Are we heading for ‘perfect storm’ in commodity production and prices? Certainly the prices of many commodities have soared in recent months. These include the prices of foodstuffs such as dairy products, cooking oils and cereals, crude oil, cotton, metals and many other raw materials. The overall world commodity price index has risen by 28% in the past 12 months. The following are some examples of specific commodities:
Price rises in the 12 months to February 2011
• Wheat 62%
• Maize 59%
• Coffee 70%
• Beef 39%
• Sugar 46%
• Palm kernal oil 142%
• Soybean oil 50%
• All food price index 32%
• Crude oil 20%
• Cotton 132%
• Fine wool 55%
• Softwood timber 25%
• Iron ore 78%
• Copper 29%
• Tin 55%
• All metals index 58%
• Rubber 79%.
The problems are both short term and long term, and on both the demand and supply sides; and the effects will be at micro, macro and global levels. Some hard choices lie ahead.
The following webcast, articles and reports explore both the current position and look into the future to ask whether rising commodity prices are likely to continue or even accelerate.
The first link is to a BBC World Debate which considers the following issues: “Is scarcity of natural resources a serious challenge for developing and advanced economies? How great is the risk that scarcity might lead to conflict, both within and between nations? Might a scramble for resources lead to a retreat from globalisation and to greater protectionism?”
World Debate: Resources BBC World Debate, Louise Arbour, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; James Cameron, Global Agenda Council on Climate Change; He Yafei, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of China to the UN; Malini Mehra, Founder and CEO, Centre for Social Markets; Kevin Rudd, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia (19/1/11)
Global Food Prices Continue to Rise Reuters, Steve Savage (7/3/11)
The 2011 oil shock The Economist (3/3/11)
Global Food Prices Will Probably Be Sustained at Record This Year, UN Says Bloomberg, Supunnabul Suwannaki (9/3/11)
Food prices to stay high as oil costs, weather weigh livemint.com, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat (9/3/11)
‘Perfect storm’ threatens agriculture in developing nations Manila Bulletin, Lilybeth G. Ison (9/3/11)
IMF sees no immediate respite from high food prices Commodity Online (7/3/11)
Drought, supply, speculation drive world food prices to record high NZ Catholic (8/3/11)
The Factors Affecting Global Food Prices Seeking Alpha, David Hunkar (7/3/11)
World food prices climb to record as UN sounds alarm on further shortages FnBnews (India), Rudy Ruitenberg (9/3/11)
Food crisis: It’s a moral issue for all of us New Straits Times (Malaysia), Rueben Dudley (8/3/11)
Oil prices: Green light from the black stuff Guardian (5/3/11)
Cotton hits $2 a pound Guardian, Terry Macalister (17/2/11)
Supermarkets are raising prices faster than inflation, says UBS The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/3/11)
What next for commodity prices? BBC News, Jamie Robertson (5/5/11)
FAO Cereal Supply and Demand BriefFood & Agriculture Organization, United Nations (March 2011)
Rising Prices on the Menu Finance & Development (IMF), Thomas Helbling and Shaun Roache (March 2011)
Commodity prices Index Mundi
Commodities Financial Times, market data
- Identify the various factors that are causing rises in commodity prices. In each case state whether they are supply-side or demand-side factors.
- How can the price elasticity of demand and supply, the income elasticity of demand and the cross-price elasticity of demand be used to analyse the magnitude of the price rises?
- To what extent are rising food prices the result of (a) short-term (i.e. reversible) factors; (b) long-term trends?
- Why are food prices in the shops rising faster in the UK than in many other countries?
- To what extent is the future of food security and prices and moral issues?
- Why may current oil price rises become an opportunity for the future?
- What might be the respective roles be of government, business and consumers in responding to natural resource constraints?
It is widely acknowledged that the supply of oil and gas will eventually run out. As these resources are depleted, prices will inevitably rise. However, with heating and energy bills at extremely high levels, a new ‘resource’ in Sweden has been used to heat buildings: Body Heat!
