Commodity Consolidation

Last week it was reported that ADM has approached its rival Bunge about a potential takeover, eight months after Glencore proposed doing the same thing. Last summer Bunge’s CEO suggested that his company might be worth more as part of a larger organisation. Bunge, according to the FT, « has no poison pill or bylaws that would allow it to fend off an unsolicited approach, making it vulnerable to a hostile takeover ».

It is unclear how Bunge, with a market capitalisation of about $11bn compared to ADM’s $23bn, reacted to the ADM’s approach. It is also unclear how the deal might fare under US antitrust laws; the combined entity may to have to divest significant assets, especially in the US and Canada.

Meanwhile some analysts predicted that Glencore would enter into a bidding war for Bunge; others suggested that Glencore would sit back and pick up the assets that ADM might have to divest, particularly its North American grain silos and processing plants.

The offer for Bunge goes against ADM’s (apparent) strategy of diversifying away from low-margin and volatile commodities into higher-margin and more stable ingredients. In 2014, ADM bought natural the ingredient company Wild Flavors for about $3 billion, and has since also expanded into other « healthy » ingredients such as fruits and nuts.

Last week also saw Ferrero announcing a $2.8bn cash deal to buy Nestlé’s US confectionary brands, and so become the world’s third-largest seller of confectionery, behind Mars and Hershey. The FT suggested that the privately owned Ferrero was well placed to pay a premium to expand its confectionary footprint in the US at a time when publicly owned companies are under pressure over concerns about obesity.

However, some analysts warned that Ferrero would face a challenge in managing the move from a company with a small and carefully chosen premium portfolio of products to a multi-brand conglomerate more like Unilever or Nestlé.

Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods last June was also in the news last week. The conventional wisdom at the time of the acquisition was that Amazon would slash prices, expand delivery services and pressure margins across the industry. So far at least, that hasn’t happened, for three reasons.

First, even with Whole Foods, Amazon’s annual grocery sales are tiny compared to industry giants like Walmart and Costco—with roughly 2% share of the U.S. grocery market. It is tough to transform a market with so small a market share.

Second, the deal was forged out of weakness rather than strength; both Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh were struggling before the acquisition.

Third, as an online retailer, Amazon lacks expertise in brick-and-mortar operations; it doesn’t have a model that it can stamp on to Whole Foods. As such, there seem few synergies between the two companies.

However, Amazon is known for playing a long game, and they may have technological disruption on their side. This week the company opened their first “Checkout-free” Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle. The store uses cameras and electronic sensors to identify customers and track the items they select. Purchases are billed to customers’ credit cards when they leave the store. As yet the company has no plans to introduce the technology to its Whole Foods stores.

But technological disruption is not just occurring at the retail end of the food supply chain. This week Dreyfus reported that they had teamed up with their banks to do their first agricultural commodity trade using blockchain technology–a cargo of US soybeans to China. Dreyfus said that document processing on the transaction was reduced to a fifth of the time it would normally take, and that the process reduced the risk of fraud and human error.

As such, the two (maybe three) mergers mentioned above are occurring at a time of rapid technological change–a time when the whole supply chain is being disrupted.

But what else do they have in common, and what lessons can be learned from them?

Mergers are tough to implement and quite often end up destroying value, as well as diverting management time from internal growth. Mergers are even tougher in struggling sectors: two struggling companies do not make a strong one. In addition, it is not necessarily a good idea to go into a merger from a position of weakness. Lastly, just because a company is successful at running one business, it doesn’t mean that it can be just as successful in another, even adjacent, business.

On the positive side it has become clear that companies are better at managing some businesses than others. Confectionary companies are, for example, better at managing brands than they are at managing commodity sourcing and processing. At the same time, too diverse a portfolio of businesses can put strains on management processes.

This could be particularly the case if ADM, an increasingly ingredients-focused company, expands its footprint further into traditional commodity merchandising.

One obvious solution would be for ADM to take Bunge’s more value-added downstream businesses, while Glencore would buy the commodity merchandising businesses.

It will be interesting to see how this one develops.


The Hidden Life of Trees

Over the holiday period I read The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World. The author, Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, has become an unlikely media star and his book has become a bestseller, and not just among tree-huggers.

Mr Wohllben draws on recent research to argue that trees not only communicate with each other, they also feel pain and help each other out. He writes,

“Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpiller takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf signal sends out electric signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.”

When a giraffe starts eating an African acacia tree, the tree releases a chemical into the air that prompts neighbouring trees to pump a toxic chemical into their leaves to make them unpalatable for the giraffes. When attacked by pests, some trees release a chemical that attracts predators that feed on the pest that is attacking the tree.

In a forest the trees communicate with each other through a “wood-wide-web” of soil fungi through which they can also send sugars that can help sustain sick relatives. One such fungus, in Switzerland, covers almost 120 acres of forest and is an estimated at about one thousand years old.

“Another in Oregon is estimated to be 2,400 years old, extends for 2,000 acres, and weighs 660 tons. That makes fungi the largest known living organisms in the world.”

