When externalities cannot be externalized anymore

March 29, 2012

Externalities are costs, or benefits, that are not included in the price charged for a product. If a cost is not included in the price, it represents a negative externality. If a benefit is not included, the externality is positive. The concept of externality is particularly important to determine whether an activity is sustainable. For instance, if an industrial activity pollutes and causes harm, there will be consequences, and costs. As it takes many years for environmental problems to become obvious, the cost of repairing the damage caused by pollution is not included in the cost of the goods produced by the industrial activity in question. However, there will be a day when it there will be no alternative but to clean the damage. That cost is the externality.

Every activity that pollutes without cleaning the contaminants is a negative externality. Everything that damages physically the environment and undermines the sustainability of food production is a negative externality. Every activity that depletes essential resources for the production of food is a negative externality. In this highly industrialized world, the consequences of economic and human activities, slowly add up. Nature’s resilience makes it possible for damage to remain unnoticed for quite some time. However, the ability of Nature to repair the damage shrinks, as the damage is continuous and exceeds Nature’s ability to cope with the problem. As the population increases, the level of human and economic activities intensifies further. There will come a time when Nature simply cannot handle the damage and repair it in a timely manner anymore. The buffer will be full. When this happens, the effect of negative externalities will manifest immediately, and it will include the cumulated damage over decades as well. It will feel like not paying the bills for a long time and then having all belongings repossessed. Humanity will feel stripped and highly vulnerable. The advisory services company KPMG published a report in 2012 stating that if companies had to pay for the environmental cost of their production, it would cost them an average 41% of their corporate earnings. These costs are currently not included in the pricing. That is how high negative externalities can be. Looking at it from the other way, companies would still deliver 59% of their current earnings. Repairing the damage and still generate profits shows that sustainability is financially achievable. On average, the profits would only be lower, but the impact would vary substantially between companies. Businesses that create high negative externalities will show much bigger drops in profits, than business that do the right thing. The only ones who would have to get over some disappointment would be Wall Street investors and all those who chase capital gains on company shares. The world could live with that. Investors should put their money only in companies that actually have a future.

All the fossil fuels that humans burn are gone forever. It is not renewable. All the water that farmers use for food production and exported away from the production region is gone forever. Exporters in arid regions will have no choice than disappear, produce only for the local markets, or if that is economically sensible, import water from surplus regions. All the minerals that are used as fertilizers and that are exported from the fields in the form of leaching or in the form of agricultural commodities are gone forever. New supplies produced either with non-renewable energy sources or from mines that are slowly depleting must replace the loss. Organic matter that is lost from soils must be replaced, or it will be gone forever. Soil that is lost through erosion and climate is gone forever, unless new soil is brought back on the land or very long-lasting repair techniques are applied. Every gene that is lost is lost forever and might be missing dearly. Every species that goes extinct is gone forever, as well as its role in the ecosystem. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere is gone out of human control forever. It might bring a heavy cost in the future.

Since everything that becomes rarer also becomes more expensive, the externalities are going to weigh on the economics of food and agriculture, as well as in any other activity. There will be an oil price for which the current machines will be too expensive to operate, and for perishables to be too costly to truck with fossil fuels over long distances. The economics of water will change the purpose of farming in arid regions. It will alter the agricultural policies and force farmers to innovate new irrigation techniques. The economics of minerals and organic matter will change the location of animal farms and manure containment systems. No minerals will be lost. Manure will become a competitive fertilizer, as chemical fertilizers will become much more expensive to produce. The logistics of manure will change and the location of animal farms will change to allow an optimal cost efficiency of raw material for feed and access to fertilizing elements and organic matter. Farms will not have to be mixed, but the agricultural landscape will restore an integration of crop farms with animal farms.  Agriculture will be sustainable only if completes all the cycles. In the past decades, the cycles of minerals, of organic matter and of water have been open. Food has been produced in one place, and then moved over long distances and the waste and surpluses have accumulated somewhere else, while the original production areas were slowly depleting. New systems and new organization will work on closing the cycles again to bring back what agriculture needs to function. The economics of energy will change the chemical industry and its products. Everything will aim at using as little primary resources as possible and maximize the efficiency of inputs by both bringing entirely new products and application techniques. It will be true for energy, water, fertilizers, chemicals, medicines. The new focus will be about using just what is needed when it is needed and only in the dose that is needed, and no more than that. It will be all about precision agriculture, precision animal husbandry, precision packing, precision manufacturing, precision processing and precision logistics.