Hundreds of thousands of people pass through Stockholm Central Station every day and rather than letting the body heat these people generate go to waste, a Swedish firm, Jernhusen, is now ‘collecting’ their heat, converting it into hot water and then using this as a new heating resource. Klass Johnasson, one of the creators of the system said:
This is old technology being used in a new way. The only difference here is that we’ve shifted energy between two different buildings.
The Swedish firm has found that the system is not only environmentally friendly, but it is also good business practice, as it has reduced the energy costs of the block by some 25%, which, during a recession and with high energy prices, is no small thing!
The costs and benefits of such a system will inevitably vary from country to country, but in Sweden’s case, it is a viable method of heating, given their high energy prices and low winter temperatures. They are not stealing the heat from anyone, but are simply converting the excess heat that is already there. Obviously, the fact that the firm owns the station, and also the land between the station and their building, is helpful in ‘transferring’ the energy, but the firm argues that even if this wasn’t the case, it’s nothing co-operation wouldn’t solve. Is this the future of low-cost and low-carbon heating?
Harvesting energy: body heat to warm buildings BBC News, Xanthe Hinchey (9/1/11)
How Sweden turns human body heat into useful energy BBC News (19/4/10)
Passengers passing by Stockholm Central Station reduce 25% of used heating energy The Green Optimistic, Mihai Sandru (12/1/11)
Body heat: the new energy source ecPulse (11/1/11)
- Think about how we define abundance. Is body heat an abundant resource?
- Why are energy and oil prices so high? How does scarcity affect their price?
- Could this source of heating be described as a market failure? If so, how could we illustrate this on a diagram?
- Consider the Swedish firm’s profit-maximising price and output. The new heating method is said to reduce their costs – will it affect their average and/or marginal costs? Show the impact on a diagram. What happens to the firm’s profits?
- Is this heating method something other firms could benefit from? How could they decide whether it is cost-effective?
- Is there a role for the government to encourage more firms to use this method? Explain your answer.
$8 billion – this is the likely cost of the BP oil leak, which spilled 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Whilst the oil leak has been stopped for some time, there were ongoing concerns that the leak would re-appear due to the underwater pressure. The cost of stopping the leak has been substantial, but BP will face further costs, as the company begins to pay out compensation.
$20 billion is the compensation that residents of the Gulf of Mexico will receive. Further to this, BP has said that it will invest more money in promoting the tourism industry there, which has suffered from the oil spill. However, what about the fishing industry? Although compensation will be paid for the losses incurred, will this continue in the long term? The oil may cause a loss in productivity in certain populations of sea-life. How will this impact us? If certain fish became scarcer, then their price will rise accordingly, whether you purchase the fish at a shop or have it as a meal in a restaurant. To make matters worse, the hurricane season has arrived in the affected areas, which will make the clean-up effort even harder.
As BP’s share price has fallen, individuals have suffered from lower dividends. Jupiter Income Trust had almost 10% of their portfolio invested in BP, which largely explains the 9 per cent drop in their payout.
BP oil well ‘poses no further risk’, says Allen BBC News (5/9/10)
BP oil spill fallout hits Jupiter dividend Mail Online, Richard Dyson (4/9/10)
Gulf Oil leak: biggest ever, but how bad? BBC News, Richard Black (3/8/10)
BP oil spill didn’t hit tourism too hard Jabber Lounge, Gloria Rand (5/9/10)
BP oil victims face strings on $20 billion oil fund Telegraph, Rowena Mason (20/8/10)
BP share price data
BP historical share prices Yahoo Finance
BP share price chart Interactive Investor
- Which industries have been affected by the oil leak? Don’t think too close to home – look at the wider picture.
- Is the oil spill an example of a negative externality? Can it be illustrated on a diagram and, if so, how?
- What has happened to BP’s share price since the beginning of the oil spill? Put this on to a graph to trace the trend. Try to explain the changes in the share price using a demand and supply diagram.
- How would BP have calculated the compensation to be paid to residents of the Gulf of Mexico? Would cost–benefit analysis have been involved?
If we are faced with simple and limited choices, we may make careful decisions based on a number of criteria: in other words, we will identify various characterisitics we are looking for and see how well the various alternative products or activities meet our criteria. When we have lots of choice, however, we may be less careful or get confused.
