Financial markets and food prices

food protest in MexicoLast year, we have had a flavor of things to come when the prices of oil and of agricultural commodities skyrocketed, creating inflation and in many places food related riots, even in Western countries’ supermarkets.
On the contrary to the “official” version that the media were presenting us about population increase, emerging countries economies growing, the spike in price was not all that linked to supply and demand of the commodities.
What was exploding was the demand for future contracts for these commodities, and that is demand for contracts on paper. Many players who were trading these future contracts were investment banks, financial institutions and private investors, mainly hedge funds. These people are not physically involved in the trade of the commodities. I cannot remember any oil tanker with a bank’s name on it, nor on trucks transporting corn or wheat.
Wall Street-NYSEMoreover, such transactions were highly leveraged. For oil, I have seen numbers varying between 11 to 22 times leverage. This means that the demand was artificially boosted on paper by people who are not physical buyers of the commodity they trade, but who want to create a momentum in the market so that the prices of the contracts increase significantly, with as only goal to take as much profit on the paper transaction as possible.
This would not be bad if the futures prices were not becoming the “official price” in the real economy. We have seen the result: strong inflation and social unrest for very fictive reasons, because we were not close to actual shortages.
Future contracts had been introduced as a tool for the producers of commodities to fix a price in advance for their production. As such, this is a very good system that offers more security, and especially more market predictability to producers.
The problem is that these futures contracts have now become an investment product that is not connected anymore to the real market numbers. They live a life of their own and they are priced by the market on paper with high leverage levels, but they can directly influence the prices of goods to consumers, and therefore skew the economic situation.
At some point in time, governments shut down a number of markets for basic commodity, in particular in India.
For the future, we can expect that a drop in the US dollar will encourage financial investors to “hedge” against inflation by rushing into futures markets; therefore, they will create inflation by giving the impression that there is a strong surge in demand for commodities. For investors (or more accurately I should say speculators), commodities have now become currencies, they do not represent actual products and the investors do not link them to the consequences that will hit the real economy because of that.
This will translate in major inflation, which combined with a very slow economic recovery could cause two recessions back to back, or extend this one much longer. In such a scenario, especially the USA will be hit quite hard.
Unfortunately, it probably will take much longer for governments to see how this loophole works and to act firmly to regulate the futures market. We might have a bumpy ride ahead of us.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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