Everyone needs to make a little money, can’t fault anyone for that, but when your line of business results in a perversion of a free market, over inflation of the prices of essential commodities, starvation and food riots and the indirect deaths of hundreds of thousands it might be time to reconsider your actions.
A toxic mix of speculators and long-term hedgers are flooding the commodities market, especially after the 2008 financial crash. The collective trillions of dollars they can pump into the food or oil markets has completely overwhelmed any hint of the effects of supply and demand and have caused unprecedented spikes in the price of both commodities. In their search for a quick buck the banks are destabilising the entire world, making the two most vital commodities for human survival in the modern world more expensive than we can afford.
The insight into global food prices was gleaned from the research team under network theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute, they were looking for reasons behind the two massive spikes since 2007 where food prices rose over 50% in a year. Last year his team created models for predicting the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s food price index using a number of different inputs.
Traditional analysts suggest that only standard supply and demand effects cause price rises, for example droughts, or crop failure decreasing supply and rising demand in India and China. But Bar-Yam’s model found little correlation between these kinds of effects. They put the price spikes down to two factors: commodity speculators cause the short term spikes and the conversion of agricultural land from food to bio-fuel production causing a long term rise in prices. Their results were further validated when their 2011 model correctly predicted the price fluctuations throughout last year and early 2012.
Worryingly Bar-Yam and his team are warning that another large price spike, larger than any we’ve seen before, is going to occur towards the end of the year unless the situation is rectified. “When the ability of the political system to provide security for the population breaks down, popular support disappears. Conditions of widespread threat to security are particularly present when food is inaccessible to the population at large,” says Bar-Yam. Another spike could erase any meagre stability the Arab Spring countries have won, and send many others into an uprising.
Compounding the problem is that a similar picture is emerging in the oil markets, a flush of speculative money is driving prices higher and higher even while supply increases and demand drops. Between 2003 and 2008 there was a 2,300% increase in the amount of money going into commodity speculation, from $13bn to $317bn. Oil analyst Chris Cook suggests that the largest spike we’ve seen, in the run up to the 2008 crash was the flooding of the market with investors looking to get out of the unstable housing market. When prices plummeted afterwards in late 2008, they were brought back up by overinvestment by oil producing governments looking to get the oil price up to a level which was profitable, that bubble remains to this day and looks set to rise even higher than in 2008.
The result is an unstable market, prone to massive price swings. This affects the consumer, businesses who rely on transport and energy to survive and people trying to travel to work, but also the producers while they may benefit from shorter term price rises, ultimately a fluctuating oil price discourages investment in new rigs and pipelines which will cause a severe supply shortage in 5-10 years.
Fortunately there were people that realised after the 1930’s great depression that people playing fast and loose with essential commodities was probably a bad thing and outlawed it. Unfortunately early in the 1990’s most major banks applied to get themselves special (and secret) exemptions from that law and have been playing havoc with commodities ever since, after the crash made stocks and shares look even less attractive the problems and price spikes have only gotten worse. Whereas it is recommended that 70% of the market should be traditional hedgers and only 30% risk-taking speculators, currently the split is 15% hedgers and 85% of the money swilling around the system from short term speculators.
This imbalance is the perfect example of how fucked up the finance sector’s priorities are and how much damage they can cause in their endless pursuit of vast piles of cash. Instead of doing responsible, socially productive work investing in businesses and helping along the economy they’d rather cook up some sweet-heart deal with BP to manipulate oil prices or go on a feeding frenzy in the food markets and make sure that there are an extra million or so people that aren’t going to be able to eat that day.
How many times do governments need to be shown that market forces are a terrible way to organise an economy? Regulating them might hurt their profits, but it makes them less liable to the insane spending sprees that end with government bailouts and reduces the social messes the banks cause like mass unemployment from lack of investment in UK businesses, or having to give food aid (at tastily inflated prices of course) to half the world once Goldman have made it impossible to live. As it stands the banks are there solely to make money, and we’re surprised when they do so regardless of the costs.