 In a note at the end of the book, forest scientist Dr Suzanne Simard describes how douglas firs can live in synergy with neighbouring birch trees,

“We discovered that the exchange between the two species was dynamic: each took different turns as “mother”, depending on the season…mother trees recognize and talk with their kin, shaping future generations…These discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, related, communicating system.”

But what about agricultural crops, plants grown for food or fibres? Peter Wohlleben writes,

“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground. Isolated by their silence, they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wilderness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”

 And in the preface to the English edition, Tim Flannery writes,

“Perhaps the saddest plants of all are those we have enslaved in our agricultural systems…They have lost their ability to communicate and are isolated by their silence.”

All this creates something of a problem. Anyone who watched the wonderful BBC series Blue Planet II last year will know that fish and (particularly) octopus are way more intelligent than we had thought—and way more social. We all knew that that sea mammals were social, but it was a shock to think that other sea animals, including shellfish, can have emotions and feel pain.

Consumers and legislators are already reacting. For example, the Swiss government recently banned boiling live lobsters, arguing that they really do feel pain. Lobsters now have to be “humanely” killed before being cooked.

I know some previously fishing-eating vegetarians who have now given up eating fish—or at least feel guilty when they eat it—after watching Blue Planet II. I am afraid to recommend that they now read The Hidden Life of Trees.

Join the commodity conversation at our seminar in London in June

Discovering humanity in the world of trading

I am currently reading The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, by Harvard Business School Professor Mihir A. Desai. As a rule I tend to steer clear of books written by teachers at business schools. I find that they are often too academic, and rarely hold up in the real world of business. This book, however, is an exception. It tries, and succeeds, in explaining finance to a wider public, and it does this by bringing in examples from the world of literature and art.

The book also tries to de-demonize the world of finance and its inhabitants. Traders generally have a bad reputation, no more so than financial traders, particularly in banks and hedge funds. Dr Desai tries to explain that financial traders do actually play a valuable role in efficiently allocating resources, and do contribute to general global welfare.

De-demonizing agricultural commodity trading was part of the reason why I wrote my latest book, “Commodity Conversations”. My goal was to explain to a wider audience what agricultural commodity traders actually do, and how markets work. I wanted to show that agricultural commodity traders are not the evil geniuses that the media often make them out to be, and that they do contribute to global welfare by moving food from where it is not needed to where it is needed. Without agricultural traders, your food would not arrive on your plate.

Although Dr Desai demonstrates that financial traders do add value to global welfare, he just as clearly demonstrates how the financial system can be corrupted. He explains this in terms of the relations between agents and clients. Does a CEO always work in the best interests of his stakeholders (shareholders, clients, employees, suppliers, and the environment), or does he sometimes work in his own interest, boosting short-term profits in order, say, to meet bonus-earning targets?

This problem of misaligned incentives is not something that I covered in my book, but in retrospect I probably should have. If you want to convince a wider public of the merits of a system, you need also to explain that system’s weaknesses and flaws. Finance as it is currently practiced does have flaws, as too does agricultural commodity trading. Incentives do not always lead to the best outcomes.

But this does not mean that we—to use an old English expression—should throw the baby out with the bathwater. If a system sometimes fails, we shouldn’t necessarily discard the whole system. Instead we should all work to structure incentives to create the best outcomes, in terms of market efficiency, as well as of social and environmental welfare. Market regulators are doing a good job at the former, while a mix of consumer awareness and civil society is making progress with the latter.

No hard how anyone tries, however, the world of agricultural commodity trading will never be perfect. There will always be inefficiencies, badly targeted incentives and a preference for personal wellbeing over general wellbeing.

Many sectors try to compensate for the bad that they do in the course of their business by doing good somewhere else. A coal-burning power plant may be the only source of electricity in a remote region of China, but it can offset the pollution it emits by investing in renewable energy somewhere else. That is what carbon credits do.

Some notable businessmen, such as Bill Gates, give back to the community once they retire. But as companies never retire, what can a company, or a sector, do to give back to the community?

A friend recently drew my attention to a public education initiative by the UK’s private equity sector. Although private equity companies do add value in ensuring that assets are allocated efficiently, the general public views them as evil asset strippers who fire workers and close factories.

But what could agricultural traders do to compensate for the occasional harm that they may do, while at the same time improve their public image? One way would be for them to help the poorer sections of their supply chains to reduce crop waste. This could be done, for example, by giving subsidised financing or grants for warehouses, packaging or refrigeration plants close to farms.

Although any individual project might not in itself be economically feasible—or it might be too risky for an individual company alone, it could result in net gains for the sector as a whole.

So maybe what agricultural trading needs is a foundation similar to one set up by the UK’s private equity sector, but with the goal of improving efficiency and reducing waste along the whole supply chain.

The value of sustainability standards

In 2015, ISEAL Alliance conducted a survey of over 100 business leaders as to how they perceived the benefits of environmental and social sustainability certification to their businesses.

In terms of the business value of certification, the interviewees referred most frequently to the final benefits of improved reputation (60%), improved profitability (53%), cost reduction (30%), growth in production (30%), and improved supply security (23%)

The survey found that certified businesses found value in:

  • Improved working conditions with positive impacts on worker’s health and livelihood, as well as attention to sustainability in the supply chain
  • Reduced conflicts with local communities
  • Improved performance of (small-scale) producers and improved short and long-term supply security
  • Enhanced sustainable forest and fishery management which contributes to the preservation of the resource and thus long-term supply security.

