Industrial Harvest


Meanwhile, on the sidelines… by sarah kavage

If you follow commodities prices, you may have noticed that the they have dropped quite a bit since my last post – in fact, since I bought in the market has pretty much done little but go down.  Several days after I bought in, wheat prices started to falter, brought on by all that stuff going on in Europe with Greece needing to be bailed out, Germany balking and the Euro falling.  I sold as things began turning bearish, and am now sitting on the sidelines, waiting to jump back in the game at a point where I might recover what money I lost on the way down.  My losses didn’t add up to a lot, but they were apparently enough for me to start, as we urban planners like to say, “engaging in the process.”  I am now dilligently checking prices, trying to make some sense out of these daily market reports as they come in, and even got up a little bit early this morning so that I could call broker Jim before the trading floor opened. 

The market reports, however are full of advice like “we have no new passion for new positions” and “stay bearish.”  We seem to be in the midst of a rally in grain prices, which was why I was up out of bed before the opening bell, but when I spoke to Jim he’s convinced that the rally is unsustainable, prices are still up about 15 cents too high, and “as soon as Greece coughs, it’ll go back down.” 

This has all spurred me to think back to a conversation I had with another Jim – Jim Braun – back in Chicago in December.  For those of you who don’t know Jim, he’s an Iowa hog farmer turned advocate in favor of small farmers, local food and organic agriculture, and was one of the brains behind Illinois’ groundbreaking Food, Farms Jobs Act passed by the state legislature in 2007.  Jim pointed out to me that all these market reports continually make up reasons for why the market is moving up or down as if they know exactly what’s going on – it might be that the weather is bad, it might be that a certain country is deciding whether or not to import a bunch of grain from the US, it might be the larger economic conditions (which seems to be the consensus this week) or index fund movements driving prices – and usually all of these factors at once pushing and pulling the price around. 

Anyway, Jim’s point was that no one ever really knows what is causing the price to move, and while it could be any of these things it could also be something else entirely.  Because my day job involves social science research – trying to tease out the multiple factors that influence whether people walk, drive or take the bus – I know that people equate association with causation all the time.  Just because your statistical model says that two factors are associated, that doesn’t mean one factor is causing the other.  If carrying umbrellas is associated with traffic accidents, it doesn’t mean that umbrellas cause traffic accidents.  Rather, carrying umbrellas and traffic accidents are both associated with rain, and if you don’t pick up on this, you’re going to have a hard time getting that journal article accepted. 

The thing is that with the markets, you can do all the statistical modeling you want but ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the cause actually is, it only matters what people think the cause is, or what people think that others think the cause is (and so on, ad infinitum).  Talk about speculation!  Jim B. and I talked about the huge agricultural corporations that grow commodities on contract with farmers, own their own networks of grain elevators, trucks, barges and mills, get large payments from the government, export massive amounts of grain and also trade on the CBOT.  Surely, they wouldn’t ever take advantage of the knowledge and influence they have in order to make money as the rest of us stand on the sidelines, guessing…

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