Thomas Malthus and the ‘Myth’ of Scarcity
Common sense is a good place to start when thinking about the role that commodities play in an economy. As with all goods, they are limited in supply: there is not enough available to satisfy the potentially in nite needs and wants of consumers. Sure, some are more plentiful than others, but even those once thought essentially unlimited, say fresh water (or even fresh air!), might not be as unlimited as they once were.
Goldmoney Macro Views and Research Highlights
The Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a prominent classical economist, explored this concept of scarcity in some detail, in particular with respect to food production and consumption. He noted that farm production tended to grow linearly over time, yet populations tended to grow non-linearly. Eventually this would lead to demand outstripping supply, rising real food prices, and the impoverishment of the masses. A similar phenomenon is observed when bacteria are isolated inside a test tube with a limited food source: The bacteria grow exponentially until the food source becomes limited and access becomes restricted, at which time there will begin a precipitous decline and, in the end, a complete wipe-out of the entire population as the food source is depleted.
Malthus was entirely correct in his view, given his assumptions, as the test-tube example above demonstrates. In practice, however, his assumptions have been completely wrong. Indeed, the technological advances of the industrial revolution were already in full swing during his lifetime, but he failed to understand the role of technology and the associated division of labor and capital that was enabling, already during his own lifetime, a multifold increase in agricultural productivity.
Modern, neo-Malthusians sometimes retort that global population growth has now caught up with agricultural productivity to the point where food scarcity is again becoming an issue. There is some evidence for this claim. Food price in ation has been positive overall, if low, in recent years. But is this really due to scarcity? Or is it due to something else entirely?
Understanding Commodity Price Inflation
When thinking about commodity price in ation, we naturally tend to think of this
in terms of the dominant medium of exchange. In the US, this would be US dollars, although dollars are used around much of the world. In Japan, people think in yen terms; in the euro-area, in euro terms, etc. But while this is certainly conventional and convenient, when considering whether scarcity might be causing food price in ation, it can be horribly misleading. For example, food price in ation in the UK has risen sharply over the past year. But is this due to scarcity? Or to the sharp devaluation of sterling that began in 2015 and accelerated in 2016? Back in 2010-11, UK food price in ation was also unusually high. But was this due to scarcity, or to the sharp devaluation of sterling in 2008-9?
It should be obvious that currencies that experience sharp swings in their purchasing power serve as poor measures for benchmarking food price in ation, or any form of price in ation for that matter, and thus obscure its true cause. So which currency should we use?
The answer is… wait for it… None! NO currency can serve as a perfect measure of price in ation because all currencies are subject to swings in their purchasing power. These swings occur naturally, as currency supply and demand uctuate, although most central banks purport to keep such swings to a minimum. (As we know, central banks in fact fail miserably to keep such swings to a minimum, but that is a topic for another day.)
My commodities investment philosophy and the associated investment processes I have derived through the years are based on the idea that the best way to understand commodity prices is to think of them in relative terms, that is, relative to each other, rather than to denominate their prices in currency terms. So if we want to nd an answer to the question of what is behind food price in ation we should rst get a sense of to what extent there has been relative food price in ation vis-à-vis other commodities.
Let’s start by comparing the price of food to that of one of the key inputs in production: crude oil. Mechanized agriculture is powered primarily by petroleum products. Have food prices (in dollars) been rising relative to crude? Not really, no. How about metals? No. In fact, food prices have been lagging the general price rise in commodities since the early 2000s…