Saturday, May 18, 2013

John Ward: "THE SATURDAY ESSAY: What else are they manipulating?"



Too much food costing too much money is killing people
Sector by sector, the truth is at last trickling out: ICAP, Libor, Gold, Currency values, oil…..none of them are natural markets, all of them are being ‘directionalised’….as in, manipulated for the good of the few – and never for us. But the most important commodity we have probably represents the most criminal scam of the lot.

The ‘price’ of gold plunged another $33 net yesterday. As usual, the drop made no sense. As usual, it took place on a Friday. As usual, the two steep declines happened when the London and New York markets opened. Those who have spent half a decade or more presenting clear signs pointing to manipulation of everything from fiat currencies to interbank rates have in the last year gone from fringe conspiracy theorists to vindicated commentators.

If it can be manipulated to the advantage of those in charge, then it will be. One thing big business can’t manipulate is the weather. And the weather is behaving strangely at the moment. The Italian Giro Cycle Race director Mauro Vegni confirmed to Agence France Presse yesterday that snow and winter-like temperatures on the upper flanks of the Col du Galibier may force Giro officials to remove the historic climb from this Sunday’s 15th stage. Yesterday was the 17th of May. Multiple freezes in U.S. hard red winter wheat country have further reduced the expected size of this year’s crop – after drought screwed up the region last autumn and during the winter.

So it makes sense that the wheat futures are suggesting high prices, right? Er no actually, it doesn’t: global cereal production will increase 6% to 2.708 billion tonnes in 2013 from the previous year, said the usually definitive Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO). For while Asia is consuming more wheat now, to meet that demand more countries around the globe are growing it.

Yet the very same FAO yesterday pointed out that World food prices rose during April…for the second straight month. Now obviously, there’s more to ‘food’ than wheat, but let’s get this into some kind of perspective. Here in South West France, for example, we have had a cold and wet Spring: but every tree I can see is heavily laden with fruit. We are going to have a bumper harvest. Indeed, wholesale food prices should fall this year, according to the world’s large agricultural trading houses – like Glencor, which expects bumper crops in the US and South America. USDA says 125m more bushels of corn will remain in silos before harvest, an estimate that should see prices tumble.

But world food prices still rose for the second month in a row. In Brazil, for example, the price of tomatoes has gone through the roof. “I’ve had this restaurant for 48 years and this has been the worst price rise I have seen,” said Walter Taverna, whose restaurant Conchetta is a fixture of São Paulo’s historic Italian district, Bixiga. Where I live in France, not far from me is Marmande – Europe’s biggest producer of tomatoes. I go to the markets and supermarkets to buy fresh almost every day: my observation is that tomatoes have gone up by a good 25% year on year. In India, wholesale onion prices rose 50-60% in December and are up sixfold from a year ago. But the Government admits there is no crop-failure reason for this.

The fact is that there are umpteen ways to manipulate the price of food: it’s done by governments, by agribusiness, by Wall Street speculation – and then by supermarkets. (It’s also done indirectly via oil-price manipulation, which affects the cost of using machinery to crop, clean and prepare everything from apples to prunes. But we did that story already).

Many governments around the world depend on big cash crops to balance their deficits and amass foreign exchange. Argentina has had money problems forever, and there is blatant evidence to show that big farming there, hand in glove with government, has been hoarding soya beans given that the price has been depressed for a while now. Although Argentina isn’t a major-league heavy hitter in the global soyabean market – it accounts for about 10% of world production – its warmer temperatures allow it to crop early… and meet demand from huge net importers like China – until the US starts harvesting in the second half of the year. They’re hoarding the crop right now, and so prices are rising.

The last fifty years have seen a decline in the numbers of small to medium-sized farms across the world. Last year, deep in the constipated bowels of Brussels, a committee set up to find out this sort of thing came up with a frightening statistic: only 6% of European farmers are under 35. Farming is going out of fashion. Or rather, family farming is: agribusiness is going from strength to strength. Or from bad to worse, depending on your moral outlook. In 2004, the market share for the Big Four agrochemical and seed companies reached 60% for agri-chemicals and 33% for seeds. Seven years earlier, the figures were 47% and 23% respectively. The concentration continues – again with help from Big Government. The European Union is currently trying to slip through a law making it illegal for home growers to trade in seeds.

