Are futures the future for farmers?

Agricultural markets have an inherent tendency towards instability. Producers of agricultural commodities are therefore much more vulnerable to price shocks than other industrial sectors.

This vulnerability became particularly clear during the fallout of the global financial crisis in 2008, which initiated a period of high variations in the prices of agricultural products. As a result, the issue of price volatility has come to the forefront of public policy attention in recent years.

This was especially the case within the European Union, where farmers have been gradually exposed to these global price fluctuations due to the increased market orientation of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy. In this context, European policy-makers are considering the need for specific risk management instruments in order to tackle price volatility and/or enable farmers to deal with its negative consequences.

While there are several possible tools to achieve this, prominent attention has recently been given to agricultural ‘futures’, which has risen from relative obscurity to become a buzz word and a topic of intense debate in agricultural decision-making circles.

Farm Europe has examined the effectiveness of futures in tackling and managing price volatility (see the Policy Briefing : « Are futures the future for farmers? An evaluation of agricultural futures as a risk management tool in the context of price volatility »)

Futures remain a double-edged sword for the agricultural sector and are not likely to be the unique answer to an efficient management of market volatllity the European agri-food systems have to face.

If their exchanges are functioning properly, futures can enable farmers to secure a certain selling price for their products and estimate these prices at the beginning of their production process. This instrument can thus allow them to deal with price volatility risks and better plan their early production and investment decisions.

However, the use of futures also has several compelling disadvantages.

The very nature of this instruments prevents farmers from benefitting from positive price developments for their products, as these prices are fixed by the futures contract. Engaging in futures contracts is also a rather expensive undertaking for farmers, as they need to pay commissions and fees to brokerage firms and advisors to manage these complex financial products on their behalf. Moreover, if the futures market are not functioning adequately, it is likely that the futures price will be different to the price on the physical markets, leading farmers to receive a lower price than the one agreed in the futures contract.

Most importantly, futures do not reduce price volatility for agricultural products as such, since fluctuations in prices are a necessary condition for the proper functioning of their exchanges. On the contrary, excessive speculation on futures can lead to artificial short-term price increases and thus even higher levels of price volatility, which is detrimental to both producers and consumers of agricultural products. In short, futures are not an instrument that can reduce price volatility, but remain at best a useful financial tool to manage its negative consequences.

The access for farmers in the European Union to this risk management tool has increased steadily in recent years, in line with the subsequent CAP reforms aiming at a more market-oriented European agricultural sector. A number of futures exchanges have been created and contracts can now be traded for a variety of agricultural products, particularly on the ICE Futures Europe in London and the MATIF in Paris.

Nevertheless, the trading volumes and the number of farmers using futures in Europe remain far more limited than those in the United States. The recent experiences of European futures markets also show that a futures approach is not equally suitable for all agricultural sectors. Exchanges for crops and oilseeds are widely available and rather successful, as these products are relatively easy to standardise and store, while the perishability of meat and dairy puts structural limits on the development of their futures markets.

Because of this growth in the trade of commodity contracts and their problematic role in the economic crisis starting in 2008, the European Union has introduced a number of legislations to better regulate these financial markets. While this ‘Barnier package’ could lead to the better protection of farmers engaging in futures, it only includes very limited specific measures on agricultural commodity futures and is thus not fully adapted to the specific needs of the agricultural sector. Moreover, as some important technical details still have to be settled, this complex legislative framework will only be fully applicable in 2018, which means that farmers are not yet sufficiently protected against excessive speculation and market abuse on agricultural futures markets.