As Commodity Prices Plunge, Groceries May Be Next (NPR)

Anyone who has pulled up to a gas station this winter knows oil prices have fallen — down roughly 50 percent since June.

But it’s not just oil. Prices for many commodities — grains, metals and other bulk products — have been plunging too.

Here are a few of the changes since many prices peaked in recent years:

– Copper is $2.59 a pound, down from $4.50 in 2011.

– Corn costs $3.85 a bushel, compared with about $8 at its 2012 peak.

– Iron ore pellets go for about $104 a metric ton, down from nearly $220 four years ago.

The list could go on and on. Soybeans, tin, sugar, wheat, cotton — all are much cheaper than a few years ago. The changes have been putting a squeeze on farmers and miners, but so far at least, most of these commodity plunges haven’t done much to help U.S. shoppers.

With the exception of gasoline, “the price changes are not being immediately passed through to consumers,” said Sean Snaith, an economic forecasting professor at the University of Central Florida.

Snaith said U.S. companies know global commodity prices can be very volatile, so they are afraid to cut consumer prices — at least not until they are sure that cheaper raw material prices are here to stay.

“There’s an old saying: Prices go up like an arrow and come down like a feather,” he said.

But eventually, even a feather does float down. So some economists believe that later this year, retail prices for groceries and goods may start to decline.

Let’s look at what’s been happening with crops, like corn and wheat, and consider where we might be going this year:

Over the past decade, many people around the world, especially in China, kept getting richer and buying more food. That encouraged farmers everywhere to plant more seeds.

Global food output rose, but so did prices as demand continued to shoot up. By 2011, many people around the world were experiencing food shortages and steep price increases.

But the market adjusted and production improved. A recent report by the USDA said world wheat and soybean production are at record highs. The huge harvests are helping push down prices.

And it’s not just grains. In Florida, the mild hurricane season helped send orange juice futures down to about $1.35 a pound, compared with their 2012 high of more than $2.

Looking ahead to this year’s growing season, harvests may again be huge. That’s because cheap energy is making it easier to plant more. Farmers who are paying a dollar-a-gallon less since a year ago for diesel fuel can run their tractors longer.

If the weather is good this summer, corn silos will be bulging by fall. That means ranchers and farmers will have cheaper corn to feed livestock, helping restrain meat and poultry prices.

At the same time, the global economy is running at a sluggish pace, so demand for food is not growing the way it had been a decade ago.

Also, the value of the dollar is now at a 10-year high. That means Americans will be able to purchase foreign foods, like cheeses and fruit, for less. Also, foreign customers won’t be able to buy as much from U.S. farmers, allowing more U.S.-grown food to remain at home with U.S. consumers.

So put all of these factors together: the potential for huge harvests; cheaper food imports; and reduced foreign competition for food and cheaper energy costs for farmers. That sounds like a great formula for bargains at the grocery store later this year.

And a price downdraft may hit manufactured goods too. That’s because raw materials — tin, nickel, lead and so on — keep getting cheaper too. U.S. coal prices have tumbled back nearly to the lows set in early 2009 during the worst of the Great Recession.

Economists say these across-the-board price drops in industrial commodities largely reflect the dramatic economic slowdown in China, Europe and other regions. When they are growing more slowly, then they don’t need as many raw materials.

“The risk of deflationary pressure is much higher than the inflationary pressure or stable price scenarios for the global economy in the near term,” Wells Fargo Securities’ economic team wrote in a special report on deflation.

But any American who has been out shopping lately may be thinking: huh? What price breaks? New cars cost more. Meat prices have remained stubbornly high. Eggs are expensive. When exactly will these lower commodity prices translate into relief for U.S. consumers?

