When I see what commodity prices are doing, I don't think "low interest rates" or "skyrocketing demand." I think about a loss of confidence.
There is that old saw about gold, that it is the only money that is no one's liability. Wheat is no one's liability, and neither is corn. Oil is no one's liability.
It is common to invest in commodities as an "inflation hedge." If the central bank prints too much money, you need wheelbarrows to buy bread. If you have a sack of wheat, you will have your bread whatever the central bank does. But if everyone buys wheat, the price of grains will rise, even if the central bank does nothing at all.
Just as the fear of a bank's insolvency can precipitate a run that drives a bank to ruin, loss of confidence in a central bank can provoke a great inflation. The Federal Reserve, much as I might criticize it, has not gone on a printing spree. It has lowered interest rates, and altered the composition of bank assets by replacing less liquid with more liquid securities. But the most these measures should do is bring us back, monetarily speaking, to the status quo ante, back to a year ago when asset-backed securities were liquid. The Fed's actions are best described as antideflationary, not inflationary.
But confidence is a funny thing. Central bankers are supposed to be dour and dependable. The current crop is not. Rather than "taking away the punchbowl", central bankers have become the life of the party. Japan's central bankers hand out Yen like free acid. China's guy will give you a microwave oven and a DVD player if you draw him a picture (and sign Henry Paulson's name to it). Our man Ben is an Amadeus-cum-McGyver, he's brilliant, unpredictable, he'll improvise a Delaware company from paper clips and vacuum up your derivative book with a toenail clipper. Even the ECB's Trichet, who at first comes off like a sourpuss, turns out to be all right, when you've got some Spanish mortgages to pawn.
Some of us think that something's wrong, and these guys we're drinking with aren't serious enough to fix it. We know that trillions of dollars in presumed housing wealth have disappeared, but we don't know who's ultimately going to bear the loss. Americans know that as a nation, we cannot afford our clothes, furniture, or gas, unless the people who are selling it to us lend us our money back. Economists fret about "imbalance" and "adjustment", but we've yet to see a serious plan, other than let's-keep-this-party-going.
So, we lose faith. When we lost faith in Northern Rock, Bear Stearns (BS), Citigroup (NYSE:C), or Lehman (LEH), the central bankers stepped into the fray, and stood behind them. So, we ask, who stands behind the central bankers? We take a peek, and all we see is our own money. Which we quickly start exchanging for something else.
Although commodity prices have been increasing for years, you'll notice that the very sharp run-up began last summer, at roughly the same time as the credit crisis. Commodities soared when interest rates were still high, but predicted to fall. Commodities are soaring today, even though US interest rates are now predicted to rise. Commodities have soared in euro terms, despite the ECB's refusal to drop interest rates.
I can't tell you where the inventories are, except to wonder why anyone would put them where they would be counted. Hoarders tend to get nervous, and not advertise their hoards. (But this is pretty obvious.) Perhaps producers of storable commodities who lose faith in paper quietly hold back production. Interestingly, people who no longer trust the very core of the financial system remain comfortable with collateralized, centrally-cleared futures exchanges. These are well designed to manage credit risk, but they can default, have defaulted, and will default in extremis. I heartily endorse Cassandra's suggestion that they step up their margin requirements, ASAP.
None of this is any good at all. Capital devoted to precautionary storage would be better employed building new enterprises, laying a foundation for tomorrow's prosperity. But claims on future money are only promises, easily broken or devalued. A run on central banks, a flight from financial assets to stored goods, sacrifices the hope of future abundance for certain present scarcity. Governments can shut futures exchanges, confiscate gold, ban "hoarding, profiteering, and price-gouging".
People will hoard anyway if they don't believe in the paper. People are losing faith in financial assets for good reason. Rather than organizing productive economies, the machinery of finance has recently functioned as an anesthetic, masking the pain while resources were mismanaged and stolen. We need a solid financial system, but confidence cannot be imposed or legislated. It will have to be earned. There has to be a plan. Earnest promises to do better soon won't suffice. Nor will yet another drink from the punch bowl.