Sunday, May 25, 2008

Q&A: The dollar crisis, rising oil & commodity prices

The following is a translation from an Arabic Q&A.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Question:
The dollar crisis continues to persist and it its slide down is markedly visible. This has been followed by a surge in crude oil, gold and other minerals & metals prices thereby resulting in steep rise in foodstuff prices. This multi-faceted crisis is unprecedented both in terms of its intensity as well as persistence…

Is this crisis really a result of economic problems, or is it the US policies that are spurring & aggravating it?

I request you to please clarify this, may Allah reward you for it.

Answer:

Indeed this crisis has a genuine economic aspect as well, but the interference of political hands has compounded & aggravated the problem to such proportions that we see.

To fully clarify the picture, we shall explain how the crisis developed, how the political hands interfered with it and how the rise in the prices of crude oil, gold and metals affected the crisis, and finally we shall see how it developed into a food crisis.

First of all: Indeed there is a genuine crisis in the US economy which has affected the strength & influence of the US dollar, consequently the US economy has been hit by the currently widespread slowdown. The current crisis has grown to such proportions due to the following factors:

The US Trade Deficit:
The United States imports more goods & services than it exports and its consumers have a great appetite for imports. For instance, the US imported goods & services worth US$ 1,625 billion in 2003, while its exports during that year were worth US$ 1,203 billion, which leaves a deficit of US$ 449 billion and has since risen to a gigantic figure of US$ 816 billion! This difference between the imports & exports was adjusted by printed currency (US dollars) or by US government bonds. This, by its nature leads to a downturn in US Dollars though it may not be officially acknowledged.

Certainly, the US has never before experienced a trade deficit of such colossal proportions; on the contrary, it has been witnessing trade surplus and that too for many a decades, especially after World War II. Gradually, this trade surplus began to taper off over the years thanks to stiff competition from European as well as Asian countries that produce the goods at lower costs. This resulted in even higher imports of goods & services from such countries. This coincided with a huge military expenditure in the Vietnam War resulting in steeply risen balance of payment. In 1971, the US was forced to abandon supporting its dollar with gold, this was the first tremor. In the 80’s when global trade grew and industrial plants shifted from America to those countries that offered cheaper labour, economic shortfall began to show its ugly face. Also the continued imports from the countries that produced cheaper goods like Mexico, China & Malaysia led to further widening of the trade-deficit.

Thus the deficits in the trade & payment balance sowed doubts and distrust about the US economy among the investors and later this led to a slump in the value of the US dollar.

Debt:
The US Treasury department statistics showed a rise in the indebtedness of the government (the Federal administration as well as the local administrations) from US$ 4.3 trillion (US$ 4,300,000,000,000) in 1990 to a staggering US$ 8.4 trillion in 2003, further rising to about US$ 8.9 trillion in 2007. This general debt is the size of 64% of the Gross Domestic Product. Thus the US can be grouped alongside those countries that suffer most from their debts. This debt is not confined to the US governments alone but comprises firms and individuals in its web. Individual debts alone in the US have recently reached a staggering figure of US$ 6.60 trillion, while the corporate debts, ranked first have reached US$ 18.40 trillion. Thus the total debts stand at US$ 34 trillion which is three times the GDP. This, in itself is a grave economic crisis.

The Rise of the Euro:
Ever since the advent of the Euro, it became the second alternative global reserve currency after the US dollar. This was due to the fact that Euro inherited this distinguished position from the Deutsche Mark, but it even surpassed it and this adversely affected the dollar. Thus the Euro enjoys even more trust than its German predecessor with its value constantly on the rise affecting the demand for the US currency and taking its shine. Hence several investors were encouraged by this fall of dollar’s value into switching their investments from the US currency to the stronger Euro.

In addition to these, the US economy suffers from several factors foremost of them being inflation crossing 4%, unemployment in excess of 5%, an industry in disarray, poverty, poor education services, and the like…

All these factors have contributed to the dollar losing its face & value.
The dollar’s fall has forced several central banks across the globe to reduce their stocks of the US currency.