Today, it is impossible to separate the dominance of agribusiness from the power of hedge funds. The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food Jean Ziegler recently indicted multinational companies for badly aggravating the food crisis and raising food prices. Speaking in Geneva, Ziegler told journalists, “Until early March, prices of many food articles followed the demand and supply forces. But since then there has been an explosion in prices which is largely due to the role of big corporations and hedge funds.” These big agri-corporations, he said, had huge stocks and, aided by hedge funds, had indulged in speculative activities so that “food access decreased for poor people while the profits of these companies were inflated”.

I’ve never met Mr Ziegler, but his empirical data clearly reflect my shopping experiences since February. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agrees that there will be food-price inflation in 2013: it forecasts a 2.5 – 3.5% increase for all wholesale and retail food prices in 2013. But the snag with this USDA forecast is that such an increase is way, way below what we’re seeing on the ground.
Some of this reflects the concentration in turn of food retailing into the five main UK multiple giants, the four in France, the five in Germany and so on. They all have form when it comes to screwing both farmers and consumers on price to lift their margins: the UK’s main shops nearly killed off the entire lamb farming sector some years back, and both milk and eggs have seen farmers in poverty while shoppers pay through the nose. Not only does this exacerbate the trend towards large agribusiness, it also lets the Tescos of this world look dirt cheap on, say, pork products in order to pile more margins onto other foods and thus end up making more money.

But the most damning evidence points the finger clearly at Big Business and Wall Street. According to a report in January 2013 from the World Development Movement, Goldman Sachs made about $400 million betting on food prices last year. (In 2010, they made a billion doing it). But using the word ‘bet’ implies that Goldman took a risk. In fact, the firm has a track record of buying long and in bulk to artificially push up prices…..and making a quick exit before the late price drop then inevitably occurs. By this time, of course, the folks who need the food to be cheap may well be dead. But Lloyd Blankfein is doing God’s work, so we mustn’t get in his way.

As always, the banks and hedgies have an answer for the anti-speculation lobby most obviously represented by Oxfam: they (Deutsche Bank and Allianz being prime movers here) argue that there “is no evidence that price rises are to do with anything beyond population growth and rising demand”. It’s a Jeremy Huntesque answer, because most of the evidence in fact points the other way. Indeed, other banks are clearly sensitive on the issue: Oxfam’s Belgian office has targeted KBC Bank and Dexia’s exposure to agricultural commodities, and has had some success in France by getting Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas to drop their food ETFs. In the UK, Barclays too has withdrawn from food commodity trading. This last, of course, is yet more backwash from the Bob Diamond era, and on message with being a nice clean rather than nasty cheating bank.

These are, however, small victories in the scheme of things. If pro-speculation people say price rises are solely to do with demand, then they need to explain this: the market for hedge betting and speculation in global food prices began to take off big time around 2007. Up until then, there had been considerable success in reducing the percentage of malnourished humans and deaths from starvation. But as a recent FAO report shows, ‘Since then, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and levelled off….the undernourishment estimates do not fully re flect the effects on hunger of the 2007–08 price spikes or the economic slowdown experienced by some countries since 2009, let alone the more recent price increases’. It’s not necessarily causal, but it is correlated. It requires a better answer than “there is no evidence”.

But the most damning data of all come from those with no agenda beyond stating the problem clearly. The fact is that 867 million people are woefully malnourished, yet there is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life. One in eight humans on planet Earth do not get enough food, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide – greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

There are myriad reasons why this is. But among these are definitely (1) The decline in smallholding farms that produce foods cheaply and locally, (2) the globalisation of food pricing putting the cost beyond the reach of the poor (3) hoarding by governments and agribusiness to wait for the best price, and (4) deliberate price-directionalisation by speculators.

