Each morning I get up, make myself a cup of tea, add milk and a teaspoon of sugar. I never quite thought about the cost of each of the ingredients going into the cup of tea. A recent lunch with a sugar analyst made me start to think, “How much is this teaspoon of sugar costing me?” In fact, I also have started to question, “How much is the milk costing me?”
There are news articles daily on how price of food is rising. The Financial Times recently reported that a senior Indonesian official expressed fears that surging food prices might lead to social unrest similar to that which brought down Suharto as president 10 years ago.
Sugar prices are but one example. March 08 World Sugar futures on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) rose to 14US cents a pound on 27 February 2008, up 27% percent from the same time last year, and 141% from February 2004. That teaspoon of sugar sure seems to be getting more and more expensive.
Commodities, as we all know, are not the alternative asset class they once were considered. There is a consensus that investment funds looking to hedge against inflation have entered the sugar market. Commodities are exposed to a broad range of economic factors that help to balance out a portfolio. Additionally, the commodities bull market allows fund managers to pick up higher returns in a market where equities and treasuries are shaky.
Then there are speculators. Speculators are often blamed for myriad of mis-functioning pricing. When oil prices began rising, hedge funds and speculators were to blame. With sugar prices rising so quickly, it is again the speculators helping to drive prices.
Some analysts and traders tell me about speculator involvement with a look of incredibility on their faces; as if speculators hadn’t existed in the past. A Time article dated August 14, 1950 noted that the then US Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan blamed high commodities prices on the fault of speculators. He reportedly walked onto the New York Commodities Exchange trading floor shouting “Speculator” at the top of his lungs. These speculators were taking advantage of the rising commodities prices in line with the Korean war, scarcity, and a booming economy.
Sugar also had a boom from 1966 to November 1974, with prices climbing forty five times from 1.6 cents per pound to a high of 66.5 cents per pound. Jim Rogers, creator of the Rogers International Commodity Index (RICI), wrote that in the early 1970s in the US, guests would arrive to dinner parties with a five pound bag of sugar rather than the traditional gift of a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers. Scarcity was certainly a price driver. Other theories included Arab Oil Money; recall that the 1973 oil crisis began October 17, 1973. One trader who traded sugar in the period noted that he believed there was a correlation between oil prices and sugar. As oil prices rise, Arab countries become more wealthy, eat more and more sugar (demand increases, supplies fall), and prices rise.
So what is driving sugar prices today? There are a multitude of theories in the market, all of which can be argued as valid causes, and many of which sound identical to the theories in place in the 1950s and 1970s. All I want to know is, How much is that teaspoon of sugar going to cost me tomorrow? In a month? In a year?