— SPECIAL SERIES ON THE ECONOMY —
Unless you live in a bubble, like George Bush, who expressed total surprise in February when a reporter told him gas was nearing $4 a gallon, you’ve been socked hard in the pocketbook by rising prices. It’s most evident at the supermarket—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of a gallon of milk has jumped 17 percent and a dozen eggs have leaped 40 percent in the last year and a loaf of bread is up nearly 30 percent in the last two years. At the gas pump the national average for regular gasoline notched a record $3.63 a gallon in early May, double from 2005, and it looks set to break the $4 barrier this summer.
As dramatic as the consumer price increases are, the frenzy on commodity exchanges, where traders negotiate "futures" prices (and related financial products known as "options") is even more pronounced. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), in an unprecedented public webcast, held hearings on April 22 examining why agricultural commodity prices are skyrocketing. It noted, "In the last three months, the agricultural staples of wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and oats have hit all-time highs."
Over the last year, wheat prices are up 95 percent, soybeans are up 88 percent, corn is up 66 percent, and Thai B grade rice, the world’s trading benchmark, ended 2007 at about $360 a metric ton. It hit $760 at the end of March and continued its dizzying climb to $1,080 less than a month later. On top of that, crude oil futures have more than doubled since January 2007, coming within a hair of $120 a barrel this April.
One striking aspect of the rising commodity prices is that when charted, they look similar to the Internet stock mania a decade ago or the charts of soaring (and plunging) home prices of late. This is no mere coincidence. One of the main factors in accelerating commodity and food costs is financial speculation. The same Wall Street banks and hedge funds that gave us the stock bubble and the housing bubble are reportedly throwing billions of dollars at the commodity markets, betting they can make a fast buck. One analyst interviewed by the Wall Street Journal estimates that "investors have poured roughly $175 billion to $200 billion into commodity-linked index funds since 2001." The Journal explained, "As with energy markets a few years ago, pension funds and hedge funds have flocked to grain investments as the supply of farm acreage and crop output shrinks relative to the growing global population and new demands for crops for biofuels and food. Many such investors make predominantly bullish bets," that is, expecting the price to rise.
The daily fluctuations on commodity exchanges are at times greater than used to occur in an entire year. On February 25 alone, at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, one type of wheat jumped 29 percent. On a single day in March, "the price of cotton jumped 15 percent despite reports showing cotton supplies were at near record highs," according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. During the CFTC hearings, commodity producers laid the blame for soaring prices at the speculators’ door. A representative of the National Grain and Feed Association testified, "Sixty percent of the current [wheat] market is owned by an index fund. Clearly that’s having an impact on the market," while a cotton producer stated, "The market is broken, it’s out of whack."
If there is a main culprit, it is the market. There is a lot of talk about growing consumption and falling supplies for both food and energy, but most of the data contradicts these claims. For example, despite a drought in Australia, ice and snow storms throughout China, and a cold, wet winter in the American breadbasket, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization projects global cereal production for 2007-2008 to increase by 92 million tons to 2.102 billion tons. But almost all this increase is from a record U.S. corn harvest, which is feeding the market for biofuels.
In essence, large speculators ranging from Wall Street banks and hedge funds to oil companies and agribusiness giants are making a killing from trading commodities. Analysts say some players may be manipulating the markets, but this is extremely difficult to prove because regulatory oversight of these markets has been deliberately rolled back. Still, many sectors appear to be engaging in blatant profiteering. This includes speculators, but also extends to food retailers, food producers, and fertilizer manufacturers. One of the ironies of the current situation is that even as the revenue of farmers is increasing furiously, especially in the United States, they are losing out on profits because of the wild gyrations in the commodities markets.
Grain shortages abound because speculators’ profits are literally coming at the expense of the world’s poor. Food riots have occurred in Egypt, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Ethiopia—countries where many people spend half their income or more on food (compared to less than 10 percent for Americans). The starkest indication of the deprivation is seen in countries like Haiti where, as rice prices have skyrocketed, the poor have been turning to mud cakes made with oil and sugar for sustenance.
Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, says, "It’s obviously a crime against humanity that this kind of financial speculation is allowed to continue. It’s one thing to have speculation on the price of widgets or car parts, but it’s another thing to have speculation in the fount of human life…. This should be a wake-up call to help us realize that food isn’t a commodity, it’s a human right." In a speech on April 2, World Bank President Robert Zoellick noted that food prices "have jumped 80 percent" since 2005, and "33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices." A few weeks later, the World Food Program called high food prices "a silent tsunami" that has already pushed an estimated 100 million people deeper into poverty and which threatened "to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger."
In the United States, the situation is troubling, if not as dire as the developing world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 12.1 percent of Americans, or more than 35 million people, experienced "food insecurity" in 2006. For many, this meant running out of food towards the end of the month, skipping meals, or not eating for a whole day. (Until the Bush administration changed definitions, this used to be known as "hunger.") Reports from media outlets, food banks, and soup kitchens indicate that food insecurity is increasing, caused by the leap in food and energy prices, along with the weakening economy, falling home prices, and fast-rising unemployment. Many low-income Americans, especially retirees on fixed incomes, are being forced to choose between eating, staying warm, or purchasing prescription drugs.
One of the more disturbing signs of economic desperation is that many Americans are selling off their belongings to "meet higher gas, food and prescription drug bills," according to the Associated Press. The hard evidence comes from websites like Craigslist where the number of for-sale listings from March 2008 have "more than doubled to almost 15 million from the year-ago period" and are often accompanied by pleas like, "Please buy anything you can to help out."
The Inflation Equation
Understanding the nature and causes of inflation—when prices rise quickly and purchasing power diminishes —is difficult to grasp because there is a gap between people’s daily experience and the official story. For years government officials have been declaring soothingly that inflation is "under control." The government reports that consumer inflation has been around 2-3 percent for the last 10 years and has jumped to almost 4 percent in the last 6 months. Some economists, including ones that run the website Shadow Government Statistics, claim the real inflation rate has been above 8 percent for the last decade and is closer to 12 percent at the moment. (They assert one reason the government manipulates the rate of inflation is to reduce cost-of-living adjustments that must be made to Social Security payments.)
Any number of reasons has been put forth for rising commodity and food prices: diminishing inventories of grains, greater consumption of animal products in Asia, a growing global population, global warming, biofuels, natural limits, financial speculation, the falling dollar, escalating crude oil prices, World Bank and IMF policies, hoarding, export restrictions, and more. In one way or another, all of these factor into inflation. But it’s not a jumble of reasons; there are a few critical causal chains and feedback loops behind the chaos. In broad terms, the nature of the globalized economy—the role of financial speculation, the dumping of subsidized foodstuffs from Western farmers in poor countries forced to "liberalize" their agricultural sectors, the declining dollar, and the overheated oil market—is why prices are shooting up. What ties all these factors together is politics. It’s a political decision to allow rampant speculation in commodities; it’s a political decision to decrease regulation of commodities trading; it’s a political decision to devalue the dollar by increasing deficits and cutting interest rates; it’s a political decision to force poor countries to dismantle supports for their farming sector; it’s a political decision to force the poor to buy food in the marketplace, instead of making access to food a basic human right.
The Return of Malthus
Much of the debate boils down to politics versus natural limits. This debate stretches back more than 200 years to Thomas Malthus’s 1798 "Essay on the Principle of Population," in which he argued, as John Bellamy Foster put it, "There is a constant pressure of population against food supply which has always applied and will always apply." Without retracing the debate over hundreds of years (Foster’s 1998 essay in Monthly Review, "Malthus’ Essay on Population at Age 200: A Marxian View," is an excellent introduction), it’s critical to note that it’s still of great relevance today. Many people who speak of natural limits—such as the "peak oil" or "peak food" crowd—are neo- Malthusians. They often exhibit hostility toward the poor like Malthus, who wrote, "We cannot, in the nature of things, assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children."
Some involved in the debate today, such as Lester Brown and the World Watch Institute, tread close to the Malthusian line in warning of the "population problem" and arguing that it is a major reason why commodity prices are rising. Despite talk of increased food aid—which involves buying more subsidized Western foodstuffs and dumping them in impoverished countries, thereby further undermining their food security by bankrupting small farmers who can’t compete against free foods— there is a willingness to let the poor die en masse in adherence to the neoliberal agenda.