However, last month Andre de Freitas, the executive director of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) wrote that it is time to recognize that certification has its limits in agriculture.

Earlier this year his organisation came to the conclusion that although they have seen many positive impacts from certification for workers, producers and the environment, it was not the best way to improve the sustainability of most farmers in the world. SAN took the decision to stop working with certification in agriculture.

Mr de Freitas argues that certification has four main interrelated limitations:

  1. Certification standards are complex. This means that the gap between producers’ reality and what is required by certification is often too wide. Most farmers in the world lack the technical and financial resources to be able to bridge this gap.
  2. Certification can be costly. This pushes certification to higher-end products and developed country markets, which usually can better absorb the increase in the price of raw materials. The author cites coffee as an example: certification can be feasible for the more niche premium products, but not be attractive for the higher volume used in price-sensitive categories. Another example is rice, a staple food in much of the developing world, where certification is virtually nonexistent.
  3. The high complexity and cost hinder the ability to scale up and go beyond low double digits in terms of penetration in a given sector. This is a typical low-hanging fruit situation, where, after an initial period of fast growth, every subsequent increase in uptake becomes more difficult than the previous one.
  4. SAN found that in their experience certification had been shown to have limited effectiveness to deal with some of the more intractable problems in agriculture, such as child labour, poverty, sexual harassment, sanitation, and others.

The author argues that these limitations mean that certification will work for farms that are already reasonably well-managed, have access to resources, have markets that are able to better value their products, and encounter fairly well-functioning local governance structures. He adds that these conditions are very specific and are not the reality most farmers in the world live in.

How we can reconcile these two opposing views was one of the main topics of debate at last week’s Sustainable Sugarcane Forum in London.

One of the biggest challenges highlighted at the event was in getting consumers to pay a premium for certified products.  If consumers refuse to pay a premium, producers have no choice but to recover the cost of certification through the productivity and reputational gains that ISEAL listed in their report. If producers can’t recover their certification costs, then they actually end up worse off financially.

One of the presenters at the event presented a possible solution to this conundrum: an actively traded credits market where industrial food manufacturers, in their efforts to reach their 2020 sustainability goals, buy credits rather than sugar. Credits already provide some limited extra income to producers and this is likely to expand significantly over the next few years.

Having said all that, Bonsucro’s increasing number of certified mills and our expanding membership suggest that stakeholders do find value in certification. There appears to be a real momentum building.

Not only that, but  in discussions with stakeholders at the event, and at other times over the past year,  both producers and consumers have highlighted to me many of the benefits that the 2015 ISEAL survey also highlighted. Of course producers would consumers like to pay a premium for certified product, but even without one, certification is worth it.

But what about SAN’s other criticisms? Many are valid, but you need to remember that voluntary sustainability standards are just one of the tools in the development toolbox. They cannot do everything. They are not the silver bullet that will kill the vampire twins of human rights abuse and environmental degradation. But they do help to keep the monsters at bay.

Presentation to the Sustainable Sugarcane Forum

Good morning ladies and gentlemen—and welcome!

I recently finished reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. The Guardian newspaper voted it the best non-fiction book of all time. If you haven’t read it already I highly recommend it.

Life has existed on our planet for around four billion years but mass extinctions of flora and fauna have taken place every twenty-six million years or so. There is widespread agreement that a meteor strike caused the fifth mass extinction (of the dinosaurs, amongst others), but geologists disagree as to what caused the others. Perhaps other meteor strikes; perhaps natural climate change.

Pretty much everyone, however, agrees that mankind is the cause of the sixth mass extinction that we are currently living. Geologists call our current era the “Anthropocene”.

The Anthropocene is usually said to have begun with the industrial revolution, or perhaps even later, with the explosive growth in population that followed World War II. However, the evidence suggests that this process of destruction began one hundred and twenty thousand years ago when Homo Sapiens began its migration out of Africa.

We humans destroy biodiversity in three ways:

  1. By eating it
  2. By encroaching on—and stealing—its territory
  3. By accidently transferring alien species or bacteria

By the time I had finished the book I had realized that this process of extinction has been going on for so long now it seems all but inevitable that it will continue. When it is complete the only animals that will be left on the planet will be the ones that we eat—or the ones that we can marvel or laugh at in zoos or on YouTube.

Volatire once said, “Dans une avalanche, aucun flocon ne se sent jamais responsible” – in an avalanche, so single snowflake feels responsible. Ms Kolbert puts it this way,

“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an axe, or better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.”

And in case you believe that it doesn’t matter if the world loses a few elephants, tigers, frogs or bats, “the anthropologist Richard Leaky has warned that Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims”.

Individually we as humans are all pretty good guys. We don’t want to harm our neighbours or our environment. But we do want to do our best for our families. Unfortunately, “doing the best for our families” might entail chopping down a little bit extra forest to plant some more crops to feed our children; shooting the leopard or tiger that is killing our flocks; using more water from the well; using more pesticide or herbicide that we really need—or simply taking our children out to dinner.

