Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The End of Cheap Commodities (or not)

Back in 2007 we posted some articles on investing based on politics, using McCormick's reaper as an example.
Although the reaper had been commercially available in 1840 sales didn't really get going until England repealed the Corn Laws. Here's a snip from "Global Warming, Politics, Laws and Opportunity":
...Invented in 1831 and patented in 1834, McCormick didn't sell a single machine until 1840. The sales figures for the early years are debatable but these are the best I could put together:
1840------- 2
1843------ 29
1844------ 50
1845------ 58
1846------ 75

External factors played a part: Florida, Texas and Iowa were admitted to the Union in '45, '45 and '46 respectively.

Miles of railroad trackage, 2818 miles in 1840 increased to 4633 in 1845 and 9021 in 1850.
The nation's asset base grew e.g. life insurance in force went from $4.7mm (face) in 1840 to $97.1mm in 1850. The country was growing pretty fast....
This led to a look at the early years of The Economist, founded in September 1843 to advance repeal of the Corn Laws.
From "Global Warming, Politics, Laws and Opportunity--Part II":
To summarize part I (below) the McCormick family invented the reaper, sales in the first nine years were zero and in the next seven averaged 31 per year. They then exploded to 800 machines in 1847. What happened?

As reported by The Economist May 16, 1846, the British House of Commons had repealed the "Corn Laws", eliminating the tariff on imported wheat, the day before. Corn in this usage is not maize but rather is generic for grain. Prime Minister Peel won the battle but lost his premiership, the quote of the day was "Peel and repeal."...
The elimination of the tariff combined [so to speak -ed] with the mechanical harvester led to a huge increase in American grain exports to England and a dramatic lowering of unit costs, the two factors, greater volume and lower input costs began a 165 year decline in real food prices.
The last post of the series, and the inspiration for today's headline was "The End of Cheap Food- What was Old is New Again AND: Profiting from Politics":

This story from The Economist got me thinking
(I know, alert the media).

Rising food prices are a threat to many;
they also present the world with an enormous opportunity

FOR as long as most people can remember, food has been getting cheaper and farming has been in decline. In 1974-2005 food prices on world markets fell by three-quarters in real terms. Food today is so cheap that the West is battling gluttony even as it scrapes piles of half-eaten leftovers into the bin.
That is why this year's price rise has been so extraordinary. Since the spring, wheat prices have doubled and almost every crop under the sun—maize, milk, oilseeds, you name it—is at or near a peak in nominal terms.  

The Economist's food-price index is higher today than at any time since it was created in 1845 (see chart). Even in real terms, prices have jumped by 75% since 2005. No doubt farmers will meet higher prices with investment and more production, but dearer food is likely to persist for years (see article). That is because “agflation” is underpinned by long-running changes in diet that accompany the growing wealth of emerging economies—the Chinese consumer who ate 20kg (44lb) of meat in 1985 will scoff over 50kg of the stuff this year. That in turn pushes up demand for grain: it takes 8kg of grain to produce one of beef....
And what was I thinking about?
Farm implements!

The Economist reported both ends of the story.
Not many publications can say that.
Here's today's story from FT Alphaville:

Grantham comes face-to-face with a paradigm shift
The last time we caught up with GMO’s Jeremy Grantham he was bemoaning the ruinous costs of asset price manipulation by the US Federal Reserve.

In his latest quarterly letter he returns to one of those themes — runaway commodity prices — but on a much bigger canvas.
Grantham reckons we are witnessing the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.
Accelerated demand from developing countries, especially China, has caused an unprecedented shift in the price structure of resources: after 100 hundred years or more of price declines, they are now rising, and in the last 8 years have undone, remarkably, the effects of the last 100-year decline! Statistically, also, the level of price rises makes it extremely unlikely that the old trend is still in place.
From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives. This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
By way of introduction to his thesis, Grantham offers us a chart of world population growth...MUCH MORE
I'll be back with more.