There are, of course, limits to everything—food, population, energy. But as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, overpopulation is "a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by limits posited by specific conditions of production." It is these limits imposed—such as biofuel production and speculation—that are behind the global food crisis.
On the other side, there is a strategy to blame the developing world for both the food and fuel crisis. China and India, with their booming economies, are held as culprits for the rising demand and thus shrinking supplies of food and energy supplies. India and China’s population and caloric intake is increasing, particularly that of meat and dairy products. But this is a decades-long trend. There is no way that steady growth over 20 or 30 years could cause commodity prices to double in a year or 2. For example, from 1990 to 2003, India’s caloric intake grew by 155 calories a person, barely 12 calories a year, while China’s grew by 231 calories, or 18 calories a year. (During this same period, the intake of the average American increased by 310 calories.) At the same time, despite adverse climatic events such as large crop failures in Australia, the world’s cereal output has increased. Part of the problem, notes Raj Patel, is that by one estimate, "740 million tons of grains were fed to animals last year and that would cover the food deficit at the moment 14 times over."
The biofuels industry has been eager to blame China. An April 2008 "study" published by the Biofuels Digest was headlined "China’s Meat Consumption Causing Global Grain Shortage." But the study contradicted itself because it found that China’s per capita meat consumption increased by less than seven pounds total from 2000 to 2007, a miniscule rise. The same strategy of blaming China and India is being used to hang the energy crisis as well as global warming around their necks. China and India use about 10 million barrels a day of petroleum products. But that’s half the U.S. consumption of 20.6 MBD and they have nearly 8 times the population between them.
The "Dot-Corn" Bubble
It is in industrial agriculture where the link between energy and food inflation becomes apparent. The food we eat is literally hydrocarbons like oil. Oil is used for pesticides and herbicides to plant, harvest, and mill grains, to manufacture food products, to transport them and drive them home from the supermarket. Oil is even more central to meat production as the animals are reared on grain-heavy diets. On top of this, fertilizer, the boon of industrial agriculture, is mostly produced from natural gas, which has also been rising in price. With diesel above $4 a gallon already, businesses are passing the costs through the commodity chain to consumers (and truckers). The rise in egg prices has been extreme and therein lies an interesting story. The average egg-laying hen will in a year produce 276 eggs and eat 83 pounds of feed, three-quarters of which is corn.
With the rise in oil prices, there has been a boom in biofuels like corn-based ethanol. Last December, President Bush signed a law mandating the use of at least 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2020. In the summer of 2006, when corn was $2 a bushel and oil $70 a barrel, ethanol producers averaged $1.06 in profits per gallon sold. But then, corn prices doubled to $4 a bushel last year and just breached $6 a bushel this April. Midwestern farmers giddily joke about a "dot-corn" bubble as many of them (and their suppliers) rake in the money, but for everyone else, including ethanol producers, it’s been a disaster. Various analyses show that ethanol distilled from corn uses more energy to produce than it provides. It’s also a worse greenhouse gas emitter than crude oil and it’s driving up feed costs for cattle ranchers, hog farmers, and egg producers, which is a big reason why eggs are much more expensive.
The effects go further still. Corn or corn syrup is used in three-quarters of all processed foods, from bread, chips, and soda to peanut butter, oatmeal, and salad dressing. It’s even found in diapers and dry cell batteries, meaning thousands of products are experiencing upward price pressure. Corn is also distorting agricultural production as U.S. farmers have shifted more cropland to corn and have planted less soy and wheat. In 2007, 24 percent of the corn crop, some 3.2 billion bushels, was made into ethanol.
The price of wheat has skyrocketed, boosted by the weak dollar, falling supplies, and speculation. The price of soybean oil is also increasing, partly because of its use for biodiesel. In August 2007, "376.2 million pounds of soybean oil were used for bio-diesel production, accounting for 20.6 percent of the monthly use of U.S. soybean oil," according to the University of Illinois. Having planted so much corn last year, some U.S. farmers are switching to other crops, partly because oil-thirsty corn, even at $6 a bushel, is seeing its margins squeezed by soaring costs for fertilizer and diesel.