Our individual acts don’t have much impact, but taken together they result in the mass destruction of our biodiversity and the poisoning of our planet.

Individually there is little that we can do about it. We can stop eating meat. We can stop buying water in plastic bottles, or coffee in aluminium capsules. We can fill the kettle with only the amount of water that we need to make our tea. We can take a bus or a bike, rather than the car, to work.

All that helps, of course, but together we humans are such a destructive force—and have been for tens of thousands of years—that it is not enough.

But wait a minute. If together we humans are such a powerful destructive force, maybe together we can also be a powerful constructive force. After all, isn’t working together what is supposed to differentiate us from other animals on this planet?

As Charles Darwin once wrote, “in the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.

Although we have been destroying the planet for the past one hundred and twenty thousand years it is not too late to do something about it if we all work together. And I think we can work together.

But what does working together mean for those of us involved with voluntary sustainability standards – those of us in this room?

The International Trade Centre recently published a report called Social and Environmental Standards – From Fragmentation to Coordination. The authors of the report highlighted 239 voluntary standards operating in 90 agricultural markets, many of them over-lapping.

Cocoa producers in Cote d’Ivoire currently contend with up to ten different sustainability standards. Coffee producers in Honduras have nine standards. Tea producers in China have thirteen. Soy producers in Brazil face 21 voluntary standards.

Different buyers use different standards and, in many cases, their own. This leaves suppliers struggling to comply with several voluntary standards at the same time. The associated audit processes can quickly push up costs, both in time and money.

Competition between standards can also result in what could be called “a race to the bottom”, where producers or buyers may be tempted to choose the most lenient standard.

It is a bit tough to ask a farmer to go through a whole new audit process just because he wants to grow soy this year rather than sugarcane. At the same time, too many standards can confuse consumers and undermine their trust in the whole system.

The report’s authors argued that a reduction in the number of voluntary standards would have many benefits. It would (among others):

  • Reduce audit costs, enabling more small-scale producers to become certified.
  • Reduce costs for certifying agencies and consumers through economies of scale
  • Create brand company clarity in marketing

Perhaps most importantly, a reduction in the number of standards would empower certifying organizations to go beyond certification, to focus more on supporting their stakeholders, and to have more impact where it is needed, at smallholder level. It would allow value chain partners to focus more resources on improvement rather than multi-standard compliance.

This is a case where “less is more”. The voluntary standards scheme sector is ripe for change. But how do we get from where we are now to where we want to go?

The report authors suggest that a first step would be to get everyone talking together, and conferences such as this one have an important role to play.

When we talk together, the various standard-setting organizations need to explore ways of aligning standards, audit procedures and management structures. Benchmarking and mutual recognition of standards would be an important part of that process.

Stacked audits to combine key different elements of standards/company specific audits would reduce the reporting burden.

The idea of companies working together would be unthinkable in the commercial sector; we would quickly be hauled up in front of the competition authorities. However standards agencies are mostly non-for-profit organisations. Our goal is not to make a profit, or to increase our share prices. We are not interested in market share; we are interested in “the greater good”.

Working together, whether in the form of partnerships, shared standards, benchmarking or outright mergers should therefore not only be possible, everyone in this room should welcome it.

Thank you. I wish you a successful conference.

A conversation with Robert Kuok

Robert Kuok’s memoirs have been released this week in Malaysia, and six extracts have been published in The South China Morning Post. The first can be found here. The book is not yet available on Amazon

Born in October 1923 in Johor Baru Malaysia, Robert Kuok (or RK as he is known) is a major figure in the world of sugar and has been nicknamed “The King of Sugar”. He has been an extraordinarily successful businessman and apart from sugar and commodities (Wilmar), he is best known as the founder of the Shangri La Hotel chain. Like many successful Asian businessmen, he is media-shy and rarely gives interviews.

I had the honour and the pleasure to converse with RK over three days in 2015. I published a small part of that conversation in my book The Sugar Casino. The Financial Times in turn published some extracts. If you haven’t yet read my book The Sugar Casino (shame on you), here is a taster:

RK welcomed me and apologised for his terrible cold and cough. He had caught it on a recent trip to London where he had been visiting the latest addition to his hotel chain, the Shangri La in the Shard Building. I started by trying to explain my book project but he seemed distracted by his telephone.

“I see I have four messages but I don’t know if they are important”, he said. “Ah yes, last night’s sugar market close.”

“You are not still trading the sugar market?” I asked, astonished.

“I watch the market every day” he replied. “I started in 1955 and this “topping up” takes seconds; if I stop I can never get on to it again. I still trade the sugar market for my claret money; so that I can afford Petrus 1989. Otherwise you would be mad to buy it. But if you are winning at the sugar casino; then why not continue? And the days I lose money, I look sadly at my wine and I tell myself, “Tonight you don’t deserve it”. I open the bottle and drink only one glass as a punishment to myself for trading badly.”

I did a quick sum in my head. RK had started in the Rice Department with Mitsubishi in 1942, the year the Japanese Army occupied Singapore and Malaya. That meant that he had been in the commodity markets for 72 years and trading sugar for 60 years; that had to be a record. I shared my mental arithmetic with him and he smiled.