Frederick Kaufman, author of Bet the Farm: How Food STOPPED Being Food told The Daily Ticker last October that the price of global grains tripled from 2002 to 2012…..after decades of stability, and just two years after deregulation allowing derivatives food trading was applied. “Something new has come to this market and we’re seeing absolute levels of volatility that we’ve never seen before,” Kaufman said, “the exponential growth of commodity derivatives. U.S. derivatives trading in wheat alone has surged from $10 billion to $300 billion in less than a year….speculators are completely overwhelming the commodity futures market, subverting a market that worked so well for over a hundred years.”

Again, it’s a seriously accusatory correlation. And as one finds so often with the financial community, all attempts to reverse the deregulation of the trade are met with a wall of lobbying cash. Call me suspicious, but common sense suggests pretty strongly that this means they’re making a bundle out of it. Throughout 2011, efforts to do re-regulate within the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill were met by massive Wall Street lobbying of everything from Congress to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Security Exchange Commission. Goldman Sachs alone spent $1.08bn protecting the trade. Now, you can’t make a turn by directionalising a sector downwards. Sure, you can win a bet by backing a fall in prices, but then that would mean shafting global agribusiness on occasions. And there are two chances of that happening.

Finally – and probably conclusively – we have to recognise that since 2008 the major part of the commercial world has been either heading for, in, or just limping out of recession. To suggest a boom in food demand when money is tight simply doesn’t make marketing sense….any more than Gold trackers falling in price while bullion roars ahead makes for the remotest iota of sanity. Certainly, there are specific factors of real importance: the Japanese Tsunami raised seafood prices, 2012 crop damage (especially in Australia) meant a spike in vegetable prices, biofuels have reduced the percentage of grain used for food, Chinese and Indian consumers are turning to wheat, and drought weather can ruin most crops before too long. Also some trends do have genuinely unforeseen consequences: it’s more profitable to sell grain to China than give it to laying hens…so that puts the price of eggs up, as laying hen numbers fall. But almost all of even these are the direct result of having globalised the food business: whether the troughers like it or not, market-driven global trade in food extends the length of the food hugely, creates concentration that increases the impact of one failure, and pushes up prices even without speculation.

But far too many factors cited by the greedy few are excuses: nothing more, nothing less. In a piece last year, Forbes magazine totted up the ten big factors impacting on food prices, and guess what? Speculation and derivatives were nowhere on the list. But even that article had to concede that food inflation early in 2011 (at the height of the recession) was the highest for 36 years – despite interest rates being close to zero. Ultimately, it cannot make sense for those from poor economies to pay the same prices as Sherman McCoy in Manhattan….but that is increasingly happening. The real impact of artificially expensive food is felt by the global poor. In places like Tajikistan, for example, the average family spends almost 80% of its income on food now. Price spikes in such regions can mean the difference between life and death.

The problem is globalisation of the food business, too much power held by big agribusiness, and financial provider speculation/directionalisation. Such ‘betting’ screws the price of gold, raises the price of oil, fixes the interbank lending rate, dilutes the value of a citizen’s currency….and raises food prices.

It is yet another reason why The Slog’s mantra remains tediously consistent: we should make regional self-sufficiency the goal of economies in general and farming in particular, and only trade in natural surpluses. This would reduce unemployment by putting people back on the land, secure the food supply with a far greater spread of risk, reduce national deficits, feed the Third World more cheaply…..and reduce both shareholder returns and financial centre profits. So we won’t be doing that then.

The neocon business model is mad, globalist mercantilism is a crock, and permanently high unemployment in the West and elsewhere is not a social price worth paying so that institutions can get their returns and keep us all in savings growth and pensions…..not. Lest we forget, until the late 1950s virtually no big financial providers anywhere were even in the stock market: the stock market was there to finance business – which is what it should be for.

None of this is fluffy Leftie bollocks: it’s common sense and common decency. But the Mr Creosotes keep trotting out their feeble defences, getting away with it, and then laughing until they wet themselves. The size of the task faced by those who would like to make the world a better place without violence never looked bigger than it does in 2013.

This piece is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. The original is at The Slog blog here.

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