Are commodities a zero-sum game?
If you have been subscribed to our mailing list for a long time, you must all know by now that I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kingsman book “Commodity Conversation”. The other day Mr. Kingsman posted a very interesting article on his personal blog ( I encourage all of you to subscribe to his mailing list ! ) about commodities and the zero-sum game theory. So I reached him and kindly ask if he would let me repost it !
Thank you Mr. Kingsman!
A close friend (and ex-trader) recently contacted me to argue that unlike services or many manufacturing industries the supply chain for commodities is a zero-sum game. The market fixes the price of the end product, so if one participant in a supply chain makes more money, someone else in the supply chain has to make less. The same applies to market share. As demand is static, or at best growing very slowly, if one producer sells more, another must sell less.
It is an interesting point. Everyone in a commodity supply chain is a price taker—they have to take whatever margin the market allows them. They only way they can make a bigger margin would be to use their market power to squeeze other supply chain participants in order that they make less. And, argues my friend, widespread communication, instant information, and all the other things that I have written about in the past, have reduced the market power of the agricultural trade houses. As a result, they now capture a smaller share of the margins in the chain.
This would probably change if the supply chain was disrupted for external reasons, such as crop failure, natural disaster, or war (whether armed or trade), but as the CEO of Cargill said a couple of weeks back, it is no longer enough to “rely on the occasional crop failure, export ban, or supply shortage to save the day.”
If we accept that a commodity supply chain is a zero sum game, there is a way of increasing your margins without taking money from your suppliers and clients: you can do it by cutting your costs. This can be done in a number of ways.
Cutting labour costs is often (usually) a company’s first response to margin pressure. Reducing headcount can do this, making the remaining employees work harder or more efficiently. Reducing salaries or, in the case of traders, bonuses is another option.
Companies can reduce costs by outsourcing specific tasks in the hope that other companies will be able to perform a function more cheaply that they can. (We saw this recently with Bunge closing their sugar trading department and letting other trade houses merchandise their production.)
Innovation, either in processes or technology, can help companies reduce labour costs and gain efficiency. Obvious examples include better communication between offices, data handling in offices, and mechanization (including robots) in manufacturing and handling. There is no reason to think that innovation will suddenly end. Indeed there is reason to think that the trend will accelerate, (for example blockchain and AI), enabling further cost reduction along the supply chain.
Farming is the one part of the agricultural supply chain that has probably benefited the most from innovation and technology. Hybrid seeds, more efficient farm machinery, improved pesticides and insecticides, as well as drone and GPS technology have all helped to reduce costs.
Economies of scale are a common source of cost reduction; building a one million tonne commodity processing plant or port loading facility will not cost twice as much as building a 500,000 tonne one. However the best way to reduce unit costs is to increase throughput; make sure that the capacity you have built is being used to its maximum.
Lastly, and this in the interest of everyone, companies can cut cost by reducing waste. The UN estimates that food waste and crop losses amount to close to one trillion dollars each year. That is a huge cost not just to the environment but also to the agricultural supply chain. Even making small inroads into that waste could significantly benefit the profitability of supply chain actors.
In a zero sum supply chain, the only way to increase your profits without picking others’ pockets is by reducing your costs. Unfortunately, what may work for an individual company (or farmer) may not work collectively.
One farmer can take advantage of innovation and technology to grow the same size crop from a smaller area, but his instinct will be to plant all his available land and produce more. To capture economies of scale a processor will build a mega-plant, and to reduce his unit costs he will look to maximize throughput. And, obviously, any success in reducing wastage will also increase available food supply.
There is therefore a tendency for cost cutting in a commodity supply chain to lead to increased supply. And increased supply usually results in lower prices. Acting alone, an individual player in the supply chain may be able to increase his margins by cutting costs. However, if everyone does it, the resulting extra production could result in a fall in price that negates the costs saved.
Looking at this in another way, economic theory tells us that the price of any particular commodity is, in the long term, determined by the marginal cost of production of that commodity’s most efficient producer. The more efficient the producer, the lower the cost.
Or looking at it from yet another angle, you have to ask, “Who has the market power?” If you are talking about Apple, it is the producer. If you talk about apples, it is the consumer. Where there is no product differentiation—and there is none in commodities—the market power lies with the consumer and not the producer.
Transforming commodities into ingredients can shift market power from consumers to producers. Some commodities, such as coffee and cocoa, are already losing their commodity status and are differentiated by origin. End-consumers are already willing to pay more for gluten-free, or lactose-free, or organic, or non-genetically modified, or locally produced food. And the big brands are willing to pay more (hopefully) for specific food varieties that fit their particular recipes.
That takes us back nicely to the beginning of this blog. Cost cutting can help restore margins for individual participants in the food supply industry, but it is not a solution for the supply-chain as a whole. The only way for the food supply chain to restore margins is by recapturing the market power that they have lost over recent decades. Crop failures or other disruptions would do that in the short term, but product differentiation is the only solution in the long term.