Showing posts with label Food speculation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Food speculation. Show all posts

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Of Toast & the Precautionary Principle: Commodity speculation revisited

Globalisation can lead to surreal situations. For example, several weeks ago I got a call from a Kenyan guy called Karim Ajania, who's based in San Francisco, and who runs a website for a Mozambican forestry project called Mezimbite. You'd think the website would be focused on, well, Mozambican forestry, but it features contributions on a variety of topics from some pre-eminent global economists, including Sir Partha Dasgupta and Oxford's Paul Collier. Karim told me that he'd managed to get respected Harvard professor and former economic advisor to Bill Clinton, Jeff Frankel, to write him a short blog on commodity speculation. Karim wanted me to write a reply.

Karim had seen a previous article I'd written on food speculation, where I'd suggested that excessive involvement of financial players in agricultural futures markets could distort prices of real food, potentially leading to negative impacts on the welfare of the world's most vulnerable people. My views ran counter to those of Jeff Frankel, who suggested that commodity speculation probably wasn't a major problem, and that most economists didn't see much reason to be concerned. Jeff's argument, like many economists, rested on the assertion that, in general, speculators make markets more efficient.

It's not so much that I disagree with all his points, but I took exception to which points he emphasised over others. He seemed to gloss over much of the ongoing academic debate. He admitted that speculation could be a problem, whilst nevertheless implying that it isn't. If Jeff were an armchair commentator I’d be happy to let his casual approach fly, but given that he’s an internationally respected academic who’s opinions are likely to hold more weight than the average person, I felt the position that speculation 'probably isn't a problem' wasn't satisfactory. So, I wrote a piece as a counterpoint to his.

If you're interested in the details, please go take a look at the article. It's quite long (around 2000 words) but contains, if nothing else, some rhetorical flourishes and useful links. If you want the summarised version though, I make an argument in three parts:
  1. On the techical side, I challenge Jeff's characterisation of the nature of speculation and how it operates. I think he's defined it too narrowly, failing to address some serious new elements of markets (including the activities of index funds and high-frequency trading).
  2. On the socio-epistemological side (is that  even a word?), I challenge the idea that there is academic 'consensus' on the issue of speculation, pointing out that a) there isn't academic consensus, b) that certain politicians try to claim that there's consensus for political reasons, and c) that even if there was consensus, that would not be reason to not be concerned for the future (indeed, I point out that there was apparent 'consensus' in the early 2000s that securitised mortgage products were a force for good).
  3. On the philosophical side, I assert the fundamental necessity of applying the precautionary principle to the commodity speculation debate. In a nutshell this means that society should be cautious of activities that have the theoretical potential to negatively impact welfare, regardless of whether there is definitive 'proof' that the activity is dangerous. Many financial pundits often focus on how it is not yet 'proven' that speculation is unsafe, when really the burden of proof should be on the financial sector to prove that it is safe. Using the example of the financial crisis again, the inability to 'prove' in 2002 that securitised products were dangerous, looks in hindsight to be a pretty weak reason to have gone ahead with rampant securitisation.

I don't think Jeff would necessarily disagree with these points, and to be fair, he's a busy guy with lots of global macroeconomic issues he's more focused one. I suspect though, that if he got time to respond he'd assert the necessity for regulators to keep a close watch on the issue.

Still, the idea that the burden of proof should rest on regulators is problematic, and my point about the precautionary principle is echoed by CFTC (the US derivatives market regulator) commissioner Bart Chilton (see video below). He's got a lilting twang and hair that puts him somewhere between a cowboy and a surfer, but his message is a deeply serious one:  The potential effects of high frequency traders (the 'cheetahs') and index fund investors (the 'massive passives') needs to proactively investigated. It's not good enough for financial professionals to say 'this is too complicated for you guys to understand, just trust us'.

Bart is not the only one expressing concern. NGOs have been concerned for a long time, but mainstream commentators are increasingly taking concerns about commodity speculation to heart. Hedge funds (see comments at 10:20 in the video), CTAs (see comments at 13:07 on the video) and physical commodity traders are all suggesting financial involvement in agricultual trading could be problematic, albeit using cautious language to do so. The text-book economics answers used to theoretically reason away questions about speculation using assumptions of market rationality are being challenged.

A toast to the futures
On a slightly lighter note, Karim also asked me for a quote on the absurdity of the English toast rack for another Mezimbite article written by Thomas Thwaites. Thomas started something called the Toaster Project, drilling down into the commodity foundations of all the goods we use in everyday life, smelting his own iron ore in a microwave to make a toaster. The article generated 104 comments. Take a look at comment 19 (and the subsequent comments) - it's truly unbelievable, and has also led to me being invited to Claridges Hotel for a free breakfast, to test whether the commenter's claims are accurate.

