NEW YORK (Reuters) - High food prices around the world? Blame -- at least in part -- the investors who moved their money into commodities in the past five years, looking for better returns than they were getting from stocks and bonds.
Global investment funds saw the potential for profits in commodities outstripping those from the stock market, and from 2002 started diving into oil, followed by metals and then grains.
This move was fueled by falling interest rates in major economies, which makes fixed-income investments less attractive, and a weak dollar, which tends to drive up the price of dollar-denominated investments such as most grains.
This in turn attracted investors with little or no connection to the grain market, often labeled as speculators, who took corn, soybean and wheat prices to a whole new altitude.
In March, corn futures hit a record $5.88 a bushel and soybeans $15.86-3/4 on the Chicago Board of Trade, the benchmark for world prices. CBOT wheat peaked at $13.49-3/4 a bushel in February.
Stung by high transportation costs from record oil prices, food makers have passed some of the high crop prices to consumers, leading to protests in many countries. Some nations have even withheld grain exports to guarantee domestic supply.
Investors say high prices are supported by fundamental supply-and-demand factors like a higher-protein diet in emerging economies like China, demand for biofuels made from corn, soybeans and palm oil, and drought in some important grain exporting nations. But investors bear at least some of the blame, economists say.
"The idea is there are a lot of new players in the commodities futures game and those new players don't necessarily have a vested interest in the market beyond the speculative interest," said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist with the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University.
Hart said that although agricultural commodities trade on fundamentals like harvest reports, they have become more volatile due to the influx of new money. "With speculation it means it tends to move much sharper than it did in the past."
"Unfortunately, I think when people are trading commodities, I don't think they are even caring about social impact," said Gary Kaltbaum, who runs a hedge fund, Kaltbaum and Associates of Orlando, Florida, that is invested in grains.
"What these people do is invest and their job is to make money. If they think something's going to go higher, they are going to trade on it. They're not going to be worried about repercussions somewhere else," Kaltbaum said of investors like himself.
As recession talk swirls in the United States, some say the outlook for stocks and bonds may not be as bright as for commodities.
"Investors are likely to see negative U.S. GDP from here and they have 65 to 95 pct of their assets in stocks and underperforming assets," said Tom Fernandes, a portfolio manager at Greenhaven LLC, an Atlanta asset manager that invests in food and biofuel crops.
"They've no choice but make an allocation to something that's at least participating. On the long side, it's commodities at the moment," Fernandes said.
A long position is a bet that prices will go up, while a short position is a bet that prices will fall.
Traders said the weight of long investors has crowded the space between producers and consumers in grain markets, which are much too small to handle the influx.
Total trading volume for a day in CBOT corn, soybeans and wheat is less than 1 percent of the $3 trillion traded each day on the global foreign exchange market.
And the combined value of the U.S. corn, soybean and wheat crop for last year was just $92.51 billion. By comparison, outstanding U.S. Treasury bonds total about $4.6 trillion, and the market capitalization of U.S. stock markets is about $16 trillion.
"The U.S. imported $36 billion worth of crude oil last month. If oil exporters then used this money to buy our wheat, they would have enough money to buy the entire U.S. crop," said Peter Kordell, president at Slipka Financial Partners, a commodity futures brokerage in Minneapolis.
Investors also say the farm sector is partly to blame for failing to invest enough in production over the past five years. With the U.S. credit squeeze getting worse by the day, securing borrowings has become harder for farmers in the world's biggest grain exporter.
Also, grain elevators -- companies that buy from farmers and remarket to processors -- are seeing losses because they have committed to provide grains to processors at much lower prices than today's.
"The grains companies themselves aren't large enough from a market capitalization view to handle these high prices so quickly," Greenhaven's Fernandes said.
Unfavorable weather that has played havoc with crops is another problem. A severe drought in major wheat exporter Australia lit a fire under the wheat market.
Adding to the mix is the race to make biofuels. The United States has a mandate to produce 9 billion gallons of ethanol, made from corn, this year and 10 billion gallons in 2009.
Given the varied factors at play, blaming hedge funds and other speculators for current commodity prices may not be fair.
"The fact that these grains markets are moving higher is a bonus to these funds but they would be equally content if these markets were in a downward spiral as they could make money shorting them," said Gavin McGuire, an analyst at Iowa Grain, a Chicago firm specializing in trading U.S. grains futures.
Kaltbaum, the Florida hedge fund manager, agrees. "These things can cut both ways and there'll be a time when they go down also."
"When the fast money crowd sees things moving, they want to jump on," Kaltbaum said. "Until the bubble kind of bursts."
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Reporting by Barani Krishnan; Additional reporting by K.T. Arasu and Christine Stebbins in Chicago and Christopher Doering, Missy Ryan and Russell Blinch in Washington; Editing by Eddie Evans