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

June 1, 2009

Fed Puzzled by Stats: Are We In Danger?

fed battle economic gloomAll interest rates are not equal when it comes to any given investment product. The rates on bonds of different maturities behave independently of each other. Short-term rates vs. long-term rates can move in opposite directions simultaneously. The gods of finance say that what is important is the overall pattern of interest-rate movement: a direct reflection of the future of the economy and Wall Street confidence.

The Fed is not certain what is driving the sharp rise in long-dated bond yields and has noticed a widening gap between short and long term yields. What does it all mean? Is someone like the Chinese manipulating the market?

A steepening yield curve could mean that investors are worried about the deterioration in the U.S. economic outlook… or the possibility for a collapse in the U.S. dollar as the Federal Reserve continues to load the world with newly minted currency as part of its recent program.

Economists are involved in open combat over what is driving the signs and even worse, what the cause or the solution really is. Some Fed officials believe that a recent glimmer-of-hope in economic data is encouraging investors to believe there is less need for ‘safer government bonds’. Richard Fisher in the Dallas Fed contends that the steepening yield curve is generally a sign of a recovery, but huge debt may dampen that perception.

What is certain is that the U.S. Treasury is being forced to sell more bonds to cover the unprecented U.S. debt and falling tax revenues as a result of the recession. What does appear to be certain is that the relentless dumping of dollars on the market will ultimately result in inflation that could easily get out of hand. Is it recovery from investor confidence, investor manipulation, worried investors or defective monetary policy driven by central bankers? Not even the gods of finance know the answer. The gods of finance do not know right or wrong. They know theory and are now in uncharted territory.

June 3, 2008

Bernanke: Investor Profiteering Runs Amok

Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chief did an economic assessment for the International Monetary Conference is Barcelona, Spain. In his speech, he cleverly outlined, but separated the causes of the global financial crisis so as to not create any blame or responsibility. He outlined:
1. The U.S. housing boom,
2. A credit boom created by innovative lenders and investors,
3. unprecedented growth in developing and emerging market economies.

Bernanke spent an entire paragraph on blaming emerging nations, resulting in additional deficit in the industrial countries like the United States. Nowhere does Bernanke mention the burgeoning national debt of the United States, a huge flotsam of borrowed credit that continues to hold citizens of the United States and their children prisoner.

Bernanke noted “an increased appetite for risk-taking–a “reaching for yield”–stimulated some financial innovations and lending practices that proved imprudent or otherwise questionable. Regulators identified some of these issues in real time; for example, federal banking regulators issued new guidance on nontraditional mortgage lending and on commercial real estate lending.”

Strangely, bureaucrats of all kinds always suggest the panacea of additional regulation. The United States is full of endless rules, both effective and ineffective. How regulations are enforced or if regulations are enforced determines the effect. Yet, you will never hear of this truth. Lawlessness begets more lawlessness, not structure.

Bernanke rightly states that the housing boom came to an end because housing became unaffordable. Even creative financing could no longer sustain or bolster the market which was artificially inflated by “creative financing”.

Bernanke mentioned that “highly-rated corporations retain good access to credit, but credit conditions generally remain restrictive in areas related to residential or commercial real estate.” Highly-rated corporations, including corporate multinationals have achieved independence from national sovereignty and are largely unencumbered by financial credit access, much like the central bankers of the world. Multinationals can simply pick their deal from any country in the world. They are above, at least for the moment, the plight of economically strapped nations and are tied directly any nation of choice as it suits them.

Bernanke also notes that inflation remains high, but he fails to state the truth about how high inflation really is. TNTalk! notes that food price inflation is at 45% in the last nine months. That is a cruel inflation rate that most economists fail to deal with, let alone talk about. The Fed and U.S. federal government repeated fail to come clean by admitting theft by inflation.

Bernanke also points at futures commodity markets as the cause of price instability. “A rough stabilization of commodity prices, even at high levels, would result in a relatively rapid moderation of inflation, consistent with the projections of Federal Reserve governors and Reserve Bank presidents for 2009 and 2010… Another significant upside risk to inflation is that high headline inflation (perhaps referring to hyperinflation), if sustained, might lead the public to expect higher long-term inflation rates, an expectation that could ultimately become self-confirming.”

The paper tiger is unable to suggest a way to lessen the effect of profiteers in commodity markets. It would seem that investor profiteering is running the world amok.

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