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Maeve Dineen: Never mind banks in crisis, food prices are our real worry

COMMODITY trading was never seen as sexy in the cut-throat word of high finance. Such was the humdrum, low margin nature of the job that companies used to describe it as the "commodity business", put their less ambitious employees to work there and then basically ignored it.

How things have changed -- commodities is where it's all happening at the moment. The oil price stands at its highest since October 2008, just shy of $100 per barrel.

World food prices are back at their peak of July of that year. Copper prices, which have jumped by 17pc since the start of November, are at an all-time high and steel prices are set to jump by 66pc this year.

Agricultural commodity prices are no different: last week saw September wheat futures posting their steepest increase since 2008. Current futures prices are above $7 a bushel for the first time in over two years.

The current spike in food prices is mirroring the chain of events of the crisis of 2007-08 in almost every worrying aspect.

First, the crop failures; second, the export restrictions; and third, the initial food riots followed by governments taking emergency measures to control rising food costs. The government of Tunisia has already paid the cost. The governments of Egypt and Yemen look like following.

No banking crisis brought down a dictatorship but rising commodity prices have done just that. Anybody who thinks banks are the most important element of an economy should try and eat money. The single most important aspect of an economy is the production and provision of food.

That is why it is so worrying to witness the fourth element of the 2007-08 food crisis emerging: panic buying.

But are these high prices simply a bubble, the result of speculative activity in the futures markets or proof that due to the needs of the developing world productivity can no longer keep pace with demand?

One thing for sure is that the setting of prices at the main international commodity exchanges has been significantly influenced by speculation that is boosting prices. Not only are food and energy markets linked, but food and financial markets are now intertwined.

There are also increasing indications that those who had their fingers burned by complex financial instruments during the boom have shifted their financial capital from speculation on housing and derivatives to commodities, including food.

And while the financial markets have, through necessity, been regulated to curb excessive speculation, commodity markets have remained largely untouched.

Food cannot be treated simply as another asset class. In the US and Europe, food accounts for as little as 10-15pc of a family's regular shopping -- hence its weight on measures such as the consumer price index is relatively small. But in countries such as India, Russia and China, it comprises up to 50pc. In the poorest African nations, it occasionally exceeds 75pc.

But while a food price crisis is not of great significance for the relatively rich, dearer commodities do push up overall inflation, as the latest numbers from the euro area and Ireland show. Eurozone inflation rose above the ECB's 2pc target in December to 2.2pc. Here at home, consumer prices hit a two-year high of 1.3pc in December -- the highest in two years. The last time inflation was over 1.3pc was in November 2008.

This puts hard-pressed central bankers in the unenviable position of acting against inflation by raising interest rates -- which may cause another economic rout -- or taking a relaxed view about price pressures which risks a return to the high inflation of a generation ago.

So far, the central banks have held back. But higher commodity prices may tip the balance of risks, causing policymakers to lose their nerve.

Either way, 2011 is starting to look an awful lot like a rerun of 2008 with commodities posing one of the single greatest risks to the world economy.

Irish Independent