The Oil Factor
Rising energy prices are a major factor in the escalating costs of agricultural products. But there is still the issue of why oil prices have almost quintupled since 2002. There are three main explanations: supply and demand, speculation, and the U.S. government’s monetary policy. The White House and many pundits point to supply and demand because it’s presented as a natural economic law beyond anyone’s control. In this view China, India, and the rest of the developing world are the culprits. Yes, China’s and India’s consumption is rising rapidly, as is that of Middle East countries awash in oil. But from 2002 to 2006, even as oil prices tripled, global oil production kept up with demand by increasing 7.6 million barrels a day to 84.6 MBD. Demand growth has also slowed to a 1.1 million barrel per day annual increase from 2005 to 2008. This is compared to a 3 MBD increase in 2004 alone.
Even more telling, OPEC has announced numerous production cuts over the last year because it wants to keep oil prices high. So if we are supposedly experiencing natural limits to the production of oil, why is production being reduced? OPEC country ministers publicly proclaim they want to keep oil prices high because of falling value of the dollar. The falling dollar is being caused by two main factors: the U.S. trade and the federal budget deficits.
There is also an issue of "excess capacity." The cushion between production and consumption has fallen dramatically in the last six years, which has created supply hiccups and higher prices. The cause is not geological limits, however, but another factor: U.S. foreign policy. The Bush administration has destabilized three major oil producers that have suffered declining production in recent years—Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela.
The commodities building blocks of the modern economy include everything from coal, oil, wood, gold, and copper to cotton, milk, corn, cattle, and sugar. Manufacturers need commodities to produce finished goods while consumers usually encounter commodities at the grocery store. Commodities trading, such as livestock, dates back to ancient times, but the modern "futures" market was established in Chicago in the 1840s. There, at the board of trade, commodities are standardized according to "quantity, quality, delivery month, and terms," while traders negotiate prices and contract amounts. Ideally, this system, through the buying and selling of futures contracts, allows farmers to determine what to plant based on futures prices for corn and wheat while an industrial-scale baker can lock in prices for flour, butter, and sugar months in advance.
After the Internet bubble burst in 2000, the Fed lowered interest rates to historic lows, which increased the amount of money being borrowed and thus the amount of money in circulation. This is known as monetary inflation. What happens is the money supply increases at a faster rate than the production of goods and services. When many more dollars are competing for these goods and services, the result is an inevitable rise in prices. An example of how this works is the link between rising oil prices and the Fed’s interest rate cuts. Since the Fed started slashing rates last September, the dollar has plunged against the euro, oil has risen by more than $40 a barrel and gold, at one point, by some $300 an ounce. The Fed is increasing the money supply, which means there are now more dollars in circulation than before against the euro, so the dollar falls in value. As the dollar drops against the euro, oil-producing countries demand more dollars per barrel.
Another inflationary factor is the federal budget deficit, which has doubled under Bush’s watch, and the trade deficit. To stabilize the "current account balance," the United States needs an inflow of nearly $1 trillion a year to make up the difference. Dollars flow out because of our overconsumption and excessive government spending, while investments flow in to buy corporate, consumer, and government debt. The torrential outflow of dollars, however, weakens the value of the dollar. The trade deficit is running at about $58 billion a month. More than two-thirds of that goes to pay for the 12.5 million barrels of imported oil we use every day. Rising oil prices have become a vicious feedback loop. As oil prices spiral upwards and dollars flow out, the dollar drops in value, spurring the next round of oil price increases, a greater outflow of dollars, and a further drop in value.
There is one other factor that’s rarely talked about, except in the financial press—speculation, which "amplifies" price moves. After the Internet bubble popped, many investment banks and hedge funds began speculating in commodities. Speculators, when they buy a futures contract, create demand. But they are not interested in getting the actual pork bellies or coal. They just want to make a fast buck. When inflation rises significantly, commodities become an attractive investment because they increase in price rapidly. But the speculation completes the feedback loop by making the price rise inevitable and drawing in more speculators.