“Have the markets changed much since you first started?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “The change has mainly been the speed of information dissemination or gathering, but you have to adapt to that. So my trading volume today is one per cent of what it was. I used to trade 4,000 lots (200,000 tons) in one go; now I trade 40 lots (2,000 tons). Today I am 40 lots long, but my trading pays for the Petrus!” he said with a laugh.

“In early autumn 1963 the sugar market went against you and you almost went broke,” I prompted.

“I had enough cash, thank God, to meet margins. In the autumn of 1963 Hurricane Flora hit Cuba and the market rallied; I was saved. August that year was very difficult. But somehow I can always manage. I was 40 years old and at my best. Although it worried me I never felt like jumping off a building. Still, the position was large for me, maybe 250,000 tons of sugar, part physical sugar and part futures – a huge position for me. Anyway the market turned around. I took some profit and then more profit.”

“How did you know when to take profits?” I asked. “I find the biggest difficulty about trading is knowing when to take profits”.

“Not knowing when to take a profit is the Achilles’ heel for a trader. Take profits! Don’t wait. If you have a profit you have to take it. If you wait it will be your downfall. Also, have the wisdom to realise that you can’t take it in one go or you destroy the market for the balance. If you are a big trader it takes ten, twenty, thirty days to unload, depending on how big your footstep is.

“If you are a big trader you had better start even if you are in minus territory if the market is going up. You are long and you have been suffering: a big minus, a small minus, and then a negligible minus. At that point start liquidating. Even if you sell only 3% you still have 97% to go. You have to shed weight. Waiting to take profits is dangerous.

“What about taking losses?” I asked.

“Well,” RK replied with a sigh. “It is wonderful to take losses when you have profits under your belt. So you need some luck to build up some profits first. You have to start on the right leg. And everything, including quantity must be according to your size.

“In 1963 I took a big position,” he continued. “I was very confident. I felt that sugar was worth more than it was.

“But you know with sugar there is always over production. It is like my hotel business. I don’t know why I go into feast and famine businesses. As soon as you make money in hotels every Dick, Tom and Harry builds a hotel and then there is oversupply. And then you all cry for seven to eight years before you start to make a bit of money.

“The early 1960s were wonderful for me in the sugar market. I was hunting in a lake just teeming with salmon trout. There were only three or five predators; these sharks could eat their fill. I would swim past them and they weren’t even interested in me. Today you go to the same lake: there are giant crocodiles, giant sharks. There is not enough fish to feed these giant predators. You have to think twice before swimming in the lake.

“A lot of traders are arrogant”, I ventured. “They have big positions and have to convince themselves that they are right and therefore have to convince other people that they are right.”

“You have to be humble because you are never always right. You don’t need to convince anyone. You can trade as a very humble man.”

“Is speculation and risk taking an integral part of all life?” I asked.

“An emphatic yes!” RK replied. “When you get into your car and leave your home you are taking a risk. In the modern world there is no back-to-back trading where you can make a simple margin on a physical sugar transaction. Those days are long gone. Those opportunities when they come are like golfing holes in one. I have been playing golf since 1947 and I have never scored a hole in one. So where there is no back to back trading it means you have to lift a leg: you have to sell before you buy or buy before you sell. You have to take a risk. But you can still make good money trading.”

“Are you a businessman who started as a trader or are you a trader who applied your trading skills to business?” I asked.

“I have been asking myself that question for the past 50 years. Let’s take soccer as a parallel. You can train someone to play football but you never produce a Pele, a Ronaldo or a Messi. You have to have natural verve. We are not born equal. You either have that attribute in you, call it genius if you like, but of course different degrees of genius, and then circumstance or fate gives you the playground to exercise your skills. If you are born in the wrong community and your parents force you into the armed forces, well then how do you become a trader? But traders are born, not taught.”

“Footballers often have particular styles, as do traders”, I prompted. “What is your style?”

“When you play poker the secret is to never let the other players guess your next move. I can play a contrarian game but I can also flow with the current. I even involve superstition. In my early days I would look at a fellow trader to see if he had a lucky glow on his forehead. If he did I would spend more time with him that day.”

“Commodity trading is based on trust,” I said. “You have to start a relationship offering trust. But what do you do when someone abuses that trust?”

“Well that is just too bad. You just have to cut your losses; you have no other choice. If you want, you can keep that person as a friend but do so at arm’s length; no more business dealings. But it is better to just cut the cord and part company. If you bear a grudge you are just hurting yourself; you are not hurting the other person. It is like throwing good money after bad. Keep your wits, keep your humour and if you are a good man, luck will come your way again. You will see another opportunity and you will grasp it. I have always believed that.

“But business is about taking and not just giving. I came up the hard school. In an arena where no holds are barred you have to win. Giving is for my charity side.

“I have a simple motto in life: everything single material thing that I have in life can be traded. It is for sale. It is a question of, when, where, to whom and price. The first three are more important. If you like a person the price becomes unimportant.

“Business is quite a game but at the end you want to use your money to help those that need help. We have a very good charitable foundation that is opening the darkened skies above a little more than thirty poor and backward villages in China and adding.”

