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译:Making a killing on food

来源: 时间:2011-4-7 9:44:00 点击:

Traders and economists see a worrying trend. By exploiting the deregulation of global commodity markets, banks and others are making fortunes by speculating on food – and causing misery around the world. John Vidal reports.


 

Just under three years ago, people in the village of Gumbi in western Malawi went unexpectedly hungry. Not like Europeans do if they miss a meal or two, but that deep, gnawing hunger that prevents sleep and dulls the senses when there has been no food for weeks.

Oddly, there had been no drought, the usual cause of malnutrition and hunger in southern Africa, and there was plenty of food in the markets. For no obvious reason the price of staple foods such as maize and rice nearly doubled in a few months. Unusually, too, there was no evidence that the local merchants were hoarding food. It was the same story in 100 other developing countries. There were food riots in more than 20 countries and governments had to ban food exports and subsidise staples heavily.

The explanation offered by the United Nations and food experts was that a “perfect storm” of natural and human factors had combined to hyper-inflate prices. US farmers, UN agencies said, had taken millions of acres of land out of production to grow biofuels for vehicles, oil and fertiliser prices had risen steeply, the Chinese were shifting to meat-eating from a vegetarian diet, and climate-change-linked droughts were affecting major crop-growing areas. The UN said that an extra 75 million people became malnourished because of the price rises.

But a new theory is emerging among traders and economists. The same banks, hedge funds and financiers whose speculation on the global money markets caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis are thought to be causing food prices to yo-yo and inflate. The charge against them is that by taking advantage of the deregulation of global commodity markets they are making billions of dollars from speculating on food and causing misery around the world.

As food prices soar again to beyond 2008 levels, it becomes clear that everyone is now being affected. Food prices are rising by up to 10% a year in Britain and the rest of Europe. What is more, says the UN, prices can be expected to rise at least 40% in the next decade.

There has always been modest, even welcome, speculation in food prices and it traditionally worked like this: Farmer X protected himself against climatic or other risks by “hedging”, or agreeing to sell his crop in advance of the harvest to Trader Y. This guaranteed him a price, and allowed him to plan ahead and invest further, and it allowed Trader Y to profit, too. In a bad year, Farmer X got a good return but in a good year Trader Y did better.

When this process of “hedging” was tightly regulated, it worked well enough. The price of real food on the real world market was still set by the real forces of supply and demand.

But all that changed in the mid-1990s. Then, following heavy lobbying by banks, hedge funds and free-market politicians in the United States and Britain, the regulations on commodity markets were steadily abolished. Contracts to buy and sell foods were turned into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. In effect, a new, unreal market in “food speculation” was born. Cocoa, fruit juices, sugar, staples, meat and coffee are all now global commodities, along with oil, gold and metals. Then in 2006 came the US sub-prime disaster and banks and traders stampeded to move billions of dollars in pension funds and equities into safe commodities, and especially foods.

“We first became aware of this [food speculation] in 2006. It didn't seem like a big factor then. But in 2007/8 it really spiked up,” said Mike Masters, fund manager at Masters Capital Management, who testified to the US Senate in 2008 that speculation was driving up global food prices. “When you looked at the flows, there was strong evidence. I know a lot of traders and they confirmed what was happening. Most of the business is now speculation – I would say 70 to 80%.”

Masters says the markets are now heavily distorted by investment banks: “Let’s say news comes about bad crops and rain somewhere. Normally the price would rise about [US]$1 [a bushel]. [But] when you have a 70 to 80% speculative market, it goes up [US]$2 to $3 to account for the extra costs. It adds to the volatility. It will end badly, as all Wall Street fads do. It’s going to blow up.”

The speculative food market is truly vast, agrees Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, president of the Strategic Investment Group in New York. She estimates that speculative demand for commodity futures has increased since 2008 by 40 to 80% in agricultural futures.

But the speculation is not just in staple foods. Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

Olivier de Schutter, UN rapporteur on the right to food, is in no doubt that speculators are behind the surging prices. “Prices of wheat, maize and rice have increased very significantly; but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets,” he says.

“People die from hunger while the banks make a killing from betting on food,” says Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement in London.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation remains diplomatically non-committal, saying, in June, that: “Apart from actual changes in supply and demand of some commodities, the upward swing might also have been amplified by speculation in organised future markets.”

The UN is backed by Ann Berg, one of the world’s most experienced futures traders. She argues that differentiating between commodities futures markets and commodity-related investments in agriculture is impossible.

“There is no way of knowing exactly [what is happening]. We had the housing bubble and the credit default. The commodities market is another lucrative playing field [where] traders take a fee. It’s a sensitive issue. [Some] countries buy direct from the markets. As a friend of mine says: ‘What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitised asset class’.”

