Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Apr15/02)
17 April 2015
Third World Network
Addressing challenges and opportunities of commodities trade
Published in SUNS #8002 dated 15 April 2015
Geneva, 14 Apr (Kanaga Raja) -- The sixth annual Global Commodities
Forum of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) got underway
on Monday with the two-day session expected to examine, amongst others,
trends in commodities markets over the past year, in particular the
recent dramatic fall in oil prices and that of other commodities,
and its impact on developing countries and other stakeholders.
According to an UNCTAD press release, from the recent highs of approximately
$100 per barrel in June 2014, oil prices have dropped to less than
$50 in early 2015.
In addition to the fall in oil prices, movements among other commodity
prices have been generally down by 10 to 50 per cent from their 10-year
averages. For example, iron ore prices were down 50 per cent and rubber
prices down 37 per cent from their 10-year averages, said UNCTAD.
"These price trends are of particular concern to commodity-dependent
developing countries, which rely heavily on the income from their
commodity exports," it added.
The themes that will be addressed during the two-day session (13-14
April) include prospects for transparency-themed governance reform
in the Swiss commodity trading sector; policy space for resource-rich
developing countries in the trade of raw materials; new dynamics in
international agricultural commodity trade policies; the prospects
for renewables in a lower-carbon energy mix; and the end of the super-cycle?:
implications for development and terms of trade.
In his opening statement at the Forum on Monday, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi,
Secretary-General of UNCTAD, said that one cannot escape the challenges
that have arisen with the dramatic decline in the prices of commodities,
particularly that of petroleum.
The super-cycle of prices of commodities was particularly high about
five years ago, but since then there has been a very substantial decline
- about a 14 per cent fall in prices of commodities across the board,
he said. But in just the last seven months or so there has been a
50 per cent decline in the price of petroleum.
Highlighting some policy challenges, Dr Kituyi recalled UNCTAD's Least
Developed Country (LDC) report of last year, which had posed a question
for developing countries. "If you are not creating decent jobs
during the boom years, what will you do when the bust comes?"
Many of the commodity-dependent countries particularly the petroleum-dependent
countries are having to deal with that today, he said.
He also raised the question of governance reforms in commodities trade
(one of the key issues to be addressed in the forum).
The Secretary-General said that this theme is long overdue, particularly
since the traditional secretiveness in commodities trading, particularly
in this town (Geneva), has been outstripped by the challenges and
growing significance of this phenomenon, both to the traders, to governments
and to the international community as a whole.
He also pointed to the centrality of agriculture in commodities, saying
that this remains particularly important for developing countries
He noted that this forum comes a few months before the work programme
for the WTO tenth ministerial conference, to be held in Nairobi, Kenya
this December, is concluded in Geneva.
[According to a WTO General Council (GC) decision of November 2014,
apart from decisions on the Trade Facilitation Agreement, permanent
solution to the food security issue by December 2015 and translating
the Bali ‘best endeavour' decisions into binding commitments, the
WTO is to prepare and agree by July 2015 a clearly defined work programme
on the remaining Doha Development Agenda (DDA) issues. See SUNS #7923,
#7925 and #7927 in November-December 2014 for GC decisions and reports
on the meeting, and SUNS #7998 of 9 April 2015, for the latest assessment
of the state of play at the WTO.]
One of the lessons brought forward from Bali (ninth ministerial conference
in 2013), Dr. Kituyi said, was that when the single undertaking has
not worked, partial solutions to the Doha Round can incrementally
contribute to the road towards completing the round.
For commodities-dependent countries, particularly the agriculture-commodity
countries, a successful completion of the agricultural agenda of the
Doha Round is critically important.
"And yet, as we all know, the dynamics of multilateral trade
rules-making has slowed down and that slowness has been reinforced
by the growing popularity of plurilateral negotiations, whether trans-Atlantic
While not taking away anything from the importance of these mega-plurilaterals,
for commodity-dependent developing countries, a multilateral solution
to the outstanding questions of the agriculture negotiations remains
extremely important, the Secretary-General underlined.
Dr Kituyi's opening statement was followed by statements from Mr Rene
Bautz, Chairman of the World Energy Council-Global Gas Centre, and
CEO of Gaznat; Mr Yi Xiaozhun, WTO Deputy Director-General; and Ambassador
Triyono Wibowo of Indonesia.
Mr Bautz highlighted recent developments in the energy sector particularly
the recent drastic drop in the price of oil.
WTO Deputy Director-General Yi, citing some important trends that
took place in the last decade, pointed to the rapid economic and trade
growth observed in many developing countries combined with deeper
He also highlighted the growing importance of agriculture and non-agriculture
commodity exports underpinned by strong demand from emerging developing
economies, several episodes of price spikes and commodity price volatility
and more recently the decline in oil prices.
He further pointed to the spread of quality and safety standards as
well as costly certification schemes, the emergence of global value
chains, and higher environmental risks associated with intensive exploitation
of natural resources.
As these dynamic forces have unfolded, affecting financial markets,
and food or energy supplies and prices, WTO members have consistently
renewed their confidence in a well-functioning multilateral trading
According to Yi, the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations reached
a significant milestone with the December 2013 Bali ministerial conference.
The next critical meeting will be the tenth ministerial conference
in Nairobi, he said, adding that progress on the DDA can deliver significant
results for developing countries, in particular in the agriculture
sector which stands at the heart of the round.