I'll put a photo up about that once I've gone, but in all seriousness, regardless of whether you like you toast cold or hot, this issue of speculation needs to be taken seriously. Bread embodies lots of price elements. The cost of a loaf is subject to a startling array of factors, from deeply imbedded cultural reflexes of ritual and taste, to the price of natural gas (which is the raw material for ammonia-based fertilisers that farmers use on their fields), and the price of oil, from which petroleum is obtained, which is used to fuel the vehicles that transport loaves of bread from factories to cities.

And maybe, thousands of kilometers away in huge cities like New York, Chicago and London, traders, computers and pension funds entering into bets on the price of wheat, oil and natural gas via derivatives contracts, might, through their actions, be tweaking those elements that constitute the price of a piece of bread in a toaster. It's one thing taking unchecked risks on property prices (aka. the financial crisis), but it's another taking unchecked risks on the foundations of human welfare. I reckon the precautionary principle should apply especially strongly here.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Suitpossum does Food Speculation: Farmers, Hedge Funds and the Ecologist

On Thursday I made my first appearance in the Ecologist, by all accounts one of the world’s leading environmental publications, founded in the 1970s. Yeah, airpunch!

The subject of the article was food speculation. It sounds obscure, but concerns around speculation on agricultural futures have been seeping into the mainstream agenda over the last few months in the context of rising global food prices. There is rising suspicion that the activities of financial players in commodity futures markets could have a distorting effect on futures prices, and thus that food price increases might be linked to computer algorithms running in some hedge fund in Mayfair.

Having had experience in the world of derivatives, I’m always prepared to accommodate the idea that irrational behaviour in financial markets could distort prices. That said, I’ve remained cautious about populist arguments about why speculation must necessarily be a negative force. Thus, in late 2010, I attended a talk on agricultural speculation organised by the World Development Movement (WDM), who were one of the first to make a scene about this issue. I asked some difficult questions to the speakers and got thinking about the argument. Several months down the line, I ended up working with WDM on a report, and found myself joining a chorus of veritable shitstirrers raising awareness about the potential dangers of this issue.

The debate started a few years ago in the context of the 2008 commodity price spike. In the US, advocacy group BetterMarkets have been a leading critical voice advocating heightened regulation and position limits in agricultural futures markets. The US think-tank, IATP, has also been outspoken, recently releasing a compendium of useful articles they’ve published on the subject of excessive speculation. In the UK, WDM have been a trailblazer on the radical front for the last couple years, but more mainstream UK institutions have recently been catching onto this as well. Last month, Christian Aid added a bit of righteous anger in their report Hungry for Justice, and Oxfam is getting uneasy about it too. Then last week the UN global trade body, UNCTAD, added their stamp of disapproval towards ‘financialisation’ and poor transparency in commodity markets, with a hard-hitting technical report on the matter.

The UNCTAD report should hopefully add some more fire into the debate, which since 2010 has been somewhat stifled by an academically controversial, but politically safe report commission by the OECD. The OECD report’s authors, Scott Irwin and Dwight Sanders, claim to have found no connection between the increased participation of financial players in commodity markets and the crazy 2008 commodity spike. I’m all for healthy skepticism, but there’s something vaguely reminiscent of climate change denialism in the way that conservative pundits have latched onto this work as if it’s the final be-all-and-end-all of the matter. In real academic life, nothing can be settled with a single study, and the extensive critiques of this piece have been strangely ignored by the mainstream economic fraternity.

Certainly, this issue has the potential for highly polarised opinions. In January, Murray from WDM went head to head with Scott Irwin on CNBC, and to my mind, lays the smackdown on him. I mean, I’m sure Scott is a cool guy to hang out with at the pub, but he makes almost no attempt to engage here. 

A similar level of disinterest is found in Terry Duffy, the chairman of the CME group, in his debate against the UN's Olivier De Schutter on BBC’s HardTalk in March. Terry says there’s no problem. Olivier says there is. Terry behaves like a condescending dick. Olivier doesn’t. Who should I believe?

For my part, I took part in a wheat price debate on the Farmers Guardian website last week. I suggested that farmers concerned about wheat price volatility should lobby financial institutions to spend less time investing in food prices, and more time investing in agricultural innovation and productivity. Failing that, I suggested farmers should band together, form a hedge fund, and use their superior knowledge of agricultural realities to outclass the precocious pseudo-farmers sitting in Barclays Capital. I got some enthusiastic responses to that.

I’d love to see that happen. What I don’t want to see happen is for this issue to go unscrutinised, only to lead to seriously serious fallout five years down the line. We've got to get the precautionary principle into action, so please do take a read of my Ecologist article, join the debate, and feel free to leave comments.