Archive | February 8, 2014

Odd claims that biofuels were responsible for skyrocketing commodity prices

The blog Uneasymoney, posted an article this morning claiming that policies which encouraged the production of biofuels was responsible for the crazy run in commodity prices throughout the 2000’s and was ultimately responsible for the 2007/2008 crash.

The post refers to an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, which I am reading now but the results of which are summed up here:

the research of Wright et al. shows definitively that the runup in commodities prices after 2005 was driven by a concerted policy of intervention in commodities markets, with the fervent support of many faux free-market conservatives serving the interests of big donors, aimed at substituting biofuels for fossil fuels by mandating the use of biofuels like ethanol.

And then:

What does this have to do with the financial crisis of 2008? Simple. ..the Federal Open Market Committee, after reducing its Fed Funds target rates to 2% in March 2008 in the early stages of the downturn that started in December 2007, refused for seven months to further reduce the Fed Funds target because the Fed, disregarding or unaware of a rapidly worsening contraction in output and employment in the third quarter of 2008. Why did the Fed ignore or overlook a rapidly worsening economy for most of 2008 — even for three full weeks after the Lehman debacle? Because the Fed was focused like a laser on rapidly rising commodities prices, fearing that inflation expectations were about to become unanchored – even as inflation expectations were collapsing in the summer of 2008. But now, thanks to Wright et al., we know that rising commodities prices had nothing to do with monetary policy, but were caused by an ethanol mandate that enjoyed the bipartisan support of the Bush administration, Congressional Democrats and Congressional Republicans. Ah the joy of bipartisanship.

So then, what I’m gathering here is that the Fed was obsessive about commodity prices fearing inflation, despite the fact that the Fed was in no position to influence commodities markets. This distracted the Fed from focusing on the real causes of the crash and the Lehman disaster, making a bad situation worse.

I’m not sure that this correctly connects the dots, given that there is little evidence that the run in commodity prices had anything to do with biofuels. Even as biofuel consumption increased throughout the 00’s, overall production of corn and yield per acre also increased. Assuming that commodity prices are in part dictated by supply, I would (from an armchair economist perspective) assume that prices should remain somewhat constant.

I’m interested to see that the article disregards financialization of commodities, following a loosening of rules of speculation on ag products in the 90’s and the move toward commodities following the equity bust of 2000 as not being a major factor in the rise in corn prices. This is particularly strange when we consider that non-energy commodities also exhibited rapid price increases and violent fluctuations throughout the 00’s. I fail to see how energy policy could result in increases and volatility in, for example, copper.

It’s a tempting thesis, and made more tempting by the explicit identification of individuals who suggested and implemented such policy, but not one borne out by the data, in my limited, amateurish opinion. The list of potential factors which influenced the run in commodities is a long and confusing one (climate change, increased demand from China and India, global instability, etc. etc.), but I don’t think that the effect of Wall Street greed can be discounted as a major determinant. Interestingly, despite the overall themes of the paper, the author does a poor job of discounting the effect of financialization in the creating of commodity price bubbles.

In reading this paper now, I’m somewhat confused. On the one hand, he confirms many of my initial suspicions that the rising price of food is unrelated to supply and demand factors as growth of both supply and demand were more or less constant, despite localized climate shocks. On the other, he seems to blame a rise in prices during the crash to a shift in energy policy toward biofuels, while overlooking that commodities were already volatile and rising, beginning with the crash of the tech bubble in 2000. I am thining that much of the rise in commodities during 2007/8 was due to panicky speculation as real estate markets tumbled, not to any change in energy policy. Certainly, it may be the case the the policy influence traders to try to exploit potential areas of growth, but it’s hard, then, to discount the effect of financial speculation in commodities outright.

I can at least agree with this:

The rises in food prices since 2004 have generated huge wealth transfers global landholders, agricultural input suppliers, and biofuels producers. The losers lobal landholders, agricultural input suppliers, and biofuels producers. The losers have been net consumers of food, including large numbers of the world’s poorest ave been net consumers of food, including large numbers of the world’s poorest peoples.

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