When externalities manifest immediately, there will not be the time discrepancy between financial results and environmental results. There will be no excuse anymore to say that there is no evidence of consequences. There will be no possibility of creating the confusion, either. When pushed to the limits of its resilience, Nature will bring the financial and the environmental at the same timeline. It will be stressful. Doing the right thing environmentally, or in other words, producing sustainably, will be the best, and only, short-term strategy for financial sustainability.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd

No shortage of action points for the future

August 5, 2011

The path to feeding the growing world population and to preserve agriculture’s ability to provide adequate volumes is paved with many challenges. Leaders will have to show how to resolve the many issues food production is facing or will face in the coming decades, and how to create a viable future.

As the population increases, the need for energy increases, too. Oil reserves are finite and new oilfields are becoming more and more difficult and expensive to exploit. It is only logical that oil will become more and more expensive in the future. This will call for more fuel-efficient equipment and vehicles. At the same time, oil that is more expensive also means that the relative price for alternative energy sources will become more competitive. In March 2011, an analyst from the bank HSBC published a report announcing that oil will no longer be available in 2060. In its future projections, the International Energy Agency (IEA) describes our energy sources as more diverse than they are now. They also mention that oil will not be the main source of energy anymore. Natural gas will take over. We should expect some significant changes in the way agriculture uses energy, the type of machinery that farmers will use and how future logistics will be organized.

The change of economics in energy will affect fertilizers, too. Especially, the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses large amounts of fossil fuel, essentially natural gas. On average, half of the nitrogen spread on fields is lost because of leaching. We can expect the focus to be on efficiency and on strategies of applications that are more efficient. This is already happening with precision agriculture techniques. Next to this, the focus of the fertilizer industry should be on developing nitrogen fertilizers that are less sensitive to leaching. Imagine a nitrogen fertilizer that may cost twice the price of the current ones, but for which there is no loss. Farmers would use only half the quantities that they currently do. The money to spend would be the same, but the use of fossil fuel to produce the fertilizer would be much less. There would be an environmental advantage to do so.

In the area of environmental issues, climate change needs to be addressed more effectively than it has been so far. Regardless whether people believe in it, or believe it is caused by human activity or it is only a natural phenomenon, the number of severe climatic events is reason to consider counter measures, just in case. The debate should not be about whether climate change is real or not. It is not about who may be responsible for it. True leaders take care of their people, and in this case, they should at least come with scenarios, contingency plans and emergency preparedness plans. That is the least we must expect from those in position of power and responsibility. In this case, the saying “the failure of the preparation is the preparation of failure” takes all its meaning.

Linked to climate to some extent, and a precious resource in all cases, water needs to be managed properly and carefully. For instance, all major river systems in Asia depend on Himalayan glaciers. If the glaciers were to disappear, which is a possibility, the source of water that sustains 2.5 billion people would be depleted, even if water used for agriculture also comes from other sources, the monsoon especially. The consequences would be catastrophic. Further, as agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water resources, growing food production will require more efficient water usage techniques. The focus must be on efficiency and on reduction of waste of water resources. Such objectives will require substantial financial resources and solid planning.

In the area of waste, food losses must be reduced as much and as diligently as possible. The moral issue of food being thrown away by the wealthy is obvious. The wealthy are not just in developed countries. In emerging countries, similar behavior is appearing. It is interesting to know that the Indian government is considering fines for those who discard edible food. It is even more interesting to notice that in Western countries where the percentage of food thrown away is the highest, governments are not investigating this possibility of fines. The other food waste scandal is the post-harvest losses. The food is produced. It is edible, but because of a lack of proper infrastructure, it is left to rot. What a waste of seeds, land, water, money, labor and all other necessary inputs. I have mentioned this problem in previous articles, as I have shown that the financial return to fix the problem is actually high and quick. There is plenty of work in this area for leaders. The first step to succeed in this is to recognize that no organization can fix this on its own. There is a need for collaborative leadership, because all the stakeholders in the food chains must participate, and they all will reap the financial benefits of fixing post-harvest problems.