Paul Michael, a currency strategist at the HSBC says: “The central banks have for quite some time realised that they are no longer keen to boost their dollar stocks. As a result, most central banks around the world have reduced the dollar part of their assets form 73 to 64%”.
This is the real picture of the crisis confronting the US dollar.

Secondly: It is in these circumstances that the US political interference came about in order to exploit the crisis in order to serve its own interests and thus turn the crisis from being a local crisis to a global one… this is how it came about:

1. Any decrease in the value of an exporting country’s currency increases its exports because the costs of the goods becomes relatively cheaper for the importing country due to the fact that the importer pays a lower price for the goods considering that the currency of the exporting country has fallen. For instance, when an importer pays US$ 1000.00 as cost of the goods and presuming that this equals €1000.00. Now if the US dollar loses say 10% of it value, the importer will only need to pay €900.00 instead of €1000.00 on the earlier rates. Therefore the importers prefer to import goods from such countries that have lower value currencies.
It is another matter that all this is fine so long as the currency depreciation is within 5% and is still acceptable if the currency has lost up to 10% value. But if the depreciation exceeds 10%, the industrial plants that manufacture the goods suffer due to the resulting inflation, in other words, the cost of the goods increases in such countries that have lost the currency values because the purchasing power of that currency is impaired. This inflation results in higher cost of the industrial plants and thereby an increase in the prices of its goods follows. This means that the cost of the goods does not remain US$ 1000.00, but it increase. Thus if a currency loses its value beyond an acceptable limit, the cost of production increases resulting in reduced exports due to the resulting inflation. In the case of America, the loss of the dollar’s value has crossed an acceptable limit, for instance, the Euro is trading at around US$ 1.60 as compared to US$ 0.80 in 2000. Which means that the value of the US dollar has breached critical economic limits and has lost over five times….

As a result of this depression, the US exports have only grown by a meagre amount meaning that though the trade deficit has marginally been reduced, it remains and haunts the economy.
Yet in spite of these, the US has not taken any steps to correct the trade deficit, it has not opened up its oil reserve stocks for usage to bring down the cost of production for the industrial plants which would result in increased exports. In fact the Bush administration has refused to open up the oil reserves for usage in order to reduce the fuel costs which have been shooting up drastically. In other words, the US has not tried to solve the deficit problem from an economic perspective.

Similarly, it has not addressed the issue of the debt, on the other hand it has in fact it has worked to increase it further as a result of its aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq which have cost it over 2 trillion dollars! In addition the Bush administration has given loans to the wealthy US capitalists in the range of about a trillion dollars by way of tax subsidies. This is motivated by electoral & political considerations… leaving the debt as it was, or even worse.

Thus the fall of dollar has persisted and the US has taken no economic steps to rectify the situation. It then exploited this low-cost dollar to politically blackmail countries that have huge dollar reserves such as China which has dollar reserves in the range of a thousand billion dollars causing it to lose colossal sums, then it exploited India, European countries and the oil countries forcing them float their currencies and buy dollars. This increased the demand for dollars and marginally contained the US deficits.

2. Then came the collapse of the shares of US real estate mortgage firms which enabled America to transfer its crisis to the global level!

America gave loans on soft interests to housing companies, especially the real estate mortgage firms that sell houses on mortgage until the installments are paid for. Thus liquidity was available to these companies in a big way, motivating them to go soft on conditions of sale and on easier terms and even reduced rates because liquidity was no problem for these companies thanks to the cheaper state loans. The Americans went in for buying houses in a big way because cash was available to them from US banks that gave loans on easy terms. In fact the banks gave loans even to extent of the full value of the mortgage unlike the European banks that give loans only up to 60% of the mortgage value. All this was because the US government was giving cheaper credits to real estate companies, causing them to register considerable profits.

