Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Economic Complexity and the Price of Food

Quotes of the week:
"The biggest question is whether the sovereign-wealth funds, some of which rushed prematurely into the distress market last year and are now treading more carefully, will now stay out, when arguably they should be returning to it. Some of their investments last year in private-equity firms, such as Blackstone and Wall Street banks, have since plunged in value." -

The Economist opines on the timing of Middle Eastern investments in the US.
To what would you ascribe such faulty Middle Eastern decision-making? Bad luck or consistently bad advice? You decide ...

Commentary for the Week:
Economic Complexity and the Price of Food:

Today's commentary is going to be a bit more ambitious than usual. While there is a profusion of many crises in the financial sector on the one hand and nascent trouble in the real economy of foodstuffs and commodities etc. on the other, it is really the connections between the two that should be of interest to us at the moment. If you read some of last week's links, you would have noticed that there seems to be a food shortage in many places of the world. This is reflected in both the quantity of food such as rice available and the price that is being charged (Economists among us will want to collapse these two measures into one, but allow me the latitude to separate the two for a minute - I will reconcile the two below). Similarly, on the financial sector side, lenders and investment banks are in some serious trouble and Central Banks are slashing interest rates and encouraging cheaper loans on their respective populations. So, are these two phenomena connected? If they are, how are they connected and what does all this mean for us? Is this really one problem masquerading as many?

One way to make sense of this is to look at the financial sector first. There is a severe overhang of non-performing investments and confidence has been severely shaken with the failure (or dressed up buyout for the technically minded) of Bear Stearns, the loss provisions of Countrywide, the failure and subsequent nationalization of Northern Rock in Britain, the severe multi-ten Billion losses at Citibank, SocGen, UBS and now RBS. Add to this the fact that the largest insurers in the world such as AIG have declared (too quietly for my liking) historic losses even though Insurance is supposed to be and was always a cash-cow business and you begin to see what is happening. The absolute last thing that the authorities want is for people to begin to worry about their investments (Retirement Savings, 401k's etc.) and begin to call their broker's and advisors to start pulling some cash out. The cascade effects of such actions are too terrible to contemplate. That is why Central Banks have been feverishly providing credit to any bank that asks and new rules are being put in place to provide credit to investment banks as well (Canada is a bit 'ahead' of the game here because here the banks are everything rolled into one and such pedestrian distinctions are unnecessary). This printing of money and provision of loans is having some of its intended effects. The investing public's confidence has not been shaken, stirred perhaps, but not shaken. The fund managers / hedge funds and private equity firms have an open line of credit at easy rates so they are continuing to buy stocks. In this sense, the declining stock market trend is being managed quite well, with no spectacular collapses on a daily / weekly basis.

Nevertheless, the law of unintended consequences must have its pound of flesh as well. While the stock markets are staying afloat in a way that does not display much of the bad news, the bad news is showing up at the grocery store. The problem is that the places where these financial crises are taking place are printing money like there's no tomorrow (primarily the US). The places where these financial crises are not present (primarily Brazil, China, India etc. ) hold lots of US$'s already. As they try and exchange those dollars for actual resources that their growing middle classes now demand, both the value of the dollar and the price of real stuff is affected. There is excess paper money and there is a shortage of real stuff such as metals / foods and energy. Both trends reinforce each other, creating an inflationary cycle the likes of which most people only read about in history books but never pause to witness personally.
Of course, this is not the whole picture at all. Even within the economy of real assets and products such as food, there is an internal dynamic that we have to keep in mind. The sheer technical complexity of our economies and economic growth strategies is such that we are voracious consumers of energy. We use it not only to power our homes and washing machines but also to grow the food that we eat. If farming were fashion, mechanized and high-input, high fertilizer methods would be the new black. We have simply stopped using natural seeds and native species of foods. Over 90% of the world now grows maybe 7-8 different staple foods that absolutely require high energy inputs. With the collapse of the US$ against the price of energy (Oil barrels), food production has not only suffered in absolute quantity terms (why produce food when you can produce biodiesel?), but also in monetary measures such as food affordability (Economists - please notice the reconciliation). Fertilizer prices and food transportation charges have simply overwhelmed many small producers in many parts of the world where they remain unable to receive the kinds of agricultural subsidies as farmers and food companies find available in the G-8. Many have simply been driven out of not just the business, but also the process of producing food.

So getting back to the question about the connections between the food and financial crises then - do you remember that our grandmothers would explain to us how their previous generations had no real cash but that good food was abundant. Look how far we have come as a species, we are rich beyond our wildest dreams, but have substituted paper for food, and Oil for water. We are unable to feed the planet unless the financial system works and the oil rigs keep pumping. Sometimes one must pause and think deeply about this my friends, isn't there a real cost to our many mortgages, credit cards and leveraged investments that cannot be captured or explained away by conventional cost measures such as the 'Prime Rate'?

MAP Canada is hosting an event for young businesses on the 10th of May. Some great local entrepreneurs from successful public (and private) businesses will be there to speak and provide mentorship to the up and coming successes of tomorrow. Within a set of true luminaries, MAP Canada has also taken a humungous risk and invited your humble correspondent as a speaker. I hope that many of you will attend. My contribution to the festivities are supposed to address the question of 'How to Raise Capital for Your Business', so you know there will be some fireworks. This is a volunteer organization that deserves our support and it is always interesting to see where the community is headed economically. Lunch will also be served. Please register here

Finance News:

1. RBS - (Isn't this the bank that just bought ABN AMRO for $100B last year?) wants to raise $24B through a share offering. As Citibank comes out with bad news each quarter, RBS realizes that this is another arena in which to compete and comes out with really bad news ... read more here

Economic News:

1. After the credit crunch, comes the 'cereal crunch' (not my phrase, but genius nevertheless) ... read more here

2. Solar Power is coming to Ontario in a big (well, not too big) way ... read more here

3. Home sales in the US fall 2% in March ... read more here

4. The property market in Spain falters as well ... read more here

Islamic / Middle East / Emerging Markets:

1. Do you know if you are invested in a company that has helped create this problem in Afghanistan? ... If you don't know, isn't it time to ask yourself why not? ... read more here

2. Islamic Finance sector in 'danger'? ... Personally, I think we are beyond danger. The traffic on the highway with which IF is merging will swallow us whole ... read more here

3. How the Gulf States are spending their wealth this time around (the last time they were this wealthy was in the oil embargo days of the seventies) ... read more here

Interesting but not Finance:

1. I won't say much about this story except that it has to do with the key to the Kaaba ... read more here

2. The economics of the federal government's despicable policy on the seal hunt ... read more here

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