This week, a storm of bad news gave markets cold feet, resulting in Friday’s 250-point loss. While this pattern of volatility has been the status quo for stock exchanges worldwide for the better part of the year-to-date, another factor has caused at least as many difficulties for a much larger percentage of the global population: the recent skyrocketing prices in energy and food. Wheat and other cereal prices have more than doubled this year, causing widespread effects ranging from speculative overbuying, which exacerbates the problem, to food riots in many poor countries. Millions of children around the world are likely to suffer from malnutrition in coming years if prices stay at or near current levels, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.
Part of this unfavorable price increase has been due to shifting ideas about energy consumption and the press towards the use of alternative sources of fuel other than gasoline: namely, the subsidies issued by many governments of developed countries to change over to ethanol and other plant-based hydrocarbons, such as that made from palm oil (a particularly environmentally destructive process for ecosystems). Since these subsidies and programs have been introduced, farmers are often able to make better returns by selling their crops to biodiesel companies than to food companies. Until economic incentives change, the supply end is unlikely to provide solutions. For many of these farmers, these developments mean they are able to make a decent living for the first time in years, and they desperately want to (even if it results in local food shortages sometimes).
While this widespread problem affects consumers all over the world, these micro effects are only half of the story for gas-sensitive American consumers. Energy prices have taken headlines this year due to speculation and supply concerns from OPEC and South American countries after hitting the psychologically important $100 a barrel mark for the first time in the third quarter of 2007. Crude prices remain stubbornly above historical trends, even as suppliers contend that output need not increase. Analysts have also projected US gasoline prices to climb above $4 a gallon during the summer, another equally unprecedented number that may be tough pill for consumers to swallow, after the one-two punch of a national housing slump and the global credit crunch.
Should oil suppliers continue to maintain current output levels, demand is eventually likely to contract. But they aren’t the only links in this chain. If oil becomes a less attractive option to Americans, oil companies may eventually be priced out of the market. Many have been keeping an exceptionally low profile in recent months. Auto companies play a huge part in the process, but shrinking sales and looming layoffs will likely increase the pressure towards manufacturing lower-emmission vehicles. But the single biggest mover and shaker will be the government, which has the ability to regulate both inflation (through the FEDs influence on mortgage interest rates) and the move towards more sustainable technologies. The next US president will have the ability to help determine how long the lone superpower continues to expose its Achilles heel, but at some point all eyes will be on the Federal Reserve if inflation once again rears its ugly head.
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