NEW YORK - Americans woke up Thursday morning to some shocking headlines. Some of the country's biggest warehouse retailers were limiting how much rice customers could buy.
Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart, said customers would only be allowed only four 10-kilogram (20lb) bags of jasmine, basmati or long grain white rice. Its competitors, Costco and BJ's, were also said to be contemplating limits. Food rations of any kind are unheard of in the U.S., so this was very big news indeed. For at least a little while.
It didn't take long for everyone to figure out the rice shortage was mostly media hype. Yes, some warehouse discounters seem to be experiencing inventory issues as small businesses and restaurants stockpile to avoid higher prices. But the majority of supermarkets have no restrictions whatsoever. Unlike places like Haiti and Egypt where real shortages have resulted in riots, in the U.S. rice is readily available. Expensive, but available.
That doesn't mean the news reports aren't useful. There is a school of thought in financial circles that when the media finally sits up and takes notice, the tide has already turned. This may be true for commodities. After making a record run at $120 a barrel Tuesday, crude oil fell $4 in Thursday's New York session before finally settling around $116 a barrel. Gold fell to a four-month low. Rice prices stayed close to record levels, but wheat, corn and soybean futures all moved lower.
Global consumers could clearly use some relief from sky high fuel and food costs. But investors who have exposure to the commodity markets might want to take profits and take cover. An oil trader I spoke with in New York warned crude was no longer trading based on the rules of supply and demand. Instead, he said oil had now become a financial tool. Farmers have complained the same is happening in grain markets. Speculators are in the driver's seat. Up till now they have been buyers. If that changes, the sell-off could be swift and painful.
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