Referring to the Trade Facilitation Agreement, Yi maintained that
once this is implemented, burdensome customs procedures and documentation
will be simplified, improving developing country competitiveness and
their participation in global value chains, smoothing the movement
of perishable agriculture commodities and in the longer run attracting
investments and promoting regional trade.
Ambassador Wibowo of Indonesia said that between the year 2000-2013,
the prices of commodities tripled surpassing global growth, a condition
that presents challenges and opportunities to importers and exporters
To exporting countries, the situation brought profit and big revenues
in order to finance their development, and to spur growth and social
On the other hand, for importing countries, particularly food-commodity
importing developing countries, the situation very much affected their
ability to finance development programmes.
As with the case for other commodities, the Indonesian envoy said
that the fall in oil prices today has both positive and negative impacts.
For oil exporting countries, the low prices will significantly affect
their export earnings and may also affect their economic growth and
social welfare. For oil importing countries with low income or high
populations who have allocated a large amount of their budgets to
purchase oil including for the maintenance of affordable prices in
the domestic market and reducing poverty, the current fall in oil
prices presents a positive impact.
The funds previously allocated for subsidising domestic prices are
now available for spending on other economic and social development
programmes, he said.
Keeping in mind that one of the challenges in commodities trade is
price instability, Ambassador Wibowo said, it will be essential for
resource-rich developing countries not to base their economic development
policies solely on commodities trade.
On the contrary, it will be beneficial to utilise their resource endowment
to transform their economies by developing their industry, be it commodity-based
or other industrial sectors.
Resource-rich developing countries should design and implement industrial
and other development policies to promote value-addition and economic
transformation and to reduce their dependence on producing and exporting
unprocessed commodities, he said.
The session also included keynote speeches by Mr Yilmaz Akyuz, Chief
Economist of the South Centre, and Mr Phillippe Chalmin, President
of the Cyclope market analysis service and professor at Dauphine University
Moderating the session, Mr Martin Khor, Executive Director of the
South Centre, said: "This is a very timely forum as we may be
in the midst of a sea change in the commodities situation, and through
that the situation of the global economy. Some of us thought that
the commodities problem for developing countries had become a commodities
boon but this thinking has changed again especially in the last one
The long-term decline of commodity prices had been a big problem,
if not the biggest economic problem, for developing countries in the
post-World War Two period.
This was also associated with the fluctuation in the demand for commodities
and led to a decline in the terms of trade of developing countries,
meaning that the more they produced in exports, the less they obtained
in imports in volume terms. This was known then as unequal exchange,
He noted that economists such as Raul Prebisch highlighted this problem
and that this was picked up by the UN, especially by the leaders of
the developing countries. In fact, it was the major factor that led
to the formation of UNCTAD itself.
In the past one and a half decades, there was a concept of the commodities
super-cycle that somehow the boom-bust cycle had come to an end and
that commodities are on a high level and on a permanent basis.
According to Khor, many reasons were put forward for this. But in
the past couple of years commodity prices have softened and in the
past several months, oil also followed the trend in the fall in commodity
prices together with other commodities.
This raises many questions which this forum will address, said Khor.
For example, is the super-cycle over? Are we back to the traditional
boom-bust phenomenon? What is behind the trend in commodity demand
and prices? What are the effects on developing countries?
How can commodity-dependent countries cope in the short-term with
the new commodities situation? In the long term, how can countries
and the international community cope with the new ‘commodity problematique',
Mr Akyuz, the former chief economist at UNCTAD and now chief economist
at the South Centre, gave a power-point presentation on managing boom-bust
cycles in commodity-dependent economies.
He talked about how vulnerable commodity-dependent economies are to
the continued downturn in commodity prices, and that this depends
on how well they managed the boom.
According to Akyuz, the decade-long commodity boom (super-cycle) appears
to be coming to an end. The boom was accompanied by highly favourable
global financial conditions. These are also changing in that financial
conditions are tightening and will probably get even tighter in the
He highlighted the similarity with the previous booms of the 1970s-80s.
The 70s boom in commodity prices was also associated with extremely
favourable financial conditions (recycling of petroleum dollars and
low interest rates). Commodity prices collapsed alongside the hike
in interest rates in the US (the arrival of Paul Volcker at the Federal
Reserve), which led to a debt crisis in Latin America and a "lost
Akyuz said that the outcome this time may not be as bad. Commodity
and financial shocks are likely to be less severe than in the early
1980s and the boom has been somewhat better managed than in the 1970s.
Still, the occasion was not used to reduce commodity dependence, and
macro-defences built during the boom are inadequate. Therefore, should
the downswing persist, the damage can be quite serious for countries
with weak fiscal and current account positions, large build-up of
external debt and a high degree of commodity dependence.
Among his conclusions, Akyuz pointed out that the recent boom has
been managed somewhat better than in the 1970s.
Also, Sub-Saharan Africa has done much better in managing the boom
than Latin America, where the current projection for growth in the
region is not expected to go above 1 per cent. In Sub-Saharan Africa,
it is in the region of 3-4 per cent.
"We are now entering a downturn in the South. We have no fiscal
space because we did not build enough fiscal space during the boom,"
he said, adding further that investment levels seen during the boom
can no longer be maintained.
Professor Chalmin, in his power-point presentation titled "What
is the new normal in commodity markets?", gave a detailed explanation
of the situation in the commodity markets today, as well as highlighting
some of the key factors behind these recent developments. +