Entries tagged with “food price spike”.


The AP is running a story on food prices – and it is heavily focused on the problem of commodities speculation.  Actually, it is heavily focused on French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the causes of the food price increases.  While Sarkozy acknowledged the importance of issues like climate change, he quickly moved past these causes:

Sarkozy said the difficulties go far beyond the whims of nature. He said financial market specialists — instead of agricultural trading houses — had taken over the global farm market and called for change.

“Take the Chicago market,” said Sarkozy, listing how the derivatives exchange totals 46 times the annual U.S. wheat production and 24 times that of corn. He said 85 percent of the contracts on commodities futures markets are held by purely financial players “with no link to the commodity itself.”

“The example shows to what extent our world has lost a sense of value, a sense of reality, a sense of capitalism to serve the development and happiness of people,” Sarkozy said.

It is worth noting that Sarkozy is no leftist . . . though he will likely be painted as one for that last sentence.  Then again, anyone who notes that markets might have negative as well as positive effects will be painted as  anti-capitalist/naive/out-of-place ideologue (see the comments on Dot Earth’s mention of my concerns over climate change communication).

Let me note that Sarkozy is not demonizing all speculation – nor do I.  As I discussed in an earlier post, speculation plays an important economic role that can distribute the stresses that lead to future price spikes over time, thus ameliorating future crisis.  However, this is not to say that speculation should just run unregulated – basic regulation that keeps speculation within productive parameters would likely enhance its value in the food security arena.  (See this IFPRI forum for more on the role of speculation in world food markets)

However, more information for these markets would probably help as well.  While the USDA and other organizations offer estimates of global and sometimes national-level agricultural production, it would be good to have concrete, sub-national datasets on ag production updated in real time – this would remove some of the uncertainty in commodities markets that can then be leveraged into arbitragable price instability . . . and that alone might start to clean out the more problematic players in agricultural commodities markets.

The other day, I posted about the convergence between my own qualitative findings on the food security outcomes of food price instability and those of Marc Bellemare, Chris Barrett and David Just: that, at least in various parts of Africa, such instability was most likely to impact the middle and upper income cohorts more than the lower income cohorts of a given population.  However, I jumped too quickly in assuming that their dataset included rural and urban households – as Marc pointed out on his blog, they used a panel of rural household surveys.  So my initial argument about convergence does not hold up, as they did not consider the urban context in their work.

This is not to say that I am backing away from my assessment of the vulnerabilities of urban populations to this sort of challenge – I stand by it, having seen it, if only anecdotally, in towns and cities in Ghana over the past 13 years.  Urban populations are generally much more dependent on markets for their food supply than those living in rural areas (though this is not always true), and therefore price instability does create significant livelihoods uncertainty that is very difficult to manage, especially for the urban poor.  I therefore stand by my argument that we need to be keeping a close eye on the relative impact of price volatility on urban and rural populations, as the impacts of such volatility is likely to have very different impacts on these groups.

But recognizing that Bellemare et al’s work only addresses rural outcomes is not a problem for my argument about what I am loosely calling temporary deglobalization as a strategy for managing price instability (and price increases) – indeed, I think it strengthens the argument because it means that their dataset is now commensurate with mine, which was also rural.  As I argued in an extended comment on Marc’s blog:

The rural farmers most hit by price instability are those most integrated with global markets – the ones least able to deglobalize, as it were, when things get uncertain . . . Meanwhile, the bottom 60% is not as engaged with markets in which price volatility matters, and therefore can back away from them in terms of how they use their crops. In my work in Ghana, I found very few true cash crops (in the area I was working). Instead, some crops were treated like “cash crops” in years where price conditions and farm outputs of staple crops were favorable, and as staple crops when either prices were not favorable (including periods of volatility) or outputs of other staples used for subsistence were not adequate to meet household food needs. (Note: in many cases, the treatment of a crop as “cash” or “staple/subsistence” was highly gendered as well). The real difference between the rich and poor (relative terms in the Ghana sample) is the overall livelihoods strategy – one strategy (seen among the wealthier) is much, much more engaged in production for local markets, while the other (seen among the poorer) hedged market production with significant subsistence production (again, highly gendered). In years of volatility (or really in the face of most shocks), the market-oriented livelihoods were simply less resilient than the more diversified livelihoods strategies of the poorer households.

