Yes, you read that headline correctly. Not inflation, not emerging nations, not more people on this planet than we have food to feed them and not Ben Bernanke’s penchant for leaning on the PRINT MORE button but inventory. Well, a specific inventory method and the accountants who encourage companies to use that particular method.
Speculators, the weather, biofuels and the growing appetite for meat in developing countries have all been blamed for the high food prices that have hit countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia particularly hard.
But what about the accountants. Yes that’s right, accountants. Greg Smith, managing director of Global Commodities, an Australian investment fund, said fund managers were being unfairly scapegoated. He argued that measures to curb speculative activity, such as limits on contracts and higher margins (less reliance on borrowed funds when making trades), would not deal with the fundamental problems, such as the weather and, more pertinent from Smith’s viewpoint, just-in-time inventory.
“We have volatility in food prices because of inventory shortages,” said Smith, who was attending the fourth annual world agriculture investment summit in London, bringing together investment managers, policymakers and NGOs. “What we need is more inventory instead of this just-in-time approach. We need to look at how we increase buffer stocks of grain. After the second world war, governments would have three to six months of supply of grain. Now it’s two or three weeks.”
Smith feels the accountants bear the brunt of the blame for this just-in-time issue as they are the ones who try to convince companies to adopt this particular inventory method in the interest of cost cutting.
While they don’t specifically come out and blame the accountants like Smith, Oxfam recently published a paper called Preparing for Thin Cows in which they question the current view on food reserves. “International institutions have warned G20 leaders that renewed food price volatility is now a high risk. However, the same institutions have summarily dismissed food reserves as one of the ways to stabilise prices,” said the report’s co-author Thierry Kesteloot. “Food reserves were largely dismantled in the 1990s and have been ignored ever since as too expensive and ineffective.”
Check out this 2008 piece from The Hightower Report which foretells the problem with the just-in-time idea. “The combination of oversupply, ultra high interest rates and new business practices quickly turned the idea of owning extra inventory into financial heresy of the highest order. Accountants, bankers and MBAs descended on America’s businesses to preach the gospel of wringing every last ounce of unnecessary corn, wheat, cotton, copper or wing nuts out of every conceivable supply ‘pipeline.’ To a large degree, the gospel of just-in-time inventory control has prevailed right up to the present – or at least into 2007.” The article blames a global attitude that inventory can easily be had should it be needed – thereby eliminating the need to keep excess reserves – for just-in-time’s popularity.
Problem being this attitude assumes an unrealistic scenario in an inflationary environment in which 40% of the U.S. corn supply is used as “fuel” (ask Joe Kristan about ethanol if you’re not hip) and completely ignores unforeseen issues like, oh, I don’t know, drought and higher demand in emerging nations for corn-fed meat.
There’s a problem alright, just not sure if it’s with the accountants.