Now because of globalisation and susceptibility of one company buying out another whenever it sees a profit opportunity, the multinational companies, specialised banks and central banks as well as individuals bought shares of US real estate companies with the aim of taking profits… this caused the real estate companies to register consistent boom in the stock exchanges across the globe and especially in the US and eventually the real estate shares became the preferred form of investment at the cost of other sectors including modern technologies that were exposed to losses. Earlier, the investment of choice were the information technology and communication firms, but now the Americans, both individuals and companies preferred to buy real estate as long-term investment or for speculative trading. The real estate facilities were now so easily and widely available that banks even gave to loans to those individuals who were not in a position to pay their debts due to their reduced incomes.

This situation persisted and caused no severe problems till the current year until the burden of the loans became untenable for the government. The US then stopped the soft-loans to the mortgage & real estate sector banks; it even demanded repayment of the earlier loans which were now due. These real estate companies and mortgage banks in turn asked their customers to repay. But since unemployment, inflation and economic stagnation was rampant in the US, the house owners could neither repay the loan mortgages on the house cost nor the bank loans… real estate prices collapsed as a result of this payment default and the individuals who were in a position to repay their loans also defaulted. Thus, a house whose price was US$ 500,000 lost over half of its value and was available for US$200,000, yet as was reported in the press, no one was willing to buy even at this price. Over 2 million American owners were left encumbered with life-long financial liabilities. Consequently, due to loans default at such an enormous scale, the lending banks’ shares fell on the stock markets and mortgage companies collapsed under tremendous losses estimated to be in the range of US$ 2,000 million! This led to several real estate companies announcing their bankruptcy.

As a result of this, an enormous portion of the debts became unrecoverable bad debt.
The big banks were at last exposed to a severe jolt in the American mortgage sector, ‘Market’ magazine published by the German-Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Berlin, pointed that the American ‘CitiGroup’ that opened the new year with losses incurred in the last quarter of the previous year to the tune of US$ 9.83 billion (equivalent to € 6.60 billion at the then prevalent rates). This loss to the ‘CitiGroup’ in the mortgage sector has now reached a staggering US$ 18.10 billion.

The same losses were suffered by other banking institutions; the American ‘Merryll Lynch’ announced a write-off of US$ 14.10 billion from its assets, meaning that it ran a loss of US$ 9.80 billion in the last quarter of 2007-the biggest loss in its history.
The Swiss giant ‘UBS’ was also similarly placed; it received billions of dollars from the Singapore Sovereign Fund, the ‘GIC’ to enable it to avoid going bankrupt.

This is how the shares of real estate mortgage firms collapsed in the stock markets and as a result the shares of banking institutions followed in several countries across the world that were linked to the real estate investments or directly involved in the US real estate market. This did not strictly remain confined to the specific sector, but spread to even such sectors that do not deal in real estate, but because of the effects of globalisation, and overlapping of economic sectors over each other, no sector was totally insusceptible.

It was not just that the shares of the real estate sector firms collapsed by on the American Wall Street, this phenomenon was repeated across the world; the Frankfurt exchange index fell by 7.10%, in Paris, the index lost 6.80%, the London index fell by 5.40%, in Madrid by 7.50%, Tokyo lost 3.80%, Shanghai 5.10%, Sao Paolo index fell by 6.00%, Riyadh index lost 9.80%, Dubai index fell by 9.40%, Beirut by 3.00% and Cairo lost 4.20%.

Owing to the enormity of the losses suffered, it was decided by the French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in their 27th March, 2008 meeting that they will urge the banks to immediately disclose the extent of bad debts with them. In January last, Brown had said that Britain faces a tough test with the global economy in difficult and dangerous times due to the credit crisis precipitated by US loans default. This statement came after the 5th largest British real estate mortgage bank; the ‘Northern Rock’ was exposed to huge losses due to the US real estate crisis.

This is how the United States passed its local crisis to the global level to such an extent that the European central banks pumped in a whopping US$ 150 billion in the last year to support real estate mortgage companies so that the resulting crisis does not adversely affect the global stock exchanges including the European exchanges due to the global reach of multi national companies that affects every country because of the maze created in the aftermath of a globalised world. Thus America exposed Europe and then supported its own real estate companies through such means.