“It depends,” Snaith said. “If these factors persist through 2015, we would expect to see these price declines make their way to consumers. But it’s a waiting game.” [Copyright 2015 NPR]

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Russia’s fast track to ruin DECEMBER 16, 2014 AT 1:26 AM BBC

Here are the numbers that explain why the Russian economy is imploding in the face of a tumbling oil price and Western sanctions.
Oil and gas energy represents two thirds of exports of around $530bn (£339bn). Without them, Russia would have a massive deficit on its trade and financial dealings with the rest of the world – which is why Russia’s central bank expects a capital outflow of well over $100bn this year and next.

And public expenditure is almost completely supported by energy-related revenues. In their absence, the government would be increasing its indebtedness by more than 10% a year, according to IMF data.

So the massive and unsustainable non-oil deficits in the public sector and trade explain why investors don’t want to touch the rouble with even the longest barge pole.
And Western sanctions, imposed to punish Putin for his Ukraine adventure, make it all the harder for Russia’s undersized non-oil economy to trade the country out of its mess.
Desperate government?

Little wonder then that the rouble has halved this year, more-or-less in line with the tumbling oil price.

That raises the spectre of rampant inflation – prices are already rising more than 9% a year on the backward-looking official measure.
And there is the twin nightmare of a fully fledged slump: Russia’s central bank expects the economy to contract not far off 5% next year.

But even so the decision of Russia’s central bank to raise its policy interest rate from 10.5% to 17% is eye-catching (ahem).
It might work to stem the rouble’s fall. Then again it could reinforce investors’ fears that the government is increasingly desperate and powerless in the face of a market tsunami.
Global ripples

Russia isn’t bust yet. In the middle of the year, it was projected by the IMF to hold reserves equivalent to about a year’s worth of imports. That will probably be down to nearer 10 months now, but provides some kind of cushion.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well it doesn’t help that Russia is sucking demand from a global economy that is already looking a bit more ropey, as the eurozone stagnates and China slows.

As for the exposure of overseas banks – at $364bn, including guarantees – that is serious but not existentially threatening (and loans made by UK banks are just a few percentage points of that).

There are also about half a trillion dollars of Russian bonds trading, with about a third of those issued by the government. Most of those will be viewed by investors as junk, even if they are not officially classified as such by the rating agencies.

Or to pull it all together, Russia is massively leaking cash. And absent an entente with the West over Ukraine, which does not look imminent, it is challenging to see how the hole can be plugged.

MARC FABER: We’re In A Gigantic Financial Asset Bubble That Could Burst Any Day

MARC FABER: We’re In A Gigantic Financial Asset Bubble That Could Burst Any Day
MAMTA BADKAR
JAN. 14, 2014, 7:02 PM 11,190

