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Goodbye Petrodollar, Hello Agri-Dollar?

Published: November 24, 2012
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Source: Zero Hedge

When it comes to firmly established, currency-for-commodity, self reinforcing systems in the past century of human history, nothing comes close to the petrodollar: it is safe to say that few things have shaped the face of the modern world and defined the reserve currency as much as the $2.3 trillion/year energy exports denominated exclusively in US dollars (although recent confirmations of previously inconceivable exclusions such as Turkey's oil-for-gold trade with Iran are increasingly putting the petrodollar status quo under the microscope). But that is the past, and with rapid changes in modern technology and extraction efficiency, leading to such offshoots are renewable and shale, the days of the petrodollar "as defined" may be over. So what new trade regime may be the dominant one for the next several decades? According to some, for now mostly overheard whispering in the hallways, the primary commodity imbalance that will shape the face of global trade in the coming years is not that of energy, but that of food, driven by constantly rising food prices due to a fragmented supply-side unable to catch up with increasing demand, one in which China will play a dominant role but not due to its commodity extraction and/or processing supremacy, but the contrary: due to its soaring deficit for agricultural products, and in which such legacy trade deficit culprits as the US will suddenly enjoy a huge advantage in both trade and geopolitical terms. Coming soon: the agri-dollar.

But first, some perspectives from Karim Bitar on CEO of Genus, on what is sure to be the biggest marginal player of the agri-dollar revolution, China, whose attempt to redefine itself as a consumption-driven superpower will fail epically and very violently, unless it is able to find a way to feed its massive, rising middle class in a cheap and efficient manner. But before that even, take note of the following chart which takes all you know about global trade surplus and deficit when narrowed down to what may soon be that all important agricultural (hence food) category, and flips it around on its head.

Karim Bitar on China:

Structurally, China is at a huge disadvantage as it accounts for 20% of the world’s population, but only 7% of arable land. Compare that with Brazil which has the reverse of those ratios. What that does for a country like China is to incentivise the adoption of technification. Let’s look at their porcine market, which represents 50% of global production and consumption. In China, to slaughter roughly 600 mn pigs per year, which is about six times the demand in the US, they have a breeding herd of about 50 mn animals. In the US, the comparable number is only about 6 mn so there is a huge productivity lag.

Owing to its structural disadvantages, China is much more focused on increasing efficiency. For that, it needs to accelerate technification. So, we’re seeing a whole series of government incentives at a national level, a provincial level and a local level, focusing on the need to move toward integrated pork production because that’s a key way to optimise total economics, both in terms of pig production, slaughtering, processing and also actually taking the pork out into the marketplace.

The Chinese government is important as a customer to us because of its clarity of vision on food security. It has seen the Arab Spring, and it is cognisant of the strong socio-political implications of higher food prices. Pork prices could account for about 25% of the CPI, so it knows it can be a major issue. It’s because of all these pressures, that China is more focused on responding to the food challenge. It’s a sort of a burning platform there.

...Take milk production in China and India. China is basically trying to leapfrog and avoid small-scale farming by adopting a US model. In the US, you tend to have very large herds. Today about 30% of US milk production is from herds of 2,000 plus, and we expect that to reach 60% within the next five years. Today in China, there are already several hundred dairy herds of over 1,000. However in India, there’ll be less than 50. The average dairy herd size is closer to five, so it’s very fragmented. So the reality is that a place like China, because of government policies, subsidies and a much more demanding focused approach to becoming self-sufficient, has a much greater ability to respond to a supply challenge rapidly.

The problem for China, and to a lesser extent India, however one defines it, is that it will need increasingly more food, processed with ever greater efficiency for the current conservative regime to be able to preserve the status quo, all else equal. And for a suddenly very food trade deficit-vulnerable China, it means that the biggest winners may be Brazil, the US and Canada. Oh and Africa. The only question is how China will adapt in a new world in which it finds itself in an odd position: a competitive trade disadvantage, especially its primary nemesis: the USA.

So for those curious how a world may look like under the Agri-dollar, read on for some timely views from GS' Hugo Scott-Gall.

Meaty problems, simmering solutions

What potential impacts could a further re-pricing of food have on the world? Why might food re-price? Because demand is set to rise faster than supply can respond. The forces pushing demand higher are well known, population growth, urbanisation and changing middle class size and tastes. In terms of economic evolution, the food price surge comes after the energy price surge, as industrialisation segues into consumption growth (high-income countries consume about 30% more calories than low income nations, but the difference in value is about eight times). Here, we are keenly interested in how the supply side can respond, both in terms of where and how solutions are found, and who is supplying them. We are drawn towards an analogy with the energy industry here: the energy industry has invested heavily in efficiency, and through innovation, clusters of excellence, and access to capital has created solutions, the most obvious of which are renewable energy and shale. The key question for us is, can and will something similar happen in food?

It’s hard to argue that the ingredients that sparked energy’s supply-side response are all present in the food supply chain. In food, there’s huge fragmentation, a lack of coordination, shortages of capital in support industries (infrastructure) and  only pockets of isolated innovation. We suspect that the supply-side response may well remain uncoordinated and slower than in other industries. But things are changing. Those who disagree with Thomas Malthus will always back human ingenuity. As well as looking at where the innovators in the supply chain are (from page 10), and where there are sustainably high returns through IP (e.g., seeds, enzymes etc.), we need to think about the macro and micro economic impacts of higher food prices, and soberingly, the geo-political ones.

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