In conclusion, the American crisis had several political & economic ramifications; the US, passing through real crises leading to the devaluation of its currency, indulged in manipulative politics (or conspired) to involve the entire world to be sunk in by a crisis that was essentially an American crisis especially after globalisation and opening up of stock exchanges in the name of ‘market economy’ and extending the reach of multinational firms to the whole world. In this environment, most countries’ stock exchanges are open to each other and affected by them.
The dollar devalued owing to America’s economic woes was thus exploited by it to reduce its trade deficit and to politically blackmail especially those countries that maintain huge dollar reserves. In the process, it also managed to convert what was essentially a US real estate mortgage firms’ crisis into a global crisis; it is another matter that America itself is not insulated from this.

Yet in spite of all these political maneuverings, the US economy has not returned to growth cycle, it is just that its’ collapse has ceased for the time being. Were it not for globalisation, open-market economy and the capitalist economic order being prevalent and dominant over the world economy, and importantly if the countries were not relying on the US dollar as the reserve currency, the American economy could not have stood on its own and sustained until now.
Thirdly: As for the rising prices of such minerals as oil, gold, iron etc., it must be observed that it followed the real estate mortgage crisis and the resulting stock & derivatives market crisis when the stock indices collapsed. In the aftermath of these crises, the investors’ confidence took a beating in such investment instruments that do not carry any intrinsic value, like bonds, shares and equity stock markets. Therefore they moved away from such investments and preferred such investment avenues that have an intrinsic value like gold and other important metals thereby creating demand for such commodities and consequently a huge upsurge in their prices; thus gold prices have already reached US% 1,000 per ounce and as the current indicators point, it is poised to even reach US$ 1,500.00 an ounce.

Indeed the United States is itself among those worst affected by the gold price upsurge. If this upward trend in gold prices persists, the value of the dollar will not be worth the paper it is printed on! Therefore, the US is expected to take steps to curb gold prices, indeed there are already pointers to that; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has decided to sell 403 tons of gold due to its own budget deficit. However, the IMF has said that this quantity will be sold in phases over a long term. This declaration by the IMF will go a long way in curbing the (speculation) in gold prices. It is probable that this gold will be sold to central banks which may cause the central banks to increase their profit margins and thereby it may also result in increased exchange rates. Again, the IMF on 9th April, 2008 stated, that the financial crisis will cost a trillion US dollars. Such statements more than being honest reflections of the situation are designed to be speculative aimed at changing the course of economy and finance. As the English newspaper ‘Telegraph’ said in its commentary, the IMF is the last resort to emerge out of the current financial crisis, thus this statement of the IMF amounts to preparing grounds for it.
Thus the fall in dollar prices and investors’ lack of confidence in the primary US markets has pushed many of them not to invest in banknote credit instruments. A logical assessment of this reveals that the current banknote credit instruments are not fully backed in any perceptible way. In other words, in the current atmosphere, the confidence crisis will quickly spill over to other currencies. Therefore, certain central banks, like the Central Bank of China have begun to buy gold and this has pushed gold prices t its highest levels. The same applies to the price rise in other metals like silver and platinum. Further, due to increased demands of copper, zinc, aluminum and nickel from India and China, their prices have also risen. This increased demand from India and China is due to their rapid economic growth. This has been the case of the Chinese demand for the last 12 years while in the case of India, it has been there for 4 years. China has invested US$ 1 trillion in its infrastructure development and will spend another US$ 50 billion every year for the coming 15 years. On its part, India has begun its infrastructure development plan six years back. In the beginning, the investments on this plan were meager, but in the last 4 years investments have reached US$ 50 billion and it has plans to invest between US$ 30 to 40 billion annually for the next ten years. However, India does not have sufficient mineral reserves to support this investment plan; moreover, the rise in petrol prices has meant an increase in its production costs and as a result of this, there is an overall price increase.

Indeed the cause of oil price increase is related to the sinking dollar prices and the higher purchasing power for oil of countries like those in the European Union, China and India and this is driving the demand for oil. However, the chief cause for oil price upsurge is the speculative trading, and it is the American speculation that has led to it. This was meant to put together the dollars in circulation from those who want to buy oil in order to enable the US to avoid a total collapse of its currency. This is reason behind uncertain information (rather misinformation) regarding American oil reserve figures that the US puts out periodically.