This is a major factor in the oil markets. In 2004 the New York Times recounted one speculative episode: "When low inventories and news of violent attacks on oil executives and facilities in Saudi Arabia drove oil futures up, speculators piled on, according to market analysts. Their buying forced crude prices up even higher, attracting yet more investors betting on a continued rise, and so on in a classic spiral." Even the head of Exxon, in a March 5 press conference, admitted speculation was a big factor. According to the financial news website Marketwatch, CEO Rex Tillerson called the price increases "pretty crazy" and said, "A weak dollar accounts for about a third of the recent record run in oil prices, another third on geopolitical uncertainty and the rest on market speculation."
The Enron Loophole
What made the oil market speculation possible was legislation passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration. At the behest of energy-trading companies like Enron, a shadow electronic trading system was created that allowed speculators to trade oil futures contracts beyond the regulatory oversight of the Commodities Future Trading Commission. The CFTC is empowered to establish trading limits ‘‘as the Commission finds are necessary to diminish, eliminate, or prevent" the "burden" arising from speculation. Because the CFTC can’t track much of the oil trading now, it can’t stop the speculation. A U.S. Senate subcommittee report from June 2006 squarely blamed speculators for much of the rise in oil prices, estimating more than $60 billion had poured into the markets at that point.
The report noted that even as oil prices were rising, so were oil inventories because suppliers were gambling they could get more money down the road. The same exact thing occurred earlier this year. Crude oil prices zoomed nearly $20 a barrel in January and February. But in eight of nine weeks, U.S. oil inventories increased to multi-year highs. Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, explains how it works: "You’ve got hundreds of parties entering into an electronic format to exchange massive volumes of crude oil and gasoline and natural gas and electric power and coal and ethanol and whatever else they want to do. And it’s all unregulated." The players, says Slocum, include, "Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and a huge host of hedge funds. Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS—all the big investment banks. The big oil companies that are traders are BP, Shell, and Marathon. Exxon Mobil really is not a big trader."
There are some "legitimate supply-demand issues that are driving prices up," he says. But "supply and demand does not justify the level of prices that we are seeing right now. I think that has to do with the increased level of trading volume, volatility and speculation that is represented by a lot of these new players." Slocum adds that because we "lack any effective transparency…that marketplace has an invitation to engage in anti-competitive behavior—colluding, rigging bets, price fixing."
It’s hard to say if agricultural commodities markets are being manipulated, but there appears to be naked profiteering. For one, at the Chicago Board of Trade, there has been a big leap in electronic trading. The volume of wheat and oat contracts in the electronic arena (as opposed to the classic "open pit" where traders physically meet) has increased by more than 130 percent in 2008 so far, while rice contracts have ballooned by 219 percent. Patel says he thinks that "hedge funds and grain-trading divisions of the large agribusinesses are making a ton of cash, like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland."
In 2007 Cargill posted a 36 percent increase in profit over the previous year, ADM 67 percent, and ConAgra 30 percent. In the first quarter of 2008 Cargill announced an 86 percent increase in profit to $1.03 billion, which it attributed in part to the fact that "investment monies have streamed into commodity markets," meaning "prices are setting new highs and markets are extraordinarily volatile."
Another sector profiting handsomely is fertilizer companies. In the last few years, fertilizer prices have risen dramatically. Some, such as urea and diammonium phosphate, have almost doubled or tripled in the last year. In fact, the price charts of some fertilizers closely match crude oil prices. That would make sense, except most fertilizer is manufactured by using natural gas and natural gas prices have been swinging up and down since 2000, not climbing a steep mountainside like oil.
This year, fertilizer companies have been experiencing the "sweet smell of success," as Forbes puts it. On April 4, Mosaic, the world’s second-largest fertilizer maker and a Cargill unit, announced a 12-fold increase in profits to $520.8 million. Another manufacturer, Bunge, said its profits increased to $289 million from $14 million a year ago, and a third, Potash, announced its "first-quarter net earnings nearly tripled to $566.0 million." What makes these huge profits so suspicious is if their costs were increasing dramatically, their profits should be pinched. Instead, Forbes noted, there was only a "slight rise in raw material costs."
