Category Archives: Commodities Trading

Raisin Tyranny

Is there a particular Supreme Court case that has drawn your interest this year? How about the one that will determine the future of the Affordable Care Act, i.e. Obama Care? Or the one that will address the legality of gay marriage?

Those are very momentous questions, aren’t they? Indeed, they dominate the recent headlines regarding the Court’s case docket. And yet, sometimes, we need to peek below the headlines to find the most momentous cases of all.

For instance, did you know that the Supreme Court is now hearing a case that accuses the federal government of raisin tyranny? No, not gun control tyranny. Or cyber snooping tyranny.

Raisin tyranny!

Back in the 1930s, when the Great Depression threatened the nation’s agricultural industry with total collapse, the Roosevelt administration implemented various regulatory policies to support the economic viability of farms. One common tactic involved the reduction of market supply in order to create intentional shortages that would drive up customer prices.

Although that might sound like a counter intuitive strategy, it is actually a common one that has been applied in numerous commodity markets for more than a century. The American Confederacy, for instance, intentionally destroyed its cotton during the Civil War to strengthen its competitive position. And more recently, OPEC has occasionally reduced its production of oil to drive up energy prices.

In the United States, many of these policies have been subjected to vigorous debate, as the government has increasingly relied on the private commodity markets to regulate prices. But last week, at the Supreme Court, we learned that the national supply of one agricultural product remains under the firm control of the federal government:

Raisins!

Really? Raisins? When did our government seize control of the raisin industry?

Apparently, after the Second World War, the Truman Administration created the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC) of the Department of Agriculture. The regulatory entity supports the price of raisins by removing them from the market, thereby reducing supply and creating an imbalance with demand.

And what about the raisin producers and distributors who do not wish to give up their supply? Believe it or not, the RAC possesses the authority to seize their inventory against their will. Once seized, the raisins are placed in a National Raisin Reserve.

Well, guess what? The RAC is still ordering involuntary raisin seizures today! That’s why the Supreme Court is hearing a case about the legality of the federal policy. During last week’s Court arguments, Chief Justice Roberts remarked that the RAC might be seizing private property “in the dark of night.” And Justice Kagan called the RAC “a weird historical anomaly.”

The involuntary seizure of private property by the federal government, of course, is not a laughing matter. The British seizure of colonial goods, for instance, stoked the widespread dissatisfaction that led to the American Revolution. And the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution clearly establishes the right to own private property.

So although the federal government’s raisin policy might ostensibly appear to be a bit less important than the Affordable Care Act or the definition of marriage, it might be worth our attention any way. After all, if we grant government officials the authority to seize our food today, what would prevent them from seizing our homes tomorrow?

The Great Potash Cartels!

Financial market watchdogs have long complained about the manipulation of various economic markets. Just within the past month, for instance, news about the manipulation of commodity metal values, energy prices, and interest rates have rocked the investment industry.

But are you ready for the possibility of manipulation in the potash market? Potash?

Potash is a natural resource that is mined and utilized to manufacture potassium, a compound that possesses a myriad of industrial and consumer uses. Salt, for instance, is produced from potassium chloride, and commercial fertilizer is produced from many varieties of potassium.

In other words, the food supply that humans, animals, and plants ingest is dependent on the continued existence of a stable and affordable global market of potash. Thus, by dominating the potash industry, organizations could gain control over food itself.

Until last week, the global potash market has been dominated by a pair of business cartels. One has been a venture between the Russian firm Uralkali and the Belorussian firm Belaruskali; the other, called Canpotex, has been a three way venture of the Canadian firms Potash Corporation, Mosaic, and Agrium.

But last week, Uralkali shook the industry by withdrawing from its cartel. And the global mining firm BHP Billiton is now considering a $14 billion Canadian resource opportunity that would bring a major new competitor to the potash market.

So what evidence exists of potential potash price manipulation? During the past six years, market prices have fluctuated from the low $300s per ton to the high $800s per ton. These fluctuations have been massive and abrupt in scope and direction, with no readily apparent explanation to account for them.

So, for now, the potash market remains under the control of a few giant firms. Nevertheless, the recent withdrawal of Uralkali and the potential entry of BHP may indeed portend a more competitive future.