Speculations play a key role in price rise; for instance, take the speculative trading in futures contracts or the speculative trading in minerals, especially gold. A higher gold price pushes such countries as China, Russia and other Asian countries to buy gold as a means of getting rid of their enormous dollar reserves. These countries no longer trust the US currency, because any decrease in its value results in severe losses to them. Similarly, China bought iron and other metals required for its industry and this pushed the iron and other metals’ prices up. Also Germany bought huge quantities of scrap iron and this caused the price surge, in fact it multiplied because a big portion of it is exported to China.

It has been known for a long time that crude oil prices increase whenever there is a surge in the value of dollar. These two are inversely linked to each other. The current condition is no different, on 17th April, 2008, the crossed the barrier of US$ 115.00 per barrel and the upswing continued with the prices crossing US$ 120.00 per barrel today on 5th May, 2008.
The oil prices have increased more than four folds since the year 2002 due to an increase in demand not just in China and other growing economies. In fact, the projections indicate that oil prices will reach US$ 130.00 per barrel by December next.

Fourth: As for the global food crisis, it has exacerbated the economic crisis arising out of the US home mortgage crisis. Another crisis has emerged which is far more severe and threatens global food security in various parts of the globe where food prices ranging from bread to even milk have shot up.

This crisis became evident recently after the increase in prices of wheat, maize and other basic food stuffs in the last few years. This worrisome trend has emerged in the past few months.
On 12th May, 2008, the British magazine ‘Economist’ published a report which said that the pulses prices increased in an unprecedented manner unheard of since the “Economist Index’ for food stuffs was instituted in 1945 and according to the magazine, this increase has been 75%. The Chicago Chamber of Commerce, whose food pulses price index is the world’s leading indicator of pulses reports a 90% increase in wheat prices, 80% in soya beans and 20% in maize prices and are still on the rise even today.

The major reasons behind the foodstuffs price rise and consequently the emergence of the food crisis:

Increase in oil prices and sliding dollar prices:

1. Certainly, the increase in oil prices has led to an increase in the prices of products required for agriculture like seeds, fertilisers, insecticides & pesticides, agricultural implements and transportation. An increase in cost of production and transport influences increase in the prices of foodstuff especially wheat and maize. For instance in the Philippines, the rice prices have risen by 70% during the last year.

On the other hand, the foodstuff prices are mostly assessed US dollars, and when the dollar loses its value, it is but natural that foodstuff prices will automatically shoot upwards.
Gratsiano observes: “loss of confidence in the dollar has pushed the investment funds to look for higher returns in the basic goods…first of all in metals and then in foodstuffs”. A number of speculators have in the past years switched their investments to the commodity markets in search of higher returns than they would earn in shares and bonds markets.

2. Climatic Conditions: Climatic conditions such as floods, droughts and cyclones affect agricultural production. For instance, Australia, one of the largest exporters of food pulses is currently facing unprecedented levels of droughts in its history. Such conditions have been compounded by an economic boom in countries such as China, India and Brazil and this has resulted in accentuated levels of meat consumption.

It is a known fact that to produce a piece of meat containing 100 calories, 700 calories of vegetation has to be fed to animals. Out of 2.13 billion tons of food grains only 1.01 tons is earmarked for human consumption. These figures are released by the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN. Consequently, as the global economy grows, cattle livestock also grow proportionately.

3. Bio-fuels from food grains:
Jean Zeigler, UN’s Special Rapporteur on the ‘Right to Food’ observed in a statement over the German Radio that intensive bio-fuel production now represents ‘crime against humanity’ because it pushes food grain prices across the world.

Bio-fuels depend on agriculture production, and during the recent years many of the industrialised countries have exploited agriculture produce and agricultural land for the production of bio fuels in order to reduce their dependence on petro oil whose prices are touching record-high levels. This is leading to increased demand for bio fuel and thereby for food grains.
Therefore in certain countries such as the United States and Brazil, agricultural land is being converted for production of maize and soy bean required for producing ethanol from them. Since 2001, the quantity of maize used in production of ethanol in the US has increased 300%. Further, the US is attempting to produce 35 billion gallons (133 billion liters) per annum of ethanol by the year 2017. The US Congress in its ‘Energy Document’ for 2005 has decided to increase maize-extracted ethanol production from 4 billion gallons in 2006 to 7.5 billion gallons in 2012.