That’s not to say they are manipulating the price increases that take place in the futures markets, but they do seem to be taking full advantage of it. Patel says food retailers are also profiteering. He says "corporations are using food price inflation as an excuse to ratchet up prices…. In fact, in the UK and Spain and South Africa, retailers such as Tesco and Asda [the British division of Wal-Mart] are under criminal investigation for their price-fixing of milk and chicken and bread." A report posted on the website grain.org, "Making a Killing from Hunger," detailed the profit increases among food manufacturers and retailers. Nestlé’s worldwide sales grew 7 percent in 2007, Tesco reported a record profit of 12.3 percent last year, Unilever said its profit margins were increasing, and "France’s Carrefour and the U.S.’s Wal-Mart, say that foo d sales are the main factor sustaining their profit increases." That’s not to say every corporation is raking it in; some food manufacturers, such as Kraft Foods, have announced declining profits due to higher input costs.
The Great Rice Panic
There is no one explanation for why all commodities are rising in price. As the world’s workshop, China creates demand-driven inflation for various industrial commodities. It needs mountains of coal, huge swaths of forests, and great veins of copper ore to feed its industry.
In contrast, since the end of 2007, the price of Thai B grade rice doubled to $760 a ton by the end of March and then hit $1,080 weeks later. The reason for the initial rise is attributed to various supply and demand causes—a pest outbreak in Vietnam, low global stocks, the biofuel boom, rising demand from rising affluence. But speculation is driving these huge price leaps here, too. Essentially, all parties involved in the rice trade are engaging in fear-induced speculation. Major rice-exporting countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam are limiting exports to ensure the domestic market is satisfied, thereby constraining supplies for rice importers. Farmers, including many in Thailand, are reportedly hoarding rice because, as one observer told the Guardian (UK), "Who’s going to sell rice at $750 a ton when they think it’s going to hit $1,000?" According to anecdotal reports, many consumers in Asia are buying large supplies of rice now because of fears they will pay more down the road.
All this panic and speculation feeds on itself. Absent a global famine, normal demand or supply issues cannot explain why rice prices have tripled in Asia in just a few months.
Another explanation comes by way of the interplay between environment and economics. Australia used to be one of the largest producers and exporters of rice in the world, but 6 years of drought have reduced the crop to virtually nothing, just 2 percent of its former self. In describing the situation, the New York Times notes, while it’s difficult to say any short-term weather pattern is caused by global warming, the "severe drought is consistent with what climatologists predict will be a problem of increasing frequency."
The rice industry has collapsed because farmers are turning to other commodities. For instance, "Some farmers are abandoning rice, which requires large amounts of water, to plant less water-intensive crops like wheat." Others are turning to wine grapes, which also use less water and bring pre-tax profits of $2,000 an acre versus $240 an acre for rice. Others are finding it more valuable to sell their water rights or even land to grape growers. One result, then, is because of market-based decisions, wine production is increasing for affluent populations while the poorest rice-dependent populations are left to scramble in the marketplace for food to survive.
Putting the inflation genie back into the bottle is no simple task. One immediate solution is to better regulate commodities markets and tax futures contracts. A similar idea has been proposed on currency speculation, known as the Tobin Tax. A small tax would not hinder the actual buyers and sellers, but it would take a bite out of speculative interest.
For the United States, the answers are much more difficult. The Fed is using inflationary policies to devalue U.S.-denominated debt, which helps the government and corporations, but harms consumers. Cutting the federal deficit is a no-brainer, but unlikely, and involve repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy and ending the Iraq War. The trade deficit must be cut, but even in the best-case scenario, it would take decades to build a new energy infrastructure independent of imported oil.
Some suggest inducing a severe recession, as the Fed did in the early 1980s by jacking interest rates, but the pain would be severe for many Americans. A better solution is a real green energy and infrastructure program combined with single-payer national health care and expanded unemployment and welfare benefits. This could cushion the impact of the recession, while shifting the United States to a healthier economic base. But in this neoliberal world, that’s about as likely to happen as George Bush ever admitting he’s wrong.