Or, as Marc himself noted in his response to my post on his blog:

[The wealthier] households tend to be hurt by price volatility because they are producers and therefore net sellers of most of (if not all) the seven commodities retained for analysis (i.e., coffee, maize, beans, wheat, teff, barley, sorghum).

So this means that the “temporary deglobalization” argument is not merely a rural-versus-urban argument, but one that can separate households in the same rural community.  This, I think, strengthens one of the arguments I was making in my original post:

  • Demanding that rural producers orient themselves toward greater and greater integration with global markets in the absence of robust fallback measures (such as established, transparent microinsurance and microsavings initiatives) will likely extend the impact of future price instability further into the poorest populations.

UPDATE: Marc Bellemare pointed out some issues with this post, which I have addressed here.  These issues, though, strengthen the argument about strategic deglobalization . . .

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There have been an interesting series of blog posts going around about the issue of price speculation in food markets, and the impact of that speculation on food security and people’s welfare.  Going back through some of these exchanges, it seems to me that a number of folks are arguing past one another.

The most recent discussion was spurred by a post on the Guardian’s Global Development blog by John Vidal that took on the issue of speculation in food markets.  In the post, Vidal argues that food speculation is a key driver of price instability on global food markets, which results in serious impacts for the poorest people in the world – a sort of famine profiteering, as it were.

The weakness of this post, as I see it, are twofold.  First, it doesn’t take the issue of price arbitrage seriously – that is, how speculation is supposed to function.  Aid Thoughts, via one of the comments on Vidal’s post, takes Vidal to task for this.  As Aid Thoughts/the commenter point out, the idea behind speculation is to pull future price impacts of shortage into the present, stimulating responses to future shortages before they occur.  Thus, a blanket condemnation of speculation makes very little sense from the perspective of one who wants to see food security enhanced around the world – without speculation, there will be no market signal for future shortage, creating a world that addresses shortages in a reactive instead of proactive manner. This is a completely fair critique of Vidal, I think.

However, neither Vidal nor those responding to him actually address the evidence for significant market manipulation, and the intentional generation of instability for the purposes of profiteering.  This evidence first emerged in a somewhat anecdotal manner in Fredrick Kaufman’s “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it.”  In this article, Kaufman uses a fairly limited number of informants to lay out a case for the intentional manipulation of wheat markets in 2008.  It is an interesting read, though I argued in an earlier post that it suffers from trying to be a parable for the pervasive presence of complex investment vehicles in the modern world.  And in the end, its findings can hardly be called robust.

Though Kaufman’s argument might, by itself, be less than robust, it received a serious empirical boost from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the fall of 2010.  In a discussion paper that remains underreported and under-considered in food security circles (trust me, it is difficult to get anyone to even talk about speculation in program settings), Bryce Cooke and Miguel Robles demonstrate quantitatively that the dramatic price rises for food in 2008 is best explained by various proxies for speculation and activity on futures markets.  Now, we can argue about how large an impact that activity had on actual prices, but it seems to me that Cooke and Robles, when taken in concert with the Kaufman piece, have demonstrated that the speculation we see in the markets right now is not merely a normal market response to potential future shortage – indeed, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been arguing for months that there are no likely supply issues that should be triggering the price increases we see.  In other words, while it is foolish to simply blame price arbitrage for food insecurity, it is equally blind to assume that all of those practicing such arbitrage are doing so in the manner prescribed in the textbooks.  Someone will always try to game the system, and in tightly connected markets, a few efforts to game a market can have radiating impacts that draw in honest arbitrage efforts.  There is need for regulatory oversight.  But regulation will not solve all our food problems.

But this all leaves one last question unanswered: what is the impact of price instability, whether caused by actual likely future shortages or by efforts to game markets for short-term profits, on the welfare of the poor?  Vidal, Kaufman and many others assume that the impacts are severe.  Well, maybe.  You see, where matters (again – yep, I’m a geographer).  In a very interesting paper, Marc Bellemare (along with Chris Barrett and David Just) demonstrates that, at least in Ethiopia:

contrary to conventional wisdom, the welfare gains from eliminating price volatility would be concentrated in the upper 40 percent of the income distribution, making food price stabilization a distributionally regressive policy in this context.