Food production is not a hobby. It is of the utmost importance for the stability and the prosperity of societies. Well-fed and happy people do not riot. The need to improve infrastructure and logistics is obvious. Food must be brought to those who need it. A proper transportation infrastructure is necessary. The choice of transportation methods has consequences for the cost of food supply, and for the environmental cost as well. Road transport is relatively expensive and produces the highest amounts of greenhouse gases. Rail transport is already much better, and barge transport even better. The distance between production areas and consumption centers also needs to be looked at, together with the efficiency of logistics. Optimization will be the name of the game. Completing the cycle of food and organic matter will become even more important than today, as the world population is expected to concentrate further into urban centers. As humans are at the end of the food chain, many nutrients and organic matter accumulates where the human settlements are. These nutrients, as well as the organic matter, will have to be brought back to the land. This is essential if we want to maintain soil fertility. As phosphates mines are gradually running out, sewage and manure are going to play a pivotal role in soil fertility management. The concentration of the population in urban centers, together with the change of economics in energy, will require a very different look on economic zoning, and in urban planning in particular.

Special attention will be necessary to inform and educate consumers to eat better. Overconsumption, and the health problems that result from it, is already becoming a time bomb. Overweight is not only a Western problem. The same trend is appearing in many developing countries as well. Overweight is on the rise all over the world. The number of obesity cases in China, and even in some African countries, is increasing. The cost of fixing health is high, and it will be even more so in countries with an aging population, as age-related ailment add up to eating-habits-related problems. Healthy societies are more productive and cost less to maintain.

As the economy grows, and wealth increases in more and more countries, diets are changing. Consumers shift from carbohydrate-based meals to a higher consumption of animal products, as well as fruit and vegetables. The “meat question” will not go away. Since it takes more than one kg of feed to produce one kg of animal product, increasing animal production puts even more pressure to produce the adequate volumes of food. The question that will arise is how many animals can we -or should we- keep to produce animal protein, and what species should they be? Levels of production, and of demand, will result in price trends that will regulate production volumes to some extent, but government intervention to set production and consumption quotas cannot be excluded, either.

Similar questions will arise about biofuel production, especially the type of biofuel produced. There will be debates about moral, economic, social and practical aspects of biofuels. The consequences on the price of food and animal feed are not negligible. The function of subsidies in the production of biofuels adds to this debate and there are strongly divergent points of view between the various stakeholders.

One of the most important issues in the discussion about feeding the increasing world population is food affordability. Producing more, and producing enough, is not enough. The food produced must be affordable, too. When this is not the case, people cannot eat, and this is the main reason for malnourishment. To make food affordable, food production must be efficient. The costs of production need to be kept under control to avoid either food inflation and/or farmers bankruptcies.

In agriculture, just like in any other human activity, money always talks. Money is a powerful incentive, and when used properly, it is a powerful driver for improvement. Strategic use of financial incentive is part of policies. To meet the future challenges, leaders will have to develop the right kind of incentives. The focus will have to be on efficiency, on long-term continuity of production potential as well as on short-term performance. The financial incentives can be subsidies. Although the debates tend to make believe subsidies are all bad, there are good and useful subsidies. Another area of incentives to think about is the type of bonuses paid to executives. Just imagine what would happen if, instead of just profit, the carbon footprint per $1000 of sales was factored in the bonus? Gas emissions would be high on the priority of management teams.

If the way executives are paid matters, the type of financial structure of businesses could influence the way they operate, too. Now, it may sound surprising, but in the future, expect the question whether food companies should be listed on the stock exchange to arise. Short-term focus on the share price can be quite distracting from the long-term necessities. If we find that elected officials are short-term-oriented because elections take place every four or five years, how short-term quarterly financial results to the stock markets influence CEOs? The pressure by investors on companies’ Executive Boards to deliver value is high. They expect some results within a relatively short period, while what happens to the companies, their employees and long-term effect on the environment after they took their profits is irrelevant to them. This brings the question of the functioning of financial markets as a whole. What derivatives are acceptable? Who should be allowed to have access to which ones? What quantity could they be allowed to buy and sell? Many questions will arise more and more loudly every time food prices will jump up again the future, and as social unrest may result from it.

To prepare the future, it is important to prepare the generations of the future. Education will play a critical role in the success of societies. Only by helping future generations to have access to knowledge, to develop skills and to train to fill in the jobs of the future, will countries develop a strong middle class. Thanks to education, people can get better paying jobs. This allows them to buy adequate quantities of food for themselves and their families. Education is an investment to fight poverty and hunger. In the agricultural sector, it will be important to attract more young people to work in the food and agricultural sector. In many countries, farmers are getting old and replacement is scarce.

