Wednesday, April 23, 2008
By Beat Balzli and Frank Hornig
Vast amounts of money are flooding the world's commodities markets, driving up prices of staple foods like wheat and rice. Biofuels and droughts can't fully explain the recent food crisis -- hedge funds and small investors bear some responsibility for global hunger.
The Philippines will take delivery of 500,000 tons of rice in May to address its shortage. But the price has been bid up by speculators.
In search of new investments, Anderson sends dozens of his employees to visit agricultural regions around the world. Back in New York, at his company's headquarters on the 27th floor of an office building high above Park Avenue, they bet on agricultural markets from Peru to Vietnam.
But in the towers above Manhattan's urban canyons, it's easy to lose touch with the ground. Hedge fund manager John Paulson was recently celebrated for achieving a record annual profit of $3.7 billion (€2.3 billion). Those who work in this environment have only one rule: Don't disappoint profit-hungry investors.
"I'm constantly wired," Anderson used to say, back when he talked to journalists. His nickname in the industry is the "Commodities King," and his Ospraie hedge fund is the world's largest. These days, though, Anderson avoids the media. He's even kept his face out of the media by buying up rights to all photos of himself on the market. His spokesman is now paid, mainly, to say nothing.
A Broken Market?
There are plenty of questions to ask Anderson, though -- in particular about the role of international investors in the current spike in the price of staple food. Not only is there talk that investors have profited from desperate hunger in Honduras, the Philippines and Bangladesh; critics also wonder if commodity speculators are making the crisis worse.
On Tuesday in Washington, DC, a regulatory body called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission held public hearings on this very question. Farmers and food producers argued that the market was "broken," suggesting that the steep rise in the price of staple crops was hurting everyone -- farmers as well as the people they feed. "The market is broken, it's out of whack," said Billy Dunavant, head of a cotton-producing firm in the United States, at the Tuesday hearing.
Regulators on the commission warned against government intervention, and no doubt fund managers like Anderson would, too. But the crisis keeps deteriorating. India and Vietnam have imposed export bans on ordinary rice. Indonesia is following suit. According to the United Nations, North Korea is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. After unrest shook countries from Egypt and Uzbekistan to Bangladesh, thousands of South Africans took to the streets of Johannesburg last Thursday to protest high food prices. In Haiti, the prime minister was fired after riots over the price of rice.
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This helps to explain why commodity prices have rallied since early 2006, with the price of rice ballooning 217 percent, wheat 136 percent, corn 125 percent and soybeans 107 percent.
But classic supply and demand theory offers only a partial explanation. Sudden price hikes since last January have been alarming. The UN estimates that at least $500 million (€312 million) in immediate aid will be needed by May 1 to avoid serious famines. Agricultural scientists at the world body's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have presented a report on the world food crisis. And criticism is growing that hedge funds, index funds, pension funds and investment banks bear part of the blame.
The History of Futures
Commodity speculation spread long ago from standard products like oil and gold to anything edible and available for trade on the Chicago Futures Exchange. These days there are futures contracts for everything from wheat to oranges to pork bellies. The futures market is a traditional tool for farmers to sell their harvests ahead of time. In a futures contract, quantities, prices and delivery dates are fixed, sometimes even before crops have been planted. Futures contracts allow farmers and grain wholesalers a measure of protection against adverse weather conditions and excessive price fluctuations. They can also help a farmer plan how much to plant for a given year.
But now speculators are taking advantage of this mechanism. They can buy futures contracts for wheat, for example, at a low price, betting that the price will go up. If the price of the grain rises by the agreed delivery date, they profit.
Some experts now believe these investors have taken over the market, buying futures at unprecedented levels and driving up short-term prices. Since last August, this mechanism has led to a doubling in the price of rice -- including the 500,000 tons that the Philippine government plans to buy in early May to address its own shortage.
Greg Warner has worked in the grain wholesaling business for more than two decades. His office sits a block away from the Chicago Futures Exchange. He's an analyst with the firm AgResource, and he says what is happening now in the wheat market is unprecedented.
"What we normally have is a predictable group of sellers and buyers -- mainly farmers and silo operators," he says. But the landscape has changed since the influx of large index funds. Fund managers seek to maximize their profits using futures contracts, and prices, says Warner, "keep climbing up and up."
He's calculated that financial investors now hold the rights to two complete annual harvests of a type of grain traded in Chicago called "soft red winter wheat."
Wagner is stunned by such developments. He sees them as evidence that capitalism is literally consuming itself.
'It's an Election Year'
Even the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington has recognized the potentially explosive nature of the issue. For Tuesday's hearing, the commission called not just on farmers but also on representatives of investment bank Goldman Sachs and major investors like Pimco and AIG to testify. One member of the commission, Bart Chilton, backed away from regulating investors, saying, "These markets have to work for all the participants. If you don't have speculators in the markets, there's no liquidity and you don't have a market." And the editor of a commodities newsletter, Dennis Gartman, flat-out denied that speculators were to blame.
"It is an election year," he said. "To think you won't have senators and congressmen blaming high prices of things on speculators is naive."
But some basic market rules seem to have stopped working. "The enormous influx of capital has resulted in the futures markets no longer reflecting supply and demand," says Todd Kemp of the US National Grain and Feed Association. Ironically, investors have placed their wildest bets on staple foods. Information about supply bottlenecks and famines at the other end of the world is not noted on market quotations.
A commodities dealer named Christoph Eibl soberly concludes that financial managers just want to "benefit from the scarcity of these commodities." Eibl's Stuttgart-based investment firm, Tiberius, manages €1 billion ($1.6 billion). His in-house experts estimate that hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed into the futures sector as a whole within the last five years, much of it for agricultural commodities. Eibl admits the whole thing demands an "ethical discussion." Some futures traders argue that they don't cause prices to rise in the real world because as a rule they never take delivery of a given crop -- other parts of the economy control the actual street price. But futures prices affect real-world behavior (such as inventory hoarding), and Eibl says that buying futures in rice, for example, "eventually causes consumer prices to rise in developing countries like Haiti."
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