effectively squeezed out and are subject to losing any dividends.

AIG was huge in the credit default market, insuring contract guarantees that companies would not fail in large financial deals. A default contract buys protection against the threat of default by a company, municipality or a package of debt backed by mortgages. A buyer pays the seller a premium over a set term. The seller pays out if the default occurs. Defaults on mortgages and securitized bonds brought AIG to the verge of oblivion.

The complexity and global reach is huge, likely affecting every fund on the market in one fell swoop. Even with the loan in place to protect AIG for the short-term, Wall Street is reeling from the effects. A future bankruptcy would also play havoc on business contracts. There are reports that people are hording cash. Derivatives have been a highly profitable on Wall Street until now. The financial world is changing quickly as repercussions from the subprime mortgage crisis ripple across the globe.

~ E. Manning

May 11, 2008

Citibanks’ Magic Move

Filed under: banking, investment, money — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — digitaleconomy @ 12:18 am

Citibank excitedly announced that it will sell off almost 1/2 billion in bank assets immediately. Citibank and bankers worldwide are looking for good news under any rock they can find it. In this case, shedding whatever they are holding of value is a new way to create capital.

New CEO Vikram Pandit and much of the media tried to put a positive spin on the latest move by the megabank. We can be comforted to know that when Saudi Arabia no longer considers additional investments a reasonable proposal that banks have assets to dispose of to keep themselves solvent. The New CEO has a plan to move more assets in the future. Mr. Pandit says the assets are aggressively priced as the company seek risk reduction.

Bankers and other investors should take serious care of their enthusiasm as Citibank seeks to divest themselves of risky investments that they hold at reduced prices. This sounds akin to paying for shooting yourself in the foot. Perhaps someone with financial literacy will find a few deals though. Making money from subprime securities is an especially risky move for anyone but the most crafty investor with money to blow. Pandit has the audacity to try.

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