Abstract (Original paper September 2011)
Recent increases in basic food prices are severely impacting vulnerable populations worldwide. Proposed causes such as shortages of grain due to adverse weather, increasing meat consumption in China and India, conversion of corn to ethanol in the US, and investor speculation on commodity markets lead to widely differing implications for policy. A lack of clarity about which factors are responsible reinforces policy inaction. Here, for the first time, we construct a dynamic model that quantitatively agrees with food prices. The results show that the dominant causes of price increases are investor speculation and ethanol conversion. Models that just treat supply and demand are not consistent with the actual price dynamics. The two sharp peaks in 2007/2008 and 2010/2011 are specifically due to investor speculation, while an underlying trend is due to increasing demand from ethanol conversion. The model includes investor trend-following as well as shifting between commodities, equities and bonds to take advantage of increased expected returns. Claims that speculators cannot influence grain prices are shown to be invalid by direct analysis of price setting practices of granaries. Both causes of price increase, speculative investment and ethanol conversion, are promoted by recent regulatory changes—deregulation of the commodity markets, and policies promoting the conversion of corn to ethanol. Rapid action is needed to reduce the impacts of the price increases on global hunger.
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Abstract (Update February 2012)
Increases in global food prices have led to widespread hunger and social unrest—and an imperative to understand their causes. In a previous paper published in September 2011, we constructed for the first time a dynamic model that quantitatively agreed with food prices. Specifically, the model fit the FAO Food Price Index time series from January 2004 to March 2011, inclusive. The results showed that the dominant causes of price increases during this period were investor speculation and ethanol conversion. The model included investor trend following as well as shifting between commodities, equities and bonds to take advantage of increased expected returns. Here, we extend the food prices model to January 2012, without modifying the model but simply continuing its dynamics. The agreement is still precise, validating both the descriptive and predictive abilities of the analysis. Policy actions are needed to avoid a third speculative bubble that would cause prices to rise above recent peaks by the end of 2012.
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