Political risk has returned with a vengeance. The first food revolutions of our Malthusian era have exposed the weak grip of authoritarian regimes in poor countries that import grain, whether in North Africa today or parts of Asia tomorrow.
If you insist on joining the emerging market party at this stage of the agflation blow-off, avoid countries with an accelerating gap between rich and poor. Cairo’s EGX stock index has dropped 20pc in nine trading sessions.
Events have moved briskly since a Tunisian fruit vendor with a handcart set fire to himself six weeks ago, and in doing so lit the fuse that has detonated Egypt and threatens to topple the political order of the Maghreb, Yemen, and beyond.
As we sit glued to Al-Jazeera watching authority crumble in the cultural and political capital of the Arab world, exhilaration can turn quickly to foreboding.
This is nothing like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The triumph of secular democracy was hardly in doubt in central Europe. Whatever the mix of aspirations of those on the streets of Cairo, such uprisings are easy prey for tight-knit organizations – known in the revolutionary lexicon as Leninist vanguard parties.
In Egypt this means the Muslim Brotherhood, whether or not Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei ever served as figleaf. The Brotherhood is of course a different kettle of fish from Iran’s Ayatollahs; and Turkey shows that an ‘Islamic leaning’ government can be part of the liberal world – though Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan once let slip that democracy was a tram “you ride until you arrive at your destination, then you step off."
It does not take a febrile imagination to guess what the Brotherhood’s ascendancy might mean for Israel, and for strategic stability in the Mid-East. Asia has as much to lose if this goes wrong as the West. China’s energy intensity per unit of GDP is double US levels, and triple the UK.
The surge in global food prices since the summer – since Ben Bernanke signalled a fresh dollar blitz, as it happens – is not the underlying cause of Arab revolt, any more than bad harvests in 1788 were the cause of the French Revolution.
Yet they are the trigger, and have set off a vicious circle. Vulnerable governments are scrambling to lock up world supplies of grain while they can. Algeria bought 800,000 tonnes of wheat last week, and Indonesia has ordered 800,000 tonnes of rice, both greatly exceeding their normal pace of purchases. Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Bangladesh, are trying to secure extra grain supplies.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said its global food index has surpassed the all-time high of 2008, both in nominal and real terms. The cereals index has risen 39pc in the last year, the oil and fats index 55pc....
France’s Nicolas Sarkozy blames the commodity spike on hedge funds, speculators, and the derivatives market (largely in London). He vowed to use his G20 presidency to smash the racket, but then Mr Sarkozy has a penchant for witchhunts against easy targets.
The European Commission has been hunting for proof to support his claims, without success. Its draft report – to be released last Wednesday, but withdrawn under pressure from Paris – reached exactly the same conclusion as investigators from the IMF, and US and British regulators.
“There is little evidence that the price formation process on commodity markets has changed in recent years with the growing importance of derivatives markets”, it said.
As Jeff Currie from Goldman Sachs tirelessly points out, future contracts are neutral. For every trader making money by going long on wheat, sugar, pork bellies, zinc, or crude oil, there is a trader losing money on the other side. It is a paper transfer between financial players.
You have to buy and hoard the vast amounts of these bulk commodities to have much impact on the price, which is costly and difficult to do, though people do park crude on floating tankers sometimes, and Chinese firms allegedly stashed copper in warehouses last year.
But that is not what commodity index funds with $150bn are actually doing with food, base metals, and energy. Only governments have strategic petroleum and grain reserves big enough to make a difference.
The immediate cause of this food spike was the worst drought in Russia and the Black Sea region for 130 years, lasting long enough to damage winter planting as well as the summer harvest. Russia imposed an export ban on grains. This was compounded by late rains in Canada, Nina disruptions in Argentina, and a series of acreage downgrades in the US. The world’s stocks-to-use ratio for corn is nearing a 30-year low of 12.8pc, according to Rabobank.
The deeper causes are well-known: an annual rise in global population by 73m; the “exhaustion” of the Green Revolution as the gains in crop yields fade, to cite the World Bank; diet shifts in Asia as the rising middle class switch to animal-protein diets, requiring 3-5 kilos of grain feed for every kilo of meat produced; the biofuel mandates that have diverted a third of the US corn crop into ethanol for cars.
Add the loss of farmland to Asia’s urban sprawl, and the depletion of the non-renewable acquivers for irrigation of North China’s plains, and the geopolitics of global food supply starts to look neuralgic.
Can the world head off mass famine? Yes, with leadership. The regions of the ex-Soviet Union farm 30m hectares less today than in the Khrushchev era, and yields are half western levels. ......