As stocks returned a whopping 30% in 2013, there have been growing concerns about a stock market bubble. Especially considering that the rally supported by only meager earnings growth.
While many have made comprehensive arguments showing why stocks are not in a bubble, Marc Faber, author of “The Gloom Boom And Doom Report,” continues to argue that we’re in a bubble that’ll pop as we head for a financial crisis.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, he says we are in a “gigantic financial asset bubble.” He also thinks the bubble could burst at any moment.
“I think we are in a gigantic financial asset bubble. But it is interesting that that despite of all the money printing, bond yields didn’t go down. They bottomed out on July 25, 2012 at 1.43% on the 10-years. We went to over 3.0%. We’re now at 2.85% or something thereabout. But we’re up substantially. Now, this hasn’t had an impact on stocks yet. In fact, it pushed money into the stock market out of the bond market. But if the 10-years goes to say 3.5% to 4.0%, then the 30-year goes to close to 5.0%, the mortgage rates go to 6.0%. That will hit the economy very hard.”
“[The bubble] could burst before. It could burst any day. I think we are very stretched. Sentiment figures are very, very bullish. Everybody’s bullish. The reality is they’re very bullish because they think the economy will accelerate on the upside. But my view is very different. The global economy is slowing down, because the global economy’s largely emerging economies nowadays, and there’s no growth in exports in emerging economies, there’s no growth, in the local economies. So, I feel that the valuations are high, the corporate profits have been boosted largely because of the falling interest rates.”
This is not a totally new call. Faber has repeatedly said that we’re headed for a 1987-type sell-off.
Faber also said Facebook is a fad and that lower interest rates are punishing savers. Here’s the entire transcript from Bloomberg TV:
———————————–
Faber on the Fed and how far the ‘rubber band can be stretched’:
“We have to distinguish between the financial economy, the financial sector, and the economy of the well-to-do people that benefit from rising asset prices, from rising prices of wines, and paintings and art, and bonds, and equities, and high-end properties in the Hamptons and West 15 here in New York and so forth — and the average person, the typical household, the so-called ‘median household’, or the working class people. And the Fed’s policies have actually led to a lot of problems around the world in the sense that they’re not only responsible, but partly responsible that energy prices are where they are, they’re up from $10 or $12 in 1999 to now around $100 a barrel. Food prices are up and a lot of other prices are up. So on your income, energy prices have very little impact because you at Bloomberg – you, young man – you make so much money. But for the poor people, it has an impact. Some people in the lower income groups, they spend say 30% of their income on energy, transportation, and so forth, electricity and gasoline.”
On whether the Fed is creating a two-class system:
“Correct, largely. The problem is then that you have people like Bill de Blasio, they come in and say: ‘you know what’s the problem? All these rich guys. Because of these rich people, you are poor. They take advantage of you. So, let’s go and tax them.’ The IMF has come out with a paper in Europe that essentially the well-to-do people should pay a 10% wealth task — a one-time wealth tax. I can assure you, a one-time wealth tax, 10%, will become an every-year’s tax eventually.”
On how to help the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum:
“This is the point I’d like to make. All of these professors and academics at the Fed who never really worked in the private sector a single day in their lives, and write papers nobody reads and nobody’s is interested in. Why would they want not write about how you structure an economic system that lifts the standard of living of most people? You can’t lift everybody.”
“We had that in the 19th century in the U.S. because we had very small government at the time. The entire government — local, state federal — was less than 20% of the economy. Now it is close to 50% of the economy.”
On whether the government is spending too much money:
“The larger the government becomes, the less economic growth you have and the more crony capitalism and corruptions you have. Because big corporations — and especially the money printers, they’re the most powerful people in the world, they control the governments. The U.S. Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the government is one and the same. The Fed, they finance the Treasury, so the government can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then they finance transfer payments to essentially buy votes so you can get elected.”
On bitcoin:
“I prefer physical gold and silver, platinum to bitcoin. Bitcoin can have a lot of competition. Gold, silver, platinum — they have no competition. How do you value a bitcoin? I can value gold to some extent and compare say gold to the quantity of money that is floating around the world, to the wealth increase, and to the monetary base increase, to the credit increase, and so forth and so on, and to the production costs. So I have an idea of where gold should be. I’m not sure because prices overshoot. How do you value Netflix? Is it overpriced or underpriced? Is Tesla overpriced, underpriced?”
On interest rates:
“But one thing I wanted to show you and talk about because you said that lower interest rates help people. Well, if money trending helps everybody, then why does not everybody in the whole world always have zero interest rates? And everybody would be rich. You keep on printing money and you don’t need to work here, you don’t need to put on makeup. I could stay in bed the whole day and go drinking in the evenings. So, let’s just print money and be all happy. It doesn’t add up. One thing about the figures you showed: first of all, you live in New York. Do you really think that your cost-of-living increase is a 1.2% per annum? You really believe that? It doesn’t feel like more, it feels like five times more, or even ten times more.”
“Number two, by keeping interest rates at zero percent on the Fed fund rate — i want to emphasize that this is now going on in March of 2014 for five years. It is not something new. For five years this has happened. You penalize the income earners, the savers who save, your parents, why should your parents be forced to speculate in stocks and in real estate and everything under the sun?”
On his view of overvalued stocks, including Facebook:
“I think it is to a large extent a fad. People they go on Facebook – what they do is they put pictures on and the only people that watch these pictures are themselves. They all want to be stars. It is a very distractive kind of occupation. I can’t imagine that this would have a lot of value. I would rather own – I don’t own it because I think it is very highly priced – I would rather own a company like Alibaba or Amazon or Google, than Facebook, personally. This is my view. Other people have different views. That’s what makes the market. Some people are buying it and some people are selling it.”