This finding may be a shock to those working in aid at first glance, but this finding is actually intuitive.  In fact, in my book (out tomorrow!) I lay out a qualitative picture of livelihoods in rural Ghana that aligns perfectly with this finding.  In Bellemare et al, I would bet my house that the upper 40% of the population is that segment of the population living in urban areas and/or wealthy enough to be purchasing large amounts of processed food.  Why does this matter?  This is the segment of the population that typically has the most limited options when food prices begin to get unstable.  On the other hand, the bottom 60% of the population, especially those in this cohort living in rural areas (it is unclear from the study how much of an overlap between poor and rural there is in the sample, but I am betting it is pretty high), has a much more limited engagement with global food markets.  As a result, when food prices begin to spike, they have the ability to effect a temporary partial, or even complete, disengagement from the global market.  In other words, much as I saw in Ghana, this study seems to suggest that temporary deglobalization is a coping strategy that at least some people in Ethiopia use to guard against the vagaries of markets.  Ironically, those best positioned to effect such a strategy are the poorest, and therefore they are better able to manage the impact of price instability on food markets.

In short, I would argue that Marc’s (and his co-authors’) work is a quantitative empirical demonstration of one of my core arguments in Delivering Development:

2. At globalization’s shoreline the experience of “development” is often negative. The integration of local economies, politics, and society into global networks is not the unmitigated boon to human well- being presented by many authors. Those living along the shores of globalization deal with significant challenges in their lives, such as degrading environments, social inequality that limits opportunity for significant portions of society, and inadequate medical care. The integration of these places into a global economy does not necessarily solve these problems. In the best cases such integration provides new sources of income that might be used to address some of these challenges. In nearly all cases, however, such integration also brings new challenges and uncertainties that come at a cost to people’s incomes and well- being. (pp.14-15)

I’m not suggesting Marc endorses this claim – hell, for all I know he’ll start throwing things when he sees it.  But there is an interesting convergence happening here.  I’m glad I met Marc at a tweet-up in DC a few weeks ago.  We’re going to have to talk some more . . . I see the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In summary, while efforts to game global food markets do exist, and have very serious impacts on at least some people, they do not crush everyone in the Global South.  Instead, this instability will be most felt by those in urban areas – in the form of a disaffected middle and upper class, and a large cohort of the urban poor who, lacking alternative food sources, might be pushed over the brink by price increases.  The policy implications are clear:

  • We need to be watching the impact of price increases on urban food insecurity more than rural insecurity
  • Demanding that rural producers orient themselves toward greater and greater integration with global markets in the absence of robust fallback measures (such as established, transparent microinsurance and microsavings initiatives) will likely extend the impact of future price instability further into the poorest populations.
  • We need to better understand the scope of artificially-generated instability and uncertainty in global food markets, and establish means of identifying and regulating this activity without closing price arbitrage down entirely.

Nobody is reporting this very heavily, but the drought and subsequent really enormous fires in Russia are having an impact way beyond Russia’s borders.  Specifically, a lot of arable land, used to raise wheat, suffered through a serious drought, and then burned, taking with it a big chunk of Russia’s, and indeed the world’s, wheat production.  We are being set up for another serious spike in wheat prices, and therefore food prices, worldwide.

NPR’s reporting on this issue is very optimistic. But the problem here is that the optimism is very, very selective.  When the chief executive of the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council, says “U.S. producers will be able to step up to the plate and meet global demand that’s not presently being met by Russian wheat producers,” she is correct . . . assuming that nothing else will go wrong this year that might compromise wheat production elsewhere.  In 2008, the wheat price spike was driven by the convergence of a rise in biofuels production, a drought in Australia, and some fairly shadowy financial instruments that may have generated a commodity bubble around wheat.  In other words, a lot of stuff went wrong at once.  Given the uncertainty we see in the global economy, and the rising climate variability in wheat production centers like Southern Africa, arguing that nothing else will go wrong strikes me as a really weak bet.

Yes, US farmers will profit mightily from an increased demand for their wheat – but if demand outstrips supply, which seems increasingly likely as we move into the fall, everyone from the global poor to the average US consumer is going to feel the impact of rising food prices again.  Right now, nobody is doing anything to address this likelihood, and a reactive approach to food price spikes never solves the problem in time to matter for those most affected . . . anyone want to get proactive about this, please?