“Finally, Robert,” I asked. “What advice would you give to someone starting out in business today?

“I would tell them to go east and make their fortune. What you are seeing in China is still only the beginning.”


An interview with Swithun Still

Good morning Swithun, could you tell us a little bit about your company Solaris?

We are essentially focused on milling wheat and corn. For the past two seasons Solaris has been the largest trader of Russian corn. Compared to Ukraine, Russia is not a big exporter of corn; this season Russia will export just over five million tonnes compared to Ukraine with eighteen million.

However, Russia is a powerhouse for wheat. It was the largest exporter of wheat in the world last season. Russia is a veritable focal point for wheat prices worldwide. People really look to see the price at which Russian 12.5 percent protein wheat is trading to help them set wheat prices in other parts of the world.

We did a large programme of corn into Asia last year, namely South Korea and Vietnam. Russian corn has a huge competitive advantage in terms of quality. There is a smaller percentage of damaged kernels (often under 2% as opposed to the contractual maximum of 5%) and a similarly low percentage of broken kernels. Most important of all: it is all non-genetically modified (non-GMO), which is ironic as we are one of the largest traders of non-GMO corn in the world and are based in the same small town as Monsanto, who manufacture GM corn seeds.

The biggest challenge for Russian agriculture is the extremes of temperature – very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Agriculture is very weather dependent. The majority of production is winter wheat, which is sown in September-October and harvested in July. Acreage is split 50/50 between winter and spring wheat but the yield and therefore the production is higher for winter wheat. Spring wheat is sown in areas that are too cold for winter wheat. The earth is too hard for farmers to get the seeds into the ground and even if they could plant the stuff it would just die. The winter temperatures go as low as minus 30 or minus 40 degrees Centigrade in Siberia.

Are your deals based on flat price or are you hedged somehow?

Almost all of our transactions are traded flat price. We hedge some of our exposure with derivative contracts: futures or options that are traded on exchanges such as Chicago, Kansas, LIFFE or MATIF, or through ‘Over the Counter’ or “OTC” contracts with brokers in London & Chicago. We also hedge our currency exposure as we buy often in roubles, but sell in US dollars or Euros.

The correlation between Chicago and Black Sea wheat is not actually sufficient to be a good hedge. Some put the correlation at 25 percent. Russian 12.5 percent milling wheat is closer to the wheat quality traded in Kansas City, rather than the soft red wheat that is traded on Chicago. Soft red wheat is an inferior quality, low protein biscuit or even feed wheat – as indeed is MATIF – with only 11 percent protein and few milling specifications.

Nonetheless we tend to hedge on Chicago because it is more liquid than Kansas. We have also been instrumental in getting a new product off the ground, which is called a Black Sea swap, which is a non deliverable derivative based on the price of Russian 12.5% normalised to a parity of FOB Novorossisk. Brokers use the benchmark pricing of PLATTS to price this market and counterparties are approved on the same basis as counterparties in any cash traded business with the broker checking with both buyer and seller that they are approved counterparts. There is some interest to have this product cleared by an exchange and given that Russian milling wheat prices have become such a benchmark for global trade I predict that this will only be a matter of time before it comes to fruition.

However the best hedge for Russian wheat is…. Russian wheat! We prefer to hedge ourselves on the physical markets rather than the futures markets.

How does that work?

We generally only sell forward two to three months, so a lot of the trades we do are relatively spot, meaning that they will be executed within four to six weeks from the date concluded. A lot of our positions are backed up or hedged by our Russian partners or other suppliers. We buy from them on a FOB basis and often convert the sales into CIFFO and take on both the risks and rewards of providing such a service to our clients.

We often hedge our sales of Russian corn, which is a relatively illiquid market, by buying Ukrainian corn. So we might sell Russian corn for shipment in September and buy Ukrainian corn as hedge for delivery in October. Then when we finally cover our sale of Russian corn we sell out the Ukrainian corn that we bought as a hedge. We do this to reduce our risk exposure on movements in the flat price.

We are effectively trading the differentials between different qualities, geographies and different shipments. We try to be relatively cautious in taking large long or short positions on the market and we will always monitor our position limits and the amount of risk that we are taking. We try to keep risks within pre-defined limits – limits that are relatively conservative. This summer we will be implementing a new software system that tracks our positions and can calculate our profit and loss; our value-at-risk (VAR), issue invoices and keep track of our inventories.

This is not the sort of image that most people have of commodity trading, but it is what most traders do – at least physical traders. We are not big speculators. You can easily lose a huge amount of money if you go off and take flat price positions – and then fall in love with them!

How do you think commodity markets are going to change over the next few years?

There is going to be further consolidation – for better or worse. Certain big trading companies want to increase their global footprint and secure their positions as suppliers of food commodities from different origins.

There is a lot of competition in the agri-markets and trading companies are looking at ways to add value to their operations. One way is through owning processing or logistical assets, or even land. ADM for example loses money now on trading but makes it on processing. Glencore Ags recently said that less than fifteen percent of their profits come from trading, while the rest comes from assets. I think that is the future for the bigger players. They need these huge assets.

So traders are moving towards owning assets while maintaining a global trading presence at origin and destination.

