Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Why it's not about us (Reason #28)...

It is important to many farmers that the world revolve around them. It's how we buttress our special status as recipients of government payments. Since a bunch of pesky facts contradict this world view, we choose to not hear them. As a result, most farmers I have talked to have trouble putting our industry in context with the rest of the economy.

One overriding reason is the "food" link. "Without us you'd starve", we point out to anyone who will listen. Probably not. This is the wealthiest nation on earth. We spend very little on actual foodstuffs (significantly more to have it prepared and delivered to us). Without us, someone else would feed our fellow citizens, and if anybody starved it would be the poor of the world, simply because they cannot compete for food with rich people in any shortage.

It is hard for us to get a picture of our actual position in the world because our entire self-image (and the one used to sell us seed, tractors and ideas) is a Ptolemaic cosmology with farmers at the center. There is a genuine fear of discovering otherwise, and becoming no more important than plumbers or accountants or teachers.

The world for the most part humors us. But many see clearly the scope of agriculture and its economic horsepower. One of these people was Leo Melamed, pioneering innovator at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Long ago he saw the wealth in agriculture would not match the growth of other sectors.

And then, finally, I came to the thought that Bretton Woods, the fixed-exchange-rate system, was coming apart. And when it finally comes apart, wouldn't there be a need for foreign-exchange futures? Our board thought I was crazy, and very frankly I thought it was a little crazy too, because why hadn't anybody else done this? I went to Milton Friedman, though, and he absolutely embraced the idea.

So the board had to go along with me. And the minute we went to foreign exchange, I said to the membership that if it works in foreign exchange, the sky is the limit! I was like a kid in a candy store, honest to God. Because in agriculture, where could you go with it? But in finance - ah, look at this! I mean, whoa, anything you want! [More of interview]

His foresight is a good clue for producers who are struggling to understand the influence of commodity funds. On USFR this weekend, Greg Hunt, one of our more erudite commentators brought up the startling fact that CalPERS - the giant retirement fund whose whims terrify boardrooms around the world - has decided to get into commodities.
CalPERS plans to decide as early as next summer whether to create a new natural resources/commodities asset class within the pension fund. “Global demand for natural resources and proved systems to extract and deliver them will only increase,” said Valdes. “We will look into commodities future contracts and related investments to naturally complement, diversify and add value to our expanding securities investments in the energy and raw materials sector. [More]
Investors like CalPERS talk money on a scale we can barely imagine. Consequently, market participants of their heft can easily skew trade in directions that will confound fundamentalists who assume supply and demand will override all (true in the LONG run) or those who extrapolate from the past.

But does it hurt anything for farmers to entertain this fantasy of unwarranted importance? I think so. Just as Rick Warren stated in the first line of the first chapter of "A Purpose-Driven Life", getting over yourself is the crucial first step in finding fulfillment and abiding happiness.

Seeing our work in real context is also a great defense to prevent being steamrollered by forces whose size we have not fully come to appreciate.

[See the later rerun post on farmland ETF's]

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