In March 2007, the US President George Bush met his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to sign the ‘Ethanol Convention’ between the two countries for cooperation among them to develop research and development on the next generation bio fuels. They also agreed on forming a trade union for bio fuel especially in the Central Asian countries. This ‘Ethanol Convention’ between the two presidents marks the beginning of a growing phenomenon of producing food grains for extraction of bio fuels. In the grasslands and forests of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay, the land is being set aside for production of sugarcane plantation, palm oil and soy beans for extraction of bio fuels. In Brazil alone, soy bean production has occupied some 21 million hectares of forest lands, 14.0 million hectares in Argentina. It does appear that this phenomenon will subside so long as the food grains prices continue to surge upwards. In the year 2008, it is expected that out of 2.13 billion tons of food grains, 100 million tons will be used to extract bio fuels, in other words, this 100 million tons will used for feeding cars instead of human beings!

4. Administrative & Political failures:
As regard to wheat and other strategic grains production, the EU produces some 122 million tons, China produces 106 million tons, India, 75 million tons, America produces 56 million tons and Russia produces 48 million tons of grains. The US exports 32 million tons, Canada exports 15 million tons and the EU and Argentina export 10 million tons each.

As for the Arabian countries, they all import wheat except Syria. The leading importer is Egypt, the land of Nile. It is the largest wheat importer in the world with wheat imports of 7 million tons while Algeria, that used to present itself as the land of the Atlas Mountains and farmlands during the French period, imports 5 million tons. The land of Tigris & Euphrates, Iraq imports 3 million tons, Morocco also imports 3 million tons, Yemen imports close to 3 millions as well while Tunisia imports 1 million and Jordan 500,000 tons of wheat.

During this period of a lower dollar and higher oil prices, the import cost of wheat is likely to go higher and higher, which will greatly encumber the budget of importing countries even if wheat and other food grains are made available to them at subsidised rates.
This is despite the fertile lands & water resources available to these Arab countries! Is it not surprising or even shocking that the land of Nile delta (Egypt), the land of the two rivers (Iraq), and the land of the Atlas Mountains (Algeria) happen to be the largest importer of wheat in the world!!!.

Perhaps this is what becomes evident from the recent report of the World Bank on water resources in the Middle East and Northern Africa. This explains how the wicked politics shapes the Arab world! The report concluded that in order to provide water, it is imperative to develop agriculture policies in such a way so as to reduce dependence on water consumption. The World Bank has advised to grow tomatoes, water melons etc.. Instead of wheat! As per the recommendations of Francisco Montovani, the water resources expert at the World Bank, it is not related to technological processes to be decided upon by engineers; rather it is through deeper policies!

It is known that several countries have capacity to grow wheat, but colonialist policies followed by the International Monetary Fund prevent this. The IMF recommends growing of tobacco & cotton to those countries that follow its recommendations and gives them loans and other assistance to grow such crops, while it refuses loans and other assistance for growing wheat. This is evidently meant to feed the industrial plants of the rich nations with these raw materials.
Indeed Allah (swt) has bestowed the Muslim countries with bounties of fertile lands and abundance of water resources, and if these are properly harnessed, Muslims can lead affluent lives. But this requires a rightful system from the One who has wisdom, i.e. the system of Islam, the Khilafah Rashidah which will fill the world with justice and well being. It is hoped that this will soon materialise with the command of Allah (swt).

1st Jumadah al Oolah, 1429 A.H
5th May, 2008 C.E.

Arabic Source

2 comments:

rahul said...

great v.very knowlegeable lobal article.the auther has explained global crisis in such a simle manner so that becomes understandable to layman even.thank for writing such gr8 article

Aced Reza said...

nicely written. enlightening piece :)