Category Archives: commodities

Black Swans of August

       Throughout history, big economic and political shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders had gone on vacation in the belief that world affairs were quiet.   Examples of geopolitical jolts that came in August include the outbreak of World War I, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Subsequent examples of economic and other surprises in August have included the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president enacted wage-price controls, took the dollar off gold, and imposed trade controls), 1982 eruption in Mexico of the international debt crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1991 Soviet coup, 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007.   Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously not even appeared on most radar screens. They were considered unthinkable. 

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Will Emerging Markets Fall in 2012?

Emerging markets have performed amazingly well over the last seven years. They have outperformed the advanced industrialized countries in terms of economic growth, debt-to-GDP ratios, and countercyclical fiscal policy.  Many now receive better assessments by rating agencies and financial markets than some of the advanced economies.

As 2012 begins, however, emerging markets may be due for a correction, triggered by a new wave of “risk off” behavior among investors. Will China experience a hard landing? Will a decline in commodity prices hit Latin America? Will the sovereign-debt woes of the European periphery spread to neighbors such as Turkey in a new “Aegean crisis”?

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Escaping the Oil Curse

Libyans have a new lease on life, a feeling that, at long last, they are the masters of their own fate. Perhaps Iraqis, after a decade of warfare, feel the same way. Both countries are oil producers, and there is widespread expectation among their citizens that that wealth will be a big advantage in rebuilding their societies.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time, and Uganda is about to do so as well. Indeed, from West Africa to Mongolia, countries are experiencing windfalls from new sources of oil and mineral wealth. Adding to the euphoria are the historic highs that oil and mineral prices have reached on world markets over the last four years.

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Barrels, Bushels & Bonds: How Commodity-Exporters Can Hedge Volatility

 

The prices of minerals, hydrocarbons, and agricultural commodities have been on a veritable roller coaster. Although commodity prices are always more variable than those for manufactured goods and services, commodity markets over the last five years have seen extraordinary volatility.

 

Countries that specialize in the export of oil, copper, iron ore, wheat, coffee, or other commodities have boomed.  But they are highly vulnerable. Dollar commodity prices could plunge at any time, as a result of a new global recession, a hard landing in China, an increase in real interest rates in the United States, fluctuations in climate, or random sector-specific factors.

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Combating Volatility in Agricultural Prices

 

Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. The choice of priorities has turned out to be timely: world food prices reached a record high earlier in 2011, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.

 

Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.

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Gold: A Rival for the Dollar

     Robert Zoellick put a few sentences about gold toward the end of a column in today’s FT that are drawing a lot of attention.   I doubt very much if the World Bank President has in mind a return to the gold standard, but goldbugs and critics alike are talking as if he does.

      Even if one placed overwhelming weight on the objective of price stability — enough weight to contemplate a rigid straightjacket for monetary policy — gold would not be a suitable anchor.   The economy would be hostage to the vagaries of the world gold market, as it was in the 19th century:   suffering inflation during periods of gold discoveries and deflation during periods of gold drought.   This is well-known.   I am confident Zoellick understands it.   (He and I were in the same macroeconomics seminar at Swarthmore College in the 1970s.)

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Food Security: Export Controls are Not the Cure for Grain Price Volatility, But the Cause

         My last blog post listed some policies and institutions with which various small countries around the world have had success — innovations that might be worthy of emulation by others.  Of course there are plenty of other examples of policies and institutions that have been tried and that are to be avoided.    The area of agricultural policy is rife with them.   Many start with a confused invoking of the need for “food security.”

          The recent run-up in wheat prices is a good example.   Robert Paarlberg wrote an excellent column in the Financial Times recently, titled “How grain markets sow the spikes they fear.”   Grain producing countries point to the high volatility of prices on world markets and the need for food security when imposing taxes on exports of their own grain supplies, or outright bans, as Russia did in July.    The motive, of course, is to keep grain affordable for domestic consumers.  But the effect of such export controls is precisely to cause the price rise that is feared, because it removes some net supply from the world market.    (The same could be said when grain importing countries react to high prices by enacting price controls, because that adds some net demand to the world market.)   

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Achieving Long-Term Fiscal Discipline: A Lesson from Chile

            As Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet prepares to hand over power to her newly elected successor, she remains extraordinarily popular.  It is worth reflecting on the fiscal aspects of her term in office, as Chile has important lessons for other countries struggling with fundamental long-term budget problems, which includes a lot of countries right now.

             As recently as June 2008, President Bachelet and her Finance Minister, Andres Velasco, had the lowest approval ratings of any President or Finance Minister, respectively, since the return of democracy to Chile. (See graphs below.) There may have been multiple reasons for this, but perhaps the most important was popular resentment that the two had resisted intense pressure to spend the receipts from copper exports, which at the time were soaring along with world copper prices.  One year later, in the summer of 2009, the pair had the highest approval ratings of any President and Finance Minister since the return of democracy.  Why the change?  

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The Unwinding of the Carry Trade Has Finally Hit Currencies

Why has the yen strengthened so much this week, even though the Japanese stock market has plummeted?  The financial media have largely got this one right:   the answer is unwinding of the carry trade, and the associated flight to quality, which means flight to yen and dollar (cash and treasury bills).

 

This was to be expected.  It is an unseemly tooting of ones’ own horn, but — earlier this year I wrote in an article in the Milken Institute Review (vol. 10, no. 1, pages 38-45)

“The traditional pattern is most clear with the carry from the yen to the euro:  it has been predictably profitable for the last five years, and this will predictably end soon, as the yen reverses its depreciation against the euro.”

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Commodity Prices, Again: Are Speculators to Blame?


In the 1955 movie version of East of Eden, the legendary James Dean plays
Cal.  Like Cain in Genesis, he competes with his brother for the love of his father, a moralizing patriarch.   Cal “goes long” in the market for beans, in anticipation of an increase in demand if the United States enters World War I.  Sure enough, the price of beans goes sky high, Cal makes a bundle, and offers it to his father to make up money lost in another venture.  But the father is morally offended by Cal’s speculation, not wanting to profit from others’ misfortunes, and angrily tells him that he will have to “give the money back.” Cal has been the agent of Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand:   By betting on his hunch about the future, he has contributed to upward pressure on the price of beans in the present, thereby increasing the supply so that more is available precisely when needed (by the British Army).  The movie even treats us to a scene where Cal watches the beans grow in a farmer’s field, something real-life speculators seldom get to do.
 
Among politicians, pundits, and the public, many currently are trying to blame speculators for the recent boom in oil and other mineral and agricultural products.    Are the soaring prices their fault?

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