These are just a few of the issues that the current and future leadership will have to solve, if we want the feed and preserve the world. There will be many discussions about which systems are the best suited to ensure prosperity and stability. The respective roles of governments, businesses, non-profits and of the people will certainly be reviewed with scrutiny.

During the writing of Future Harvests, it became obvious to me how crucial the role of leadership is for our chances of success. In the course of a number of assignments with my company, this observation has grown even stronger.

For these reasons, I have decided to start writing another book focused on the role of leadership to develop long-term development of food production and food supply. It will be a reflection about the tough calls that leaders need to make. The final objective is to ensure viable food production systems and proper infrastructure, while ensuring the continuity of food supply in the long-term, through a successful interaction between all stakeholders.

Tentatively, the publication date is fixed for the summer or the fall of 2012.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Will globalization lead us back to local thinking?

June 22, 2009

This might sound contradictory, but one of the effects of globalization could very well be a new impulse for the development of a local economy, with energy as the main driver.

Let’s review a few things! One driver of globalization has been the search for low wages, therefore making corporations relocating their manufacturing units to the emerging countries. Another pillar of globalization has been the ability to transport goods across the world at a low cost, as energy has been in fact quite cheap. A clear effect of the success created by the above is an economic boom in the emerging countries, where employment has risen and where the standard of living has increased, on average. Currently, we are going through this difficult economic situation, but in the future, we very likely will face an increase in the price of oil. This is the energy effect that I just mentioned. Higher energy costs and food prices will drive inflation higher, although not to alarming levels. Nonetheless, this will be pushing wages up in the emerging countries, while unemployment will stay high for a while in the West, where the main consumer markets are. Therefore, we can expect to see the wage differential between those two groups of countries shrink, while transporting goods will become more expensive. In such a situation, it is not unreasonable to think that some manufacturing will come back closer to the Western consumers market. In addition, in the same time, emerging countries should have been able to develop a middle class that will drive domestic consumption, and thus sustain a certain level of economic momentum, even if their exports decrease in relative volume. An interesting consequence of the above would then be global trend towards a more local economy. The currently emerging countries would produce to satisfy their domestic markets and exporting lower surpluses, while the Western countries would repatriate some of the production units back home since it might be cheaper to produce and to transport goods that way to satisfy their own consumers.

Agriculture has followed the same pattern as other industries, and regions have specialized for the foods that they could produce at the cheapest cost. Of course, the cost of production and of distribution to consumers depends largely on the price of inputs, such as energy, fertilizers, animal feed, etc, but from a pure financial, and also climatic, point of view, it could not make sense to try to produce everything everywhere. Thanks to cheap fuel, the model was to go to global trade and transport foods over long distances. This is quite a change compared with the local agricultural model that dominated until the nineteenth century.

This search for the lowest cost of production will not go away, for a very simple reason. The overwhelming majority of the world population has a limited budget and keeping food affordable is an absolute necessity. We have seen during the sharp food price increase of 2008 that it would not take much to create a panic and riots, because even a slight price increase is almost unbearable for most people, especially in developing countries. This is quite a contrast with the wealthy Westerners who claim that cheap food is a bad thing, and that agriculture should be local and small-scale.

Another aspect that is not addressed very often is the actual carbon footprint of food transport. In the partisan debate, most of the arguments focus on the number of miles travelled, but they rarely look at the qualitative aspect of the transport. Depending on whether we transport food by road, by rail or on water, the results vary greatly. For instance, in Brazil, only 5% of exported products were transported by waterway in Brazil, compared to 61% in the U.S. Conversely, 67% of Brazil’s exported products are transported on highways, compared to just 16% in the U.S. In the European Union, almost 90% of the external freight trade is moved by water, and short sea shipping represents 40% of trade within the European Union in terms of ton-kilometers. As you can imagine, the consequences for the environment, as well as in terms of transportation costs differ greatly.

There are also significant differences between transporting fresh foods or frozen foods. A study carried out by Astrid Scholz, Ulf Sonesson and Peter Tyedmers on salmon showed that consuming frozen salmon transported by sea was the better environmental choice for salmon. To illustrate this, their conclusion was “If seafood-loving Japanese consumers, who get most of their fish via air shipments, were to switch to 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater ecological benefit than all of Europe and North America eating only locally farmed or caught salmon.”

