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The Independent Investor: Wheat, Weather & the Grocery Shelves

by Bill Schmick

If you have been watching commodity prices over the last two months, you would think that the world's consumers are in for another escalation in food prices last seen in the summer of 2008. Yet, short-term movements in agricultural prices do not necessarily translate into higher food bills in the long term.

Much of the recent escalation in "soft commodities" like wheat, rice, coffee, corn and so on can be blamed on the weather. Readers may recall my columns "Weather and the World's Economies" and "What's the Price Tag of a Perfect Storm." In those articles, I explained how weather can impact prices of all sorts of things but especially commodities. This year's wheat crop is a good example of that.

This has been the hottest summer on record for us in the Northeast as well as other parts of the world. July was the hottest month in 150 years in Russia. By now, even if you live in Siberia, you are aware of the devastating drought within Russia, caused by that heat wave. The drought also sparked a series of fires that engulfed over 300,000 acres across seven regions. The weather and fires devastated that country's wheat crop. As a result, the government imposed an embargo on any further wheat exports, which account for 13 percent of global wheat exports.

Although the Russian wheat shortfall occupied the headlines, grain production has also suffered this summer because of severe flooding in Pakistan, China and Canada, while northwestern Europe has also suffered a drought. This has taken the wheat world by surprise. Wheat is a hardy grain resistant to all but the worst weather and producers grow it in overabundance. Huge wheat stocks have traditionally backstopped shortfalls in other soft commodities. As such, wheat is also the speculator's favorite grain to "short" since price declines are expected in all but the worst years. However, this year the tables were turned on everyone setting off a short-covering panic and buying frenzy in wheat futures which have gained over 35 percent in a short time.

There is a domino effect when a commodity as important as wheat has a sudden and sharp decline in supply. Livestock producers, for example, who may have been feeding their herds on cheap wheat are shifting out of that high-priced grain to corn. Suddenly the price of corn begins to rise. Rice, often a substitute for wheat in human consumption, has also risen recently.

In the commodity trading pits, sentiment has rapidly changed because of these windfall profits. Speculators, looking to make a fast buck on the next commodity to move are buying up anything that goes snap, crackle or pop. Normally this kind of behavior only impacts prices in the short-term (similar to the price effect of an unexpected freeze in Florida's orange juice production).

This time, however, because of wheat's function as the grain of last resort, this impact on prices could stretch out into the first quarter of next year. Investors have bid up the stocks of fertilizer, farm equipment and other agricultural-related companies as farmers around the world plan to increase their own production in an effort to fill the "wheat gap." Out in our own Midwest, farmers are optimistic that prices will be rising throughout the rest of this year and into next. But don't start stocking up on Cheerios quite yet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is only expecting a 1.5 percent increase in prices this year, which is actually down from the prior two years, when prices grew 1.8 percent per year. The real increases in food prices are still waiting in the wings until the world's economies are on firmer footing. Once people can afford to spend again, prices are expected to move up quickly in commodities across the board.

     

The Independent Investor: Does Cash Mean Currencies?

by Bill Schmick

There was a time when one of the rules of asset allocation was to always keep a little cash in your portfolio. Cash was the safest bet you could make. It became the place where we retreated when the markets were in free fall. Today, however, cash as an asset class, earns almost nothing. As a result, many individual investors are using that cash to trade currencies and in the process transform the world’s safest investment into something a lot more speculative.

The headline on the front page of Wednesday's Wall Street Journal read "Currency Trading Soars." The article explained that buying and selling currencies has become a $4 trillion a day market. How much of that volume is attributable to individual investors is hard to measure but from my own experience I can tell you that investing in currencies has never been easier or cheaper. Thanks to exchange traded funds (ETFs), the average Joe has his pick of 44 currency funds that are as easy to buy and sell as individual stocks.

Here in America, where since World War II we have been accustomed to having one of the world's strongest currencies, the desire to invest in other country's currencies has not been high on the list of investment priorities. The currency markets were something that banks used to square up their overseas borrowing or to provide you the necessary currency for your vacation to Hong Kong or Spain. It has only been in the last few years that Americans have begun paying attention to the dollar and its overseas purchasing power.

In other countries, where the fluctuations in the value of their currency can mean the difference between a secure future and poverty, trading in and out of currencies has been a way of life and a traditional avenue of investment. With the introduction of internet trading, ETFs and around-the-clock trading, retail investors in places like Japan, China and throughout the Middle East make a career of day trading currencies.

Clearly currencies markets offer the investor more depth. The currency market, at $4 trillion per day, dwarfs the trading in stocks which is only $130-$140 billion per month. The bond market is much larger and averages $456 billion/day but is still less than half the size of the currency markets.

"The stock markets are totally manipulated by a handful of big players. Bonds provide me less than the rate of inflation. Currencies, on the other hand, can make me a lot of money if I’m on the right side of a trade," argues one retired, ex-Fortune 500 executive who trades currencies by buying and selling ETFs.

During this summer he shorted the dollar (bought an inverse U.S. dollar ETF) and went long the Yen (bought a Japanese currency ETF).

"I made more money in currencies than I made in stocks since April," he crowed.

Although I congratulated him on his investment prowess, I also warned him that he was swimming with the whales in currency markets. Banks, hedge funds and mutual fund currency departments with trillions to throw around can outgun him money-wise, volume-wise and information-wise. These boys also have 24 hour trading departments. If the Japanese government were to suddenly intervene in their currency market, sending the yen dramatically lower (and the dollar higher), my friend could easily wake up tomorrow morning to a sizable loss before he could do anything about it.

This summer's collapse in the Euro was largely triggered by hedge funds. Riding the hedgies coattails works but only until it doesn't. The retail investor was the last to know when those big dogs reversed that trade. My advice to the majority of investors is to keep your cash in a money market and not try to speculate with it in the currency markets.

A better bet would be to buy a country fund or ETF if you believed the prospects of the country were better than most. That way, if you are right, you get a double win both on the country's currency and on its stock market.

     
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