(译文如有出入请联系本会,来源于chinadialogue)

译   文:

把食品变成凶手

贸易商与经济学家们发现了令人担忧的情况,利用全球贸易市场放松监管的机会,银行业等开始打食品的主意并从中牟利,为全世界制造了麻烦。约翰•维达报道。


 

就在三年前,马拉维西部的小镇岗比遭遇了突如其来的饥饿。这并不像欧洲人一两顿不吃东西而感到的饥饿,而是因数星期没有进食而产生的折磨人的深度饥饿,饿得人失眠甚至神经麻木。

旱灾是非洲南部人民营养不良与忍饥挨饿最常见的原因,但奇怪的是,那儿并没有旱情,而且市场上粮食供应充足。玉米与大米之类的主食价格在几个月内翻了一倍,原因不明。同样不正常的是,也没有证据表明当地商人正在囤积粮食。在其他100个发展中国家都发生过相同的事件。超过20个国家都发生过由食品引发的骚乱,而当地政府不得不停止食物出口,并大力增加对主食的补贴。

联合国与食品专家们给出的解释是,物价飞涨是由自然与人文因素共同造成的一场“完美风暴”。美国农民、联合国相关机构称,数百万顷耕地已经成为汽车生物燃料的种植基地、石油与化肥的价格急速飙升、中国人由素食为主的饮食改为肉食为主,同时气候变化引起的干旱也影响到各主要粮食产区。联合国称仍有七千五百万人口由于物价上涨而面临粮食短缺。

但贸易商与经济学家之中又产生了一个新理论:银行、对冲基金和金融家们在国际货币市场的投机行为引发了次贷危机,从而导致粮食价格摇摆不定并出现膨胀。他们正是利用国际商品市场监管的放松,根据对粮食贸易趋势的推测而赚取数十亿美元的货币,从而导致了世界范围内的灾难。

由于食品价格在2008年的基础上又再次飞涨,毫无疑问所有人都在受影响。在英国及其他欧洲国家,食品价格每年上涨10%。更有甚者,联合国预测,价格在接下来的十年内至少还要上涨40%

食品价格的适度投机买卖行为历来有之,甚至颇受欢迎,其传统流程是这样的:农民甲为了躲避气候或其他方面的风险,于是采取“套购”或同意将收成提前出售给商人乙。这些举措都可以保证一定的收入,而且也让他有能力提前计划这一年的劳动,甚至增加投入,而商人乙也会因此获利更多。收成不好的时候,农民甲仍会有较好的收入,而在收成好的年份,商人乙更加受益。

当“套购”的过程受到严格规范时,成效显著。在实际的全球市场上实际食品价格由实际的供需关系决定。

但在上世纪九十年代中期时,情况发生了变化。英美的银行、对冲基金与支持自由市场的政客们极力游说,之后商品市场的规范就完全被废弃了。买卖食品的合同被转变成任意商人都可以买卖的“衍生工具”,这些商人可以跟农业毫无关联。于是,一个全新的、虚拟的“食品投机”市场诞生了。可可制品、果汁、糖、粮食、肉类与咖啡等,现在石油、黄金与金属材料等,也都成为了全球性的商品。2006年美国发生了次贷危机,银行与交易商们纷纷将投入养老基金与股票的多达数十亿美元转投至保险的商品,尤其是食品类。

“早在2006年我们就认识到这个情况(食品投机行为),那个时候情况尚不明显。到2007、2008年的时候问题就很突出了。”马斯特斯资金管理机构的基金管理人迈克·马斯特斯说道。他曾在2008年向美国参议院说明过投机行为正在刺激国际食品价格增长。“看看现金流量,你就会找到铁证。我认识许多交易商,他们证实了所发生的一切。该行业中大多数的商业行为都属于投机买卖——可以说70%至80%。”

马斯特斯称现在的市场已经被投资银行给严重扭曲了:“假如某地的作物生长不良,雨水不调,通常价格会上升约1美元(每蒲式耳),但是当市场投机率达到70%至80%时,价格就会因其附加的成本而上涨2至3美元,波动幅度加大。 与华尔街所有热门商品一样终将以悲剧收场。泡沫将会破灭。”

纽约的战略投资集团主席希尔达·奥乔亚-布利耶博格也认为投机性食品市场广泛存在,她估计商品期货的投机性需求使得农产品期货从2008以来增长了40%至80%。”

但是投机行为并不仅止于粮食。去年,伦敦的对冲基金阿玛加洛购买了240,000吨可可豆,占世界总储量的7%还多,将巧克力的价格抬升到33年来的最高值。同时,咖啡的价格在三天内就暴涨了20%,只因为许多对冲基金认为咖啡的价格会下降。

奥利维尔·德舒特,联合国食品权力事务特别报告员,坚信投机者们推动了价格的浮动。“小麦、玉米和大米的价格涨幅惊人;但是这并不是由储备量少或粮食减产造成的,而是由贸易商们对信息的反应以及对市场的推测造成的。”

“当银行拿食品当作赌注,就使之成为杀人工具,导致人们死于饥饿。”伦敦的世界发展运动主任黛博拉·多恩说道。

六月,联合国粮农组织依旧以立场含混的外交辞令声称:“在某些商品的实际供需变化之外,有组织的期货市场中的投机行为也有可能引发价格上涨。”

联合国得该声明得到了安·伯格的支持,她是世界上最富经验的期货交易商之一。她认为,商品期货市场与农业的商品投资并无二致。

“没有办法知道到底发生了什么。我们有房地产泡沫、有信贷危机,商品市场是另一个贸易商们争夺利润丰厚的领域。但这是个敏感的话题,有的国家直接从这些市场直接购买粮食。正如我的一个朋友所说,‘富人的证券化资产,要了穷人的老命’。”


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