Another important parameter in the environmental impact of the distribution of food is the filling rate of the transportation unit. An efficient fleet of trucks that organize back transport for other goods is more efficient than a small truck used by a farmer to bring his products to the city’s farmers’ market 400 kilometers away and who drives back empty.

As you can see, in the choice between global or local, we need to think in pragmatic terms because the reality is more complex than it may seem at first.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society

June 22, 2009

The days of our consumption society are numbered. We are going to have to find another economic system to prosper in the future as it is part of solving the climate change and CO2 emission issue. Over the last 60 years, all our economy has been based in encouraging consumer demand for goods that have been produced with relatively very cheap energy, very cheap raw materials and as cheap labour as possible, with as cheap credit as possible. This has lead us where we are, which is a group of very wealthy nations wasting very precious resources, to the point of exhaustion and suffocation. If well maintained, Earth will last longAlthough some still try to resist and deny the obvious, this system is no longer sustainable and we must rethink what should drive our economy. In an earlier article, I made a reference of how previous generations used to be very cautious about what and how they consumed. The positive side of the last 60 years has been the incredible progress we have made in science, knowledge and technology, which offers possibilities unthinkable for the previous generations I was referring to. We understand our world and how it functions like never before. We have all the technological solutions to solve the climate issue, but the key is the will and the determination to change and to act. This cannot happen as long as we keep thinking the economy in terms of growth only. Growth will not go on for ever, simply because our space and our resources are limited. As there are more and more people needing more and more energy, food and other goods, the law of offer and demand will rule. Prices will inevitably go up and consumption will slow down. A new time has come. The priority must now be quality, not quantity, we must think about having enough, not having always more. This thinking is not a nostalgia to a past that also had its limitations. It is not about rejecting a market-based economy. It is about looking at the market that has always been here, but that has been pushed in the background for the easier approach of just producing more and selling it. What we will have to bring to market is not so much products as services. These services are the ones that are directly related to making all the natural and industrial cycles run harmoniously in a durable way. Just to name a few examples, I would mention all activities that are related to cleaning the damage we have caused, and recycling activities will become more and more important in our whole economy. In the same way, water treatment is going to be a crucial activity, even more so than it has been so far. Clean industries producing durable goods and services will prevail. This change will also make some jobs disappear and some appear or even reappear. As usual change always brings opportunities. It is to us to recognize them and to take them. The time has come to make the transition from this consumption society, based on wasting resources, and with no future, to a maintenance society, where wealth, and not growth, will be the economic success indicator. By acting today, we can ensure this process to happen in a smoother way than if we wait until we have no choice anymore.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

June 9, 2009

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Biofuels may be a non issue

May 23, 2009

Biofuels is a topic that divides many people. To some, it is a solution to reduce dependence on oil, and to others it is an insane idea.
I do not think that biofuels will be a discussion topics for very long, and here is why.
Very likely, the future of cars will be electricity. Inevitably, at some point oil prices will rise again to very painful levels and stay there. This is what will make alternative energy sources economically interesting, even without government subsidies.
One of the major opposition to the electric car is being handled in a very smooth way by the Obama administration. General Motors and Chrysler were strong opponents of the electric car, and helped send it to the landfill for a while, but neither company is around anymore. The Obama administration just put an end to the outdated automobile gas guzzler model once and for all, with the new regulations on gas mileage and car emissions. Fact is that an important page has been turned for good.
Just realize that if all US cars have a similar mileage as their Europeans counterparts, the gasoline use would reduce to substantial amounts, in the vicinity of an equivalent of 80-100 million cars less (old US mileage standards). Normally, this should make the price of oil drop, therefore reducing the need for biofuels. And when oil prices increase again, then electricity will take over.
Other signs that biofuels do not have that much of a future is the lack of excitement from the investment community for it. Wind energy attracts investors (for instance think of Boone Pickens’s energy plan). Solar energy attracts investors. But biofuels? The main party that seems to be pushing for it is Brazil, for internal reasons mostly.
The fundamentals do not look good for biofuels, either. They score negatively on all three bottom line criteria.
As such, this is good news for food supplies. If biofuels made out of edible grains do not have much of a future, the situation is different when it comes to biofuels made out of cellulose. These probably have a decent future, as they do not compete with human consumption, and can be a good way of using and recycling materials that further would be of little interest.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Financial markets and food prices

May 22, 2009

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.