On overall market valuation concerns:
“I think we are in a gigantic financial asset bubble. But it is interesting that that despite of all the money printing, bond yields didn’t go down. They bottomed out on July 25, 2012 at 1.43% on the 10-years. We went to over 3.0%. We’re now at 2.85% or something thereabout. But we’re up substantially. Now, this hasn’t had an impact on stocks yet. In fact, it pushed money into the stock market out of the bond market. But if the 10-years goes to say 3.5% to 4.0%, then the 30-year goes to close to 5.0%, the mortgage rates go to 6.0%. That will hit the economy very hard.”
“[The bubble] could burst before. It could burst any day. I think we are very stretched. Sentiment figures are very, very bullish. Everybody’s bullish. The reality is they’re very bullish because they think the economy will accelerate on the upside. But my view is very different. The global economy is slowing down, because the global economy’s largely emerging economies nowadays, and there’s no growth in exports in emerging economies, there’s no growth, in the local economies. So, I feel that the valuations are high, the corporate profits have been boosted largely because of the falling interest rates.”

A Global Boom Is Facing the End of Easy Lending

New York Times

August 20, 2013

A Global Boom Is Facing the End of Easy Lending

By LANDON THOMAS Jr.

In a city where skyscrapers sprout like weeds, none grew as high as the Sapphire tower in Istanbul.

Today, it stands as a symbol of how far the mighty may fall.

Like a vast majority of new buildings that have blanketed the Istanbul hills in recent years, the Sapphire — at 856 feet it is the tallest in Turkey and among the loftiest in Europe — was built on the back of cheap loans, in dollars, that have flooded Turkey and other fast-growing markets like Brazil, India and South Korea. The money began to flow when the Federal Reserve and other major central banks cut interest rates to the bone in 2009 and cranked up the printing presses in a bid to spur recovery in the United States and other advanced industrial nations.

But now, with expectations mounting that the Federal Reserve, led by its departing chairman Ben S. Bernanke, may soon begin to tighten its monetary spigot, Istanbul’s skyline could well be a harbinger of an emerging-market bust brought on by unpaid loans, weakening currencies, and, eventually, the possible failure of developers and banks.

This week, stocks and currencies in several developing Asian markets, including India, Indonesia and Thailand, have been hit hard. Global investors continued to withdraw funds from emerging markets, as interest rates edge up in anticipation of the Fed’s move to reduce its stimulus efforts in the United States. Indonesia’s benchmark index, which fell 5 percent on Monday, dropped 3.2 percent more on Tuesday. India’s stock market fell 0.3 percent after sliding 5.6 percent in the previous two trading sessions.

Some analysts see it as the markets reacting to an end — real or perceived — of the Bernanke boom. “What we are witnessing is a huge bubble, a Bernanke bubble if you will,” said Tim Lee of Pi Economics, an independent consultancy based in Greenwich, Conn.

Not everybody is as alarmed as Mr. Lee. Still, 16 years after emerging markets in Asia imploded after local currencies collapsed, even optimists are starting to grow nervous over the rapid accumulation of dollar-denominated debt not just in Turkey but in other now-struggling economies like Brazil, India and South Korea.

As it turned out, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Fed’s largess were not so much in the developed world, but among the politically connected elite in emerging nations like Turkey, where vanity towers, glitzy shopping malls and even grander projects to come — a third bridge across the Bosporus and a vast new airport — have become representative of the nation’s new dynamism, economic as well as geopolitical.

What these elites have so far ignored, Mr. Lee warns, is that their obligations carry with them a significant and pressing danger: currency risk.

Unlike the risky loans made to subprime borrowers in the United States or Irish real estate developers in the euro zone, dollar debts taken on by companies erecting skyscrapers in Istanbul, manufacturing steel in India and prospecting for oil in Brazil, need to be largely paid back in dollars by entities that earn most of their revenues in their home currency.