Would you recommend young people to go into the commodity business?

One hundred per cent – yes! It is a fascinating industry to be involved in. It is a real business – real grain moving from real farmers to produce real food such as bread and pasta. It is not a bunch of people sitting around a computer screen betting on price moves.

What advice would you give to some one just starting?

Learn and listen and talk to as many people as you can in the business. Try to get some work experience and of course join GAFTA so as to learn about the trade by taking a course such as the Foundation Course or the Distance Learning Programme (DLP).

Thank you Swithun for your time.

The full version of this interview appears in my new book Commodity Conversations, available now on Amazon

Certification and consolidation

Over the past couple of decades, voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) have taken on increasing importance in working to ensure that agriculture, and agricultural supply chains, are environmentally and socially sustainable.

The International Trade Centre, which tracks 465 eco-labels in 199 countries and 25 industries, recently published a report, “Social and Environmental Standards – From Fragmentation to Coordination”. The authors highlighted 239 voluntary standards operating in 90 agricultural markets, many of them over-lapping.

Cocoa producers in Cote d’Ivoire now contend with up to ten different standards. Coffee producers in Honduras have nine standards. Tea producers in China have thirteen. Soy producers in Brazil face 21 voluntary standards.

As the report authors write, different buyers use different standards and, in many cases, their own proprietary, non-transparent auditing scheme. This leaves their suppliers struggling to comply with several voluntary standards at the same time. The associated audit processes can quickly push up costs, both in time and money. Competition between standards can also result in what the authors call “a race to the bottom”, where producers or buyers may be tempted to choose the most lenient standard.

It has been shown that consumers trust eco-labels more than they trust brand sustainability claims. This increasingly translates into a business opportunity, especially with Millennials and Generation Z. However, too many standards can also confuse consumers and undermine their trust in the whole system.

And on the production side, it is a bit tough to ask a farmer to go through a whole new audit process just because he wants to grow soy this year rather than sugarcane.

A reduction in the number of voluntary standards would:

  • Reduce audit costs along the supply chain
  • Enable more small-scale producers to become certified.
  • Empower buyers to ensure that what they source is environmentally and socially sustainable.
  • Give more credibility to the certifying agencies and reduce their costs through economies of scale across different commodities and geographies.
  • Increase transparency and make it easier for civil society to “call out” any bad actors
  • Create brand company clarity in marketing
  • Reduce hidden transaction costs
  • Allow certification organizations to focus more on supporting their stakeholders
  • Allow value chain partners to focus more resources on improvement rather than multi-standard compliance

This is obviously a case of “less is more”. The sector is ripe for consolidation. But how do we get from where we are now to where we want to go?

The report authors suggest that a first step would be to get the various standard-setting organizations to talk with each other to explore ways of aligning standards, audit procedures and management structures.  Benchmarking and mutual recognition of standards would be an important part of that process. Stacked audits to combine key different elements of standards/company specific audits into one audit would reduce the reporting burden.

The authors also suggest that international organizations and conventions could play a key role. They rightly point out that within the sector social sustainability is less fragmented than environmental sustainability. This is largely because most schemes follow the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions on child and forced labour, employment, and working conditions. Although there are numerous international conventions on environmental protection, there is less of an international consensus on environmental issues.

The authors therefore suggest the development of core, universally applicable environmental criteria. Companies are increasingly pledging to go deforestation free and this could be expanded to cover key international environmental conventions, as well as the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals.

These are all good suggestions.

The idea of companies working together would be unthinkable in the commercial sector; anyone who tried would be hauled up in front of the competition authorities, and accused of forming a cartel. However certification agencies are mostly non-for-profit organisations. Their goals, by definition, are not to make a profit, or to increase their share prices.  Non-for-profits are not interested in market share; they are interested in “the greater good”.

Working together, whether in the form of partnerships, shared standards, benchmarking or outright mergers should therefore not only be possible, it should be welcomed. Working together would help the certification agencies to better achieve their goals, and make the world a better place.

The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of Bonsucro.

Sugar Awareness Week

The lobby group Action on Sugar has been promoting Sugar Awareness Week on their @actiononsugar Twitter feed. One post, below, caught my attention.

It is difficult to know how much sugar billions of people across the globe are really consuming. On a country basis you can take production plus imports minus exports, but you don’t know how much sugar has been wasted, or added to or subtracted from stocks. It is even harder on a global basis where cross-border sugar trade flows can be difficult to track.

Having said that, the UN’s FAO estimates world sugar consumption in 1987 at 102 million tonnes. That year  world population reached 5 billion people, which equates to a per capita sugar consumption of 20.4 kilos . Thirty years later, the world’s population has reached 7.6 billion people and world sugar consumption has topped 180 million tonnes. So using the FAO’s figures that equates to a per capita sugar consumption of 24 kilos per person, an increase of 18 percent over thirty years.

Possably as a result of the group’s lobbying efforts, two of Europe’s leading magazines featured sugar on their covers this week. France’s Le Point promised to tell readers “The Truth About Sugar” while Germany’s Focus wanted to inform their readers of the difference between “good” sugars that come in the form of natural products, and “evil” sugars that the food industry adds to their processed products.

