Thursday, October 11, 2012


I find myself reflecting back on the old days of my early career in Finance when Alan Greenspan shared wisdom and knowledge in a manner that left all of us wondering, "What the heck does that mean?".  Greenspan's watch over the US economy earned him the nickname The Maestro since he was able to save us from the financial cataclysm of the 2000 (remember when the world would end because the year changed from 1999 to 2000?).  Greenspan guided us through recession and even gave us a wonderful housing bubble to comfort us after the tech collapse.

Greenspan's cryptic and smooth delivery left a high bar for all following Federal Reserve Chairmen to follow and it is obvious that Ben Bernanke is not quite as eloquent as his predecessor.  As we reflect back, we now know that Greenspan is actually not The Maestro, but probably should be called The Destroyer as his policies clearly contributed to the real estate collapse of 2006 to 2008.  On his watch he avoided oversight and management of banks and lending institutions that pursued profit without concern for solvency.

Bernanke has done a remarkable job "saving" the existing system by performing heroic measures that are by anyone's assessment, simply extreme.  The new Fed Chairman has done the impossible and so he is credited by many as the savior of the financial world.  This blog has often declared that the extraordinary steps taken by Chairman Bernanke really are going to be the undoing of the world financial system as the actions really have only delayed the inevitable and probably made the collapse even more dramatic and far reaching.

I wanted to remind readers of the famous discussion Bernanke had where he defended his policies and stated that if there was actually an inflation in terms of food or gasoline, the impact was "Transitory".  In addition, Bernanke stated confidently that if there was discernible inflation in the system, the Fed would aggressively intervene and address the situation.  

(please see the Bloomberg story from April 2011) -

In an effort to check in on how Mr. Bernanke keeps his promises, lets examine an interesting graph I put together using data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  The arm of the UN tracks world food prices so that we may look and see if in fact prices are going up or down over time.

As you can see clearly, in April of 2011, food prices were rocketing much higher and this has to be one of the most significant reasons for the "Arab Spring" last year.  Starving people don't tolerate bad leadership for long, and these food prices caused them to take action.  Bernanke was able to step off the gas and we notice that astonishingly Bernanke was correct, prices moderated almost at the same time he gave his speech.  2012 has been a year of decline of food prices, but since September of 2012 and the announcement of QE 3, we have seen the UN Food Price Index reverse and begin to move higher.

Since I don't want to present data that tells an incomplete story, I've also posted a chart below that gives us a view of the nominal prices of the food index (as shown above), but also presents the inflation adjusted values.  The adjusted values still highlight that the food index is close to 30% higher than 2009 levels.  Let me say that again, food costs are close to 30% more than  3 years ago.

Nominal vs Real

The FAO data also has a breakout of the component commodity food prices and I have posted them here too.

Sugar continues its fall, but meat, dairy, and cereals all have move higher since their lows in January.

As I wrap this up, the point I am trying to make is that Bernanke told us that inflation was moderating and seemed "transitory".  Almost in tandem with his statements, inflation worldwide reversed course and prices came off significantly.  In 2012, we have seen a reversal to this trend and we now see that food inflation is now heading higher.  It will be interesting to see additional data for October as it will include more of the results of the QE 3 announcement.

At this point the consumer worldwide is paying more for food and we all need to question Bernanke as to how long "transitory" really means and how he plans to aggressively intervene to stop inflation while he is aggressively holding rates at ZIRP through mid 2015.  My guess is that he will gladly let inflation stay awhile longer (forever) rather than stop his zero interest rate policy.  Our government and the Federal Reserve would gladly export food inflation and instability throughout the world to keep the financial system alive for a little while longer.


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