When the Turkish lira or the rupee in India was strong — as these currencies were until recently — local companies had every incentive to borrow in dollars at comparatively lower interest rates.

But when local currencies start to weaken, in line with diminished economic prospects, then the effect is twofold: paying off dollar loans becomes more costly for the borrower, and the lender becomes increasingly skittish about his exposure to a fragile currency and may move to reduce or even slash credit lines.

While Brazil has the largest amount of dollar loans outstanding at $287 billion, few countries have relied on this source of money as much as Turkey, where dollar loans of around $172 billion represent 22 percent of the overall economy.

In recent months, the Turkish lira has lost 4.5 percent of its value against the dollar. Adding to this, protests have hit Istanbul’s main public square over an unpopular building sponsored by a developer with close political and cultural ties to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Goldman Sachs is forecasting a dollar-lira rate of 2.2, representing a 15 percent mini-devaluation from the current level of 1.95. “The Turkish economic miracle was built on liquidity and a massive appreciation of the Turkish lira,” said Atilla Yesilada, an economist at Global Source partners in Istanbul, who has lived through Turkey’s previous financial crashes in 1994 and 2001.

These loans — many of them relatively short term — also highlight a recurring characteristic of the emerging-market growth boom: the powerful nexus between ambitious governments eager to promote high-profile investments and politically connected business groups ready to take on such projects.

The Sapphire tower in Turkey is a perfect example in this regard.

The 54-floor tower, which received a ceremonial baptism from Prime Minister Erdogan when it opened in early 2011, is the signature property of the Kiler Group, one of the many construction-themed conglomerates that have achieved extraordinary success since Mr. Erdogan came to power in 2003. Like Mr. Erdogan, whose family comes from the northern Black Sea region, these businessmen hail from Turkey’s conservative Islamist provinces.

According to regulatory filings, 154 million liras of the group’s total 164 million liras in debt is denominated in dollars — about $79 million using current exchange rates. Of that figure, $25 million is related to the Sapphire tower, company officials say. Most of the group’s debt is short term, and in a reflection of the project’s risk, regulatory documents show that the cash generated by the property goes directly to the project’s primary creditor, Akbank, the fourth-largest bank in Turkey.

Given the differential between dollar loans at 6.5 percent and lira credit costing 11.5 percent, it was no surprise that the Kiler Group and others chose to borrow in dollars. The company, in its most recent filings, acknowledged this risk: if the American dollar gains 10 percent against the Turkish currency, the loss to the company would be 11.8 million Turkish liras.

According to Rasim Kaan Aytogu, chief financial officer for the Kiler Group, the Sapphire tower’s share of that total is $25 million. He contends that because the project books its revenue in dollars it is not exposed to currency fluctuations. He also says that demand for apartment units is strong, with 66 percent of them sold.

“This is a unique property in all of Europe,” he said. “And it is becoming a travel destination.”

But Turkish real estate experts say that sales of the apartments, which cost from $1 million to $10 million, have lagged and that the tower does not have the prestige of rival properties, including towers built by Trump and Zorlu. And according to company filings, revenue from visitors ogling the view from the tower’s observation deck have undershot targets from the outset.

The Kilers are not alone in their ability to make a big splash in Istanbul by deploying dollar debt and political muscle.

Even more influential has been the Kalyon Group, another real estate conglomerate with close ties to Mr. Erdogan. Kalyon is the main developer behind Mr. Erdogan’s controversial effort to build a replica of Ottoman-era army barracks as a shopping mall near Taksim Square.

As troubles were beginning to brew in Turkey, the leader of the Kalyon Group, Cemal Kalyoncu, remained confident that nothing would change. Asked in an interview with a local paper how the consortium of companies that won the tender for the airport would obtain the money, Mr. Kalyoncu said the group would look for loans outside Turkey.

“Financing this should be no problem at all,” he said.