The next bubble

Yet another stick in the spokes of the geopolitical world wheel! And of course, climate change has nothing to do with the extreme weather affecting crops around the world — and neither does the fact that Wall Street hedge funds have allegedly been locking up the commodities market, driving up the costs of food. That’s because we live in America, where reporters never ask rude questions!

U.S. grain prices should stay unrelentingly high this year, according to a Reuters poll, the latest sign that the era of cheap food has come to an end.

U.S. corn, soybeans and wheat prices — which surged by as much has 50 percent last year and hit their highest levels since mid-2008 — will dip by at most 5 percent by the end of 2011, according to the poll of 16 analysts.

The forecasts suggest no quick relief for nations bedeviled by record high food costs that have stoked civil unrest. It means any extreme weather event in a grains-producing part of the world could send prices soaring further.

[…] “Even if we have a good year, we are not going to have the inventories we’ve seen before. I really do think the time of cheap food prices is over, and that’s just it,” said analyst Chris Mann of Traders Group Inc in Chicago.

“Everything is set to the point where supply equals demand right now. But if you pull one thing out of it, or if you disrupt the equation in some little way or tweak it, I think, with inventories as tight as they are, it will really have an impact on prices. A drought, a flood, anything,” said Mann.

You’ll notice he doesn’t mention a thing about hedge funds pouring massive amounts of money into the commodities market after the housing market collapsed, and instead driving up food prices — which in turn, promote global economic and political unrest:

When this process of “hedging” was tightly regulated, it worked well enough. The price of real food on the real world market was still set by the real forces of supply and demand.

But all that changed in the mid-1990s. Then, following heavy lobbying by banks, hedge funds and free market politicians in the US and Britain, the regulations on commodity markets were steadily abolished. Contracts to buy and sell foods were turned into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. In effect a new, unreal market in “food speculation” was born. Cocoa, fruit juices, sugar, staples, meat and coffee are all now global commodities, along with oil, gold and metals. Then in 2006 came the US sub-prime disaster and banks and traders stampeded to move billions of dollars in pension funds and equities into safe commodities, and especially foods.

“We first became aware of this [food speculation] in 2006. It didn’t seem like a big factor then. But in 2007/8 it really spiked up,” said Mike Masters, fund manager at Masters Capital Management, who testified to the US Senate in 2008 that speculation was driving up global food prices. “When you looked at the flows there was strong evidence. I know a lot of traders and they confirmed what was happening. Most of the business is now speculation – I would say 70-80%.”

Masters says the markets are now heavily distorted by investment banks: “Let’s say news comes about bad crops and rain somewhere. Normally the price would rise about $1 [a bushel]. [But] when you have a 70-80% speculative market it goes up $2-3 to account for the extra costs. It adds to the volatility. It will end badly as all Wall Street fads do. It’s going to blow up.”

The speculative food market is truly vast, agrees Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, president of the Strategic Investment Group in New York. She estimates speculative demand for commodity futures has increased since 2008 by 40-80% in agricultural futures.