NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Traders use their noodles to bet on NZ

Instant noodles are soaking up world supplies of edible oil at an alarming rate. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Instant noodles are soaking up world supplies of edible oil at an alarming rate. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As if the price of oil wasn't already enough to worry about, instant noodles are being blamed for an impending edible oil shock.

The World Instant Noodles Association says sales of the product invented in 1958 now exceed 90 billion servings a year.

That's about 13 servings each for every human on the planet.

Because instant noodles are deep fried they are soaking up edible oil at an alarming rate, Bloomberg reported this week.

So even though edible oil is one of the few commodities that have not seen prices rise sharply in the past year (palm oil, the most-used, fell 15 per cent and soybean oil, the second most, declined 1.6 per cent) we should assume it is about to.

The Noodle Association probably wouldn't agree but we should be eating fewer instant noodles (they are high in salt too).

We should be eating less packaged food in general. It wouldn't necessarily end the food price spiral but it might help.

Again from Bloomberg: "Global retail sales of packaged food will reach US$2.18 trillion ($2.72 trillion) this year, from US$1.65 trillion in 2005."

That's where all the edible oil is going and a lot of the world's sugar and wheat and corn ... all of which are at record prices.

Oh, and milk powder, which is why we are paying more than we'd like for milk at the supermarket.

But then if it wasn't for the commodity boom things could be a lot worse for New Zealand right now.

Let's not forget that it is also the reason why the dollar is buying US80c and we can still afford those other important staple foods such as chocolate and coffee. Yes, cocoa and coffee bean prices are also approaching record highs.

It seems no amount of grim economic news from non-commodity related quarters will deter the currency traders from betting on New Zealand dollars.

The kiwi is one of the hottest currencies in the world right now - helped along a bit by its association with the aussie (which at US$1.07 is the Justin Bieber of the currency world).

It is a bit scary how narrowly focused on commodity prices the currency traders are when it comes to New Zealand.

But they do have a clearer understanding than most New Zealanders of just how significant commodity exports are to this economy. Imagine if the dairy money wasn't pouring in. Imagine if commodity prices were at cyclical lows - the country really would be in trouble.

The dollar could be worth as little as US38c - it was about a decade ago. If it was, our debt levels would look a lot worse by global standards. You can bet the ratings agencies and bankers would be getting mean.

Milk might cost a couple of bucks less at the supermarket but our mortgage rates would be higher, we'd see more businesses going bust as banks pulled the plug on them and that would mean higher unemployment.

In short, if it wasn't for the commodity boom the country would be broke. Okay, we're already broke but we'd be even broker (it's a relative term these days).

We'd be Greece or Ireland-style broke and that means budgets so black they'd make Finance Minister Bill English's upcoming effort look lilac in comparison.

Why are commodity markets so crazy? Well, long term there are supply and demand issues. As the world's eating habits swing towards more meat consumption and more of those processed foods, demand is starting to outstrip supply.

But in the short term there are concerns that the commodity market is being overcooked by futures traders betting big with the money that used to get gambled in derivative markets.

As we have been reminded all too recently, market bubbles eventually go pop. If and when that happens we could be in for a nasty shock.

There's a lot that is wrong with global commodity markets. It's hard to argue the logic of an economic system that produces cheaper and cheaper TVs while food gets more and more expensive.

Non-edible oil markets point to problems so serious and so difficult to solve that they really do make the instant noodle issues seem laughable by comparison.

Inflation is a serious problem but as local figures out last week showed it is only food, tobacco and petrol that are the culprits.

Dig a little deeper into the latest Food Price Index and you'll find that fruit and vegetables were the only food group to fall in price during the March quarter. That might be seasonal but it doesn't mean we shouldn't make the most of it.

There is a clear economic signal here. We should all be staying at home this weekend eating vegetables and watching our cheap tellies. It is what Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard would want us to do.

But, hey, never mind the cocoa bean traders, it's Easter and over-indulgence in chocolate is a pseudo-religious tradition.

Let's ride the commodity boom while it lasts. With our finances in such a vulnerable state it is better on balance that it keeps going.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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