Monday, April 23, 2012

Time to Do Something About Onion Market Volatility

Onions are the example that get trotted out when talk turns to curbing speculation.
During the 2008 oil price spike there was speculation but the acolytes of Rubin/Summers/Greenspan insisted "NO, look at onions".

Now there isn't as much and the Democrat echo chamber (the President, Center for American Progress, Harry Reid, big NGO's etc, etc.) are screaming Kill the Specs.
So Reason (Über-Libertarians) go back to the '08 playbook:

How Will Obama Protect Us From Onion Speculators?
President Obama last week pledged to end the speculation in oil futures that even he doesn’t claim has made the price of gas more expensive. According to Obama’s politics – which amount to a stubborn belief that Americans are as ignorant of the law and easily propagandized as they were in 1935 – this is a smart move. But it's a vacuous proposal that will not stop price swings in oil, and it could even make oil pricing more erratic.
The only solution: a windfall profits tax for Big Onion.

Mark J. Perry, redoubtable AEI scholar and professor of business and finance at University of Michigan Flint, put together this chart to show how oil pricing stacks up against pricing of a product so common we tend to ignore it even though, unlike oil, it can easily move us to tears.

By law, there is no speculation in onions, and yet the price of the kitchen staple goes up and down with enough energy to make Marlon Brando in The Formula chortle with piggy glee. Says CNN:
The bulbous root is the only commodity for which futures trading is banned. Back in 1958, onion growers convinced themselves that futures traders (and not the new farms sprouting up in Wisconsin) were responsible for falling onion prices, so they lobbied an up-and-coming Michigan Congressman named Gerald Ford to push through a law banning all futures trading in onions. The law still stands.
And yet even with no traders to blame, the volatility in onion prices makes the swings in oil and corn look tame, reinforcing academics' belief that futures trading diminishes extreme price swings. Since 2006, oil prices have risen 100%, and corn is up 300%. But onion prices soared 400% between October 2006 and April 2007, when weather reduced crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only to crash 96% by March 2008 on overproduction and then rebound 300% by this past April.
The volatility has been so extreme that the son of one of the original onion growers who lobbied Congress for the trading ban now thinks the onion market would operate more smoothly if a futures contract were in place.
"There probably has been more volatility since the ban," says Bob Debruyn of Debruyn Produce, a Michigan-based grower and wholesaler.

That CNN bit was from June 2008, a week before prices top-ticked. Using it is probably a decent contrary indicator. As we posted two weeks ago, "Gasoline Prices Rolling Over"