On Thursday I made my first appearance in the Ecologist, by all accounts one of the world’s leading environmental publications, founded in the 1970s. Yeah, airpunch!
The subject of the article was food speculation. It sounds obscure, but concerns around speculation on agricultural futures have been seeping into the mainstream agenda over the last few months in the context of rising global food prices. There is rising suspicion that the activities of financial players in commodity futures markets could have a distorting effect on futures prices, and thus that food price increases might be linked to computer algorithms running in some hedge fund in Mayfair.
Having had experience in the world of derivatives, I’m always prepared to accommodate the idea that irrational behaviour in financial markets could distort prices. That said, I’ve remained cautious about populist arguments about why speculation must necessarily be a negative force. Thus, in late 2010, I attended a talk on agricultural speculation organised by the World Development Movement (WDM), who were one of the first to make a scene about this issue. I asked some difficult questions to the speakers and got thinking about the argument. Several months down the line, I ended up working with WDM on a report, and found myself joining a chorus of veritable shitstirrers raising awareness about the potential dangers of this issue.
The debate started a few years ago in the context of the 2008 commodity price spike. In the US, advocacy group BetterMarkets have been a leading critical voice advocating heightened regulation and position limits in agricultural futures markets. The US think-tank, IATP, has also been outspoken, recently releasing a compendium of useful articles they’ve published on the subject of excessive speculation. In the UK, WDM have been a trailblazer on the radical front for the last couple years, but more mainstream UK institutions have recently been catching onto this as well. Last month, Christian Aid added a bit of righteous anger in their report Hungry for Justice, and Oxfam is getting uneasy about it too. Then last week the UN global trade body, UNCTAD, added their stamp of disapproval towards ‘financialisation’ and poor transparency in commodity markets, with a hard-hitting technical report on the matter.
The UNCTAD report should hopefully add some more fire into the debate, which since 2010 has been somewhat stifled by an academically controversial, but politically safe report commission by the OECD. The OECD report’s authors, Scott Irwin and Dwight Sanders, claim to have found no connection between the increased participation of financial players in commodity markets and the crazy 2008 commodity spike. I’m all for healthy skepticism, but there’s something vaguely reminiscent of climate change denialism in the way that conservative pundits have latched onto this work as if it’s the final be-all-and-end-all of the matter. In real academic life, nothing can be settled with a single study, and the extensive critiques of this piece have been strangely ignored by the mainstream economic fraternity.
Certainly, this issue has the potential for highly polarised opinions. In January, Murray from WDM went head to head with Scott Irwin on CNBC, and to my mind, lays the smackdown on him. I mean, I’m sure Scott is a cool guy to hang out with at the pub, but he makes almost no attempt to engage here.
A similar level of disinterest is found in Terry Duffy, the chairman of the CME group, in his debate against the UN's Olivier De Schutter on BBC’s HardTalk in March. Terry says there’s no problem. Olivier says there is. Terry behaves like a condescending dick. Olivier doesn’t. Who should I believe?
For my part, I took part in a wheat price debate on the Farmers Guardian website last week. I suggested that farmers concerned about wheat price volatility should lobby financial institutions to spend less time investing in food prices, and more time investing in agricultural innovation and productivity. Failing that, I suggested farmers should band together, form a hedge fund, and use their superior knowledge of agricultural realities to outclass the precocious pseudo-farmers sitting in Barclays Capital. I got some enthusiastic responses to that.
I’d love to see that happen. What I don’t want to see happen is for this issue to go unscrutinised, only to lead to seriously serious fallout five years down the line. We've got to get the precautionary principle into action, so please do take a read of my Ecologist article, join the debate, and feel free to leave comments.