As part of Le Point’s crusade for the truth the magazine included a graphic that showed that per capita sugar consumption had risen from 16 kilos per person in 1960 to 25.5 kilos in 2016. Unlike the statistics on Action for Sugar’s Twitter feed, these figures are more or less correct. World sugar production in 1960 stood at 55 million tons while world population stood at 3 billion people, which gives a per capita consumption of 18 kilos. As for 2016, the FAO’s figures suggest a  per capita number of 24 kilos, but that is close enough.

What Le Point fails to point out is that if you exclude the low-income countries of China, India and Pakistan the average global per capita sugar consumption hasn’t changed from what it was in 1960 – 25 kilos per head. Per capita sugar consumption in the USA in 1960 was around 55 kilos per head.

At the recent Platts-Kingsman Conference (no longer anything to do with me) in Miami, the American Sugar Alliance, a pro-sugar lobby group, presented the following graph showing US sugar consumption correlated against US obesity rates.  As you can see, obesity rates have been rising while sugar consumption has fallen.

If you add in high fructose corn sweeteners, the picture changes somewhat, but not dramatically.

In their presentation the ASA highlighted the fact that Americans are consuming 374 more calories per day now than they were 34 years ago. The following graph breaks down where those extra calories are coming from.

Going back to Le Point, the magazine published the following graphic in their anti-sugar piece. It purports to show a correlation between world sugar production and obesity. The correlations look impressive, but they would have looked less impressive if they had taken the increase in population into account.

All this prompted me to revisit one of my favourite websites where I managed to produce the following graphic. It clearly shows how the decline in per capita consumption of corn sweeteners in the US has resulted in a reduction in the number of pedestrians killed by motor vehicles. So that at least is good news.

It is not clear who first coined the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In his book “The Persuaders – The Hidden Industry that wants to change your mind“, the author James Garvey explains that the practice of public relations is “rarely intended to inform the population about the intricacies of an issue and is more often calculated to circumvent critical thinking.

Well said!

Butter up, oranges squeezed

After years of building up herds that produce low-fat milk, the world’s dairy industry is now struggling to meet a surge in demand for cream and butter. Butter prices have more than doubled over the past year, but heavy stocks of (low-fat) milk powder are pressuring milk prices. It could take years for the sector to adjust.

There is a saying in the commodity markets that demand is the backdrop against which changes in supply play out. Demand for most food products tends to increase by a small, but predictable, percentage each year, roughly in line with increases in population and income.

The supply of agricultural products, on the other hand, can vary significantly from one year to another. Weather is nearly always the most important factor driving supply. Price comes a close second—both the price of the commodity itself (with a time lag), and the price of alternative, competing crops. Crop diseases and pest infections can from time to time also be important drivers.

However, as I wrote last week, the demand for a particular foodstuff can sometimes change dramatically in response to the publication of new scientific—or pseudo-scientific—research. When that happens, the demand shift is almost certainly amplified through both traditional and social media. The traditional media in particular like new scientific studies that go against conventional wisdom. The most recent—and most dramatic—example is the way consumers no longer believe that both animal and vegetable fat makes you fat. Conventional wisdom now blames fructose, whether in sugar or in fruit juices, for the obesity epidemic.

Nutritional scientists—and lobbyists—will doubtless argue until the cows come home whether it is fat or fructose that is making people fat. While they argue, dairy farmers struggle to sell their stocks of low-fat milk but are unable to meet the increased demand for the high-fat milk that is needed for butter and cream. Meanwhile, Florida’s orange growers struggle with a collapse in US demand for orange juice. Butter consumption in the United States is up 7-8 percent this year; orange juice consumption is down 5-7 percent over the same period—and down nearly 45 percent over the past twelve years.

Dairy farmers and orange growers have not only had to deal with dramatic shifts in demand; they have also had to cope with bad weather. It has reportedly been too wet in New Zealand and too dry in Europe to produce quality feed for dairy cows. (Both phenomena have been blamed on climate change.)

Meanwhile Hurricane Irma hit Florida’s orange groves hard this year, further lowering production that had already been decimated by greening disease. A solution has now been found for greening disease (by inserting a spinach gene into the tree), but it will take years for the new orange trees to mature. Growers are rightly worried that on current trends there won’t be enough demand to absorb supply once they do.

It will also take years for the dairy sector to beef up supply to meet the demand for high-fat milk. Most herds now consist of Holstein cows, a breed that produces large quantities of low-fat milk, perfect to meet the global growth in demand for milk powder for products such as infant formula in developing countries, particularly China. Farmers are now replacing those Holstein cows with Jersey cows that produce higher-fat milk, but it is a slow process. In the meantime, butter prices continue to rise.

But why are there actual shortages of butter in some areas of Europe—even ironically in Normandy, the heart of France’s dairy industry? Why isn’t price rationing demand? The answer is that supermarkets have been reluctant to pass on to their consumers the increase in butter prices. As a result they have refused to pay current prices, and European producers have found better buyers in export markets in China and, strangely enough, in New Zealand.

Consumer trends can have a real impact on demand for different commodities. It takes time for supply to adjust and by the time it does, there is always a danger that the science will have moved on.