In this Guardian podcast, the panelists discuss complex choices between many products and/or characteristics. Are people being ‘rational’ when making such choices? Is being less careful simply a rational use of scarce time? Do people really want lots of choice or would they prefer more limited choice? Can experiments where people are given choices help us to understand how people choose and how much choice businesses or government should give people? Then there is the question of producers/suppliers of products. Does choice promote competition and product development and is there an optimum amount of choice to achieve this?
The Business: Choice Guardian Podcasts, Sheena Iyengar, Julian Glover and Andrew Lilico in conversation with Aditya Chakrabortty (1/9/10)
- Are people ‘rational’ when they make choices? For what reasons may they not be rational?
- Can you make rational choices if your information is imperfect?
- Is there an optimum amount of choice and how would you set about establishing that optimum?
- How useful are experiments in understanding the process of choice? What are the weaknesses of such experiments?
- Should people be limited in the amount of choice they are given over medical treatment and schools?
- What are the advantages to other people of giving people more choice?
- How much does culture influence our attitudes towards choice?
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the independent agency in the UK charged, amongst other things, with assessing the cost-effectiveness of new drugs. In a report published on 19 November 2009, NICE found that the drug sorafenib, branded as Nexavar by its manufacturer, the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer AG, was not cost-effective. The drug can extend the life of terminally ill patients with liver cancer. However, it is very expensive, costing about £3000 per month per patient.
The NICE press release (see link below) quotes Andrew Dillon, the Chief Executive of NICE, as saying: “We were disappointed not to have been able to recommend the use of sorafenib, but after carefully considering all the evidence, including the proposed ‘patient access scheme’ in which the manufacturer offered to provide every fourth pack free, sorafenib does not provide enough benefit to patients to justify its high cost.”
Not surprisingly people suffering from liver cancer, and also various patient groups, were highly critical of the decision. But with a limited budget for the National Health Service and the increasing pressure to save costs in order to reduce the public-sector debt, many difficult choices like this have to be made.
What NICE attempts to do is a cost–benefit analysis of new drugs. Whilst costs can be difficult to measure, especially over the longer term, the benefits are much more problematic as they have to take into account the effects on the quality of people’s lives – something that will vary enormously from one patient to another. And then there are the effects on family and friends and on the economy. The measure used in the NHS and elswhere is the QALY – ‘quality-adjusted life year’. In paragraph 4.8 of the full NICE report (see link below), it was noted that
“the base-case ICER [incremental cost-effectiveness ratio] presented by the manufacturer was originally £64,800 per QALY gained and when the patient access scheme was included [where every fourth pack is supplied free to the NHS by Bayer] this went down to £51,900 per QALY gained. Both ICERs were substantially higher than those normally considered to be an acceptable use of NHS resources.”
2009/069 NICE appraisal of sorafenib for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma NICE press release (19/11/09)
Final appraisal determination Sorafenib for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (Full document) NICE (19/11/09)
NHS denies drug to cancer patients (video) ITN (on YouTube) (18/11/09)
Liver cancer drug ‘too expensive’ (including videos) BBC News (19/11/09)
UK’s NICE says Bayer liver cancer drug too costly Reuters (18/11/09)
Nice’s decision not to approve the liver cancer drug Nexavar is painful but necessary and Drug for terminal liver cancer patients ‘too expensive’Telegraph, Rebecca Smith (19/11/09)
NHS says it’s too expensive to keep you alive Telegraph, Janet Daley (19/11/09)
Bayer’s patent case hearing in HC today Tines of India (18/11/09)
- What makes the choice of whether to provide a particular drug to a pateint an ‘economic’ one?
- Imagine you were a person suffering from liver cancer. What evidence would you wish to bring to the government to persuade it to ignore NICE’s recommendation?
- Is the use of QALYs the best means of assessing the benefits of a drug? Explain.
- What are the arguments for and againist the NHS providing expensive drugs free to people on low incomes but charging a price well above the current prescription fee to those who could afford to pay? If such as scheme were introduced, on what basis should such a price be determined and should it be on a sliding scale according to people’s income and/or wealth?