While the price of food to the American end consumers has been relatively flat over the past few months (at least according to official CPI data), behind the scenes another food inflationary storm for the "rest of the world" is quietly brewing. The reason: after creeping higher all year, soybean prices are just shy of record highs. And while that may not mean much for a population that is used to dining out on 99 cent meals, soy is one of the most highly prized and used broad spectrum use food commodities around the world. From the FT: "The price of soyabeans is heading towards the record high set during the 2007-08 food crisis, which is set to reignite fears of runaway global food inflation. The surge in prices is because of falling global production levels following dry weather in Latin America and increased China imports. Soya’s wide range of use as feed for cows, sheep, pigs and poultry – and as a source for oil used in foodstuffs such as biscuits and cakes – means its high price could trigger food inflation fears." Most importantly, soy is one of China's most important agricultural imports, with soy prices very closely linked to Chinese inflation. So for all those wondering why the great Chinese goal seek model continues to confound expectations and keep coming in stronger than expected (at least in a Schrodinger sense) despite the country's economy sputtering based on both electrical usage and net trade, that's the reason: the last thing China needs in a critical political election year (ahem Bo Xilai) is a sudden spike in food inflation which would be only exacerbated by more PBOC easing. Just recall how closely the media was following reports out of China last year as many thought a rerun of the Arabian spring in the streets of Beijing was virtually inevitable.
Charting soybean prices - no hedonic adjustments here.
What is the reason for the dramatic surge in prices?
Soyabean prices have risen more than 10 per cent in the past month to hit a peak of $15.09 a bushel on Friday, the highest in four years. Other sources of edible oil, including rapeseed and canola, have also reached levels last seen during the 2007-08 food crisis.
Soyabean production is sharply down in the agricultural belt of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as the La Niña weather phenomenon has exposed fields to hot, dry weather over the past few months. Latin America accounts for about 55 per cent of global exports of the commodity. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that global soyabean production in the 2011-12 growing season will suffer its biggest annual drop in absolute terms since records began in 1965.
Alberto Weisser, chief executive of Bunge, one of the world’s largest agricultural trading houses, said that soya was the “tightest” agricultural commodity after a “shorter-than-expected” crop in Latin America.
“The market is sending a clear signal that farmers [elsewhere] need to plan more,” he told the Financial Times.
Alas, supply constraints mean there is hardly much hope for a prompt reduction in high prices:
US farmers, who supply 40 per cent of global soyabean exports, have indicated they will sow more acres with corn, and plan to slightly cut the amount of farmland for soyabeans.
The biggest loser? China, which just happens to hold the key to profit margins for the world's largest company (and by implication the US stock market), not to mention importing virtually all other US inflation.
In summary: all those saying how lucky the world has been in 2012 to avoid another food inflation round despite trillions in "flow" pumped by the world's central banks, unlike 2011 when the fireworks took place in the spring, perhaps this time around the [Insert Geographic Region] Summer/Fall will be merely delayed, if not any less involved.