martedì 18 gennaio 2011

La Grande Convergenza e i giochi a somma zero

Buttonwood si preoccupa dell'aumento dei prezzi delle materie prime in una fase così precoce della ripresa economica dopo la Grande Recessione del 2008-2009:

The strength of raw-materials prices raises three vital questions. Given that the global recovery is at a very early stage, do high prices indicate that the world faces significant supply constraints, which will be a problem for years to come? Will such constraints lead to prolonged inflationary pressures and cause central banks to tighten monetary policy? Or are high prices simply a bubble, the result of speculative activity in the futures markets? 

La speculazione è un fattore non trascurabile ma non è sufficiente per spiegare il fenomeno. Una spiegazione migliore sembra debba tenere conto del quantitative easing:

Studies have shown that commodities that are not traded on exchanges have tended to rise as fast, and be as volatile, as those that are.
In any case, it seems likely that investors and commodity consumers are motivated by the same factors. Prices rebounded in the second half of 2010 after clear hints from the Federal Reserve that it would pursue a second round of quantitative easing. That might have caused speculators to pile into the market; it might equally have prompted companies in America and elsewhere to stop worrying about an economic double dip and to start rebuilding their inventories.
Over the long run, investing in commodities has not been a great bet. Companies use the term “commodity business” to describe humdrum, low-margin activities. In real terms The Economist’s commodity-price index has gone backwards since 1862, falling by around half since then. People have become more efficient at growing, finding or refining raw materials. As Dylan Grice, a strategist at Société Générale, remarks: “When you buy commodities, you’re selling human ingenuity.”
One would expect commodities to be anchored by the cost of production. A market price well above that level will cause new supply to be brought on stream; too low a price will cause mines to be mothballed or arable land to be switched to other crops. In turn, the cost of production is cyclical since it requires a good deal of other commodities (such as oil) in the process. Higher grain costs, for example, feed through into cattle prices.
Clearly, at the top of the economic cycle, consumers will be so desperate to get their hands on raw materials that they will pay well over the cost of production. So the current surge in commodity prices, at a time of spare economic capacity in the rich world, suggests one of two things is going on. Either the needs of the developing world are causing demand growth to outstrip supply for an extended period, or new sources of supply can be found only at higher cost. Both explanations add weight to the idea of a “commodity supercycle”, a long-term surge in prices that might last for 15-20 years.
In the short term this is bad news for the developed world which, in aggregate, is a commodity consumer, not producer. Higher prices may cause a surge in headline inflation but their main effect will be to act as a tax on consumers. For many parts of Europe, this tax is being levied at a time when the spending power of consumers is already being squeezed by the efforts to eliminate the fiscal deficit. (...) If the Chinese economy slowed sharply, then commodity prices would slump. But that is not an outcome that the developed world should hope for.

La questione dell'aumento vistoso dei prezzi delle materie prime si ricollega alla Grande Convergenza tra paesi sviluppati e paesi in via di sviluppo di cui va scrivendo Martin Wolf sul Financial Times da un paio di settimane a questa parte:
secondo Wolf, che cita uno studio dell'OCSE,  convergence has been changing the global balance of supply and demand for resources.** This is shown in recent rises in the real prices of metals and energy. The International Energy Agency points out that global primary energy demand could rise by another 50 per cent by 2035. Without a big change in the energy intensity of production, that is what the economic convergence we see has to mean: if all of humanity used the same energy per head as the rich countries do today, consumption of commercial energy would be three times what it is now (see charts).(...)
The biggest challenges arise where zero-sum outcomes are more likely. Resources are a big example. Political power is another. A rising east must alter the balance of global power and the abundance of cheap resources.
On the latter, it is an irony of intellectual history that Thomas Malthus, prophet of overpopulation, worried about the lack of resources just as these pessimistic assumptions became untrue. The biggest question of the 21st century may be whether resources prove to be binding constraints once again, as they so often proved to be, prior to 1800. Will ingenuity continue to overcome scarcity, or not? If the answer is “yes”, all of humanity might come to enjoy the historically unprecedented lifestyles of today’s most favoured people. If the answer is “no”, we might, instead, fall prey to what Prof Morris calls the “five horsemen of the apocalypse” – climate change, famine, state failure, migration and disease. Moreover, even if these problems are soluble, it may take a far higher level of political co-operation than is available to do so. This is particularly true where economic growth creates global externalities, climate change being the biggest challenge of this kind. This is not being managed. Political developments lag today’s reality.
The same is true of power politics. Now that we have the capacity to destroy civilisation, relations among powerful states have become perilous. After the use of the atomic bomb, Albert Einstein argued that “the only salvation for civilisation and the human race lies in the creation of world government”. Einstein was condemned as naive but his comment might still be true.
The “great convergence” is an epoch-making transformation. It is the spread of the energy-abundant economy to much of humanity. But if we do not manage the consequent pressure on resources, it may end in misery; and if we do not manage the shifts in power, it may end in war. One of Prof Morris’s most optimistic views is that each age gets the thought it needs. Given the speed of change, will it come soon enough?

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