LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — In his keynote address April 16 at the FT Commodities Summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, Cargill Chief Executive Officer Greg Page delivered a plain message, “Price is one of the most powerful signals on earth, and to be a communicator or disseminator of that price means we must accept huge responsibility.”
Page urged the commodity trading world to be accountable for the social, environmental and economic consequences of business decisions. With technology making communication both global and nearly instantaneous, he said, there is nowhere for companies to hide. Nor should they seek to hide. Pointing to recent government action in the banking industry, Page called for good policy frameworks that don’t hinder the essential work of getting crops and other raw materials to where they’re needed.
“We can either earn and embrace the governance and regulation we want and need, or ignore our ethical, behavioral and societal obligations and then accept the governance that all others may impose upon us,” he said.
Page called for appropriate, not disproportionate, regulation; the need for responsible conduct; the recognition of the real value commodity trading brings to the world; and above all else, the need for transparency.
In the last few years, the commodities sector has gained greater public prominence than ever before, and not always positively, he said.
“So today I am going to talk about the world we all operate in today; the role trading holds in that world, and its critical purpose,” Page said. “I will talk about why transparency and responsibility are so important, and finally reflect on the role of price.”
He noted that the world is in transition, and that change will continue to bring new challenges and uncertainties for governments, economies, global industries and individuals. The developed world is burdened by immense debt, while there is an emerging world that is going, liberating its economies, innovating and investing in the future, Page said.
Networking and interaction is driving change as never seen before, and there is a thirst for trade connections of new and old markets between nations, he said.
“But equally we see levels of uncertainty and instability as economies stutter, as political and social unrest continues, as unemployment figures continue to rise, as do food prices,” Page said. “Stability is increasingly hard to see or find. The elasticity of market responses is outside versus the past.”
Page said one thing is clear: Companies’ roles in trading commodities is ever more crucial to support stability in the world today.
“Trading across national boundaries is a necessity, not a luxury, if the world wants to better serve the needs of its citizens,” Page said. “And as we face into a global population perhaps reaching 9 billion by mid-century, an even greater proportion of the world’s food will need to move across oceans to feed the people. National self-sufficiency in food or in each individual food stuff will not suffice.
Trading will continue to be important, but the perceptions of trading have changed, and not for the better, he said. The term has become wrapped up and confused with speculation, hoarding, market fixing, monopolies, cartels and bad practices.
“We should not be afraid to point out the difference. We should not ignore or underestimate the significant value we bring to people’s lives every day through moving food and crops from places of surplus to areas of deficit, or providing safe and efficient storage, minimizing waste, maximizing productivity, or supporting farmers with crop inputs, pre-financing or access to markets, managing risks or trading coal, electricity, natural gas, petroleum, iron ore and basic metals,” Page said.
Trading goes “bad” when it becomes divorced from the management of the supply chain and becomes driven by a short term horizon, he said, and when the management of risk and the seizing of opportunity becomes detached from its consequences.
“Cargill has ever believed in a noble purpose – our vision ‘to be the global leader in nourishing people’ speaks to our belief,” Page said. “We have long been at the forefront of such behavior: storing crops and minimizing spoilage; painting the bottom of ships to reduce energy use in propulsion; championing the use of green technologies to harness the wind in ocean transportation; sourcing responsibly; developing supply chains that respect people and human rights; using and promoting the most responsible practices across all our businesses; demanding and expecting the highest behavioral standards from our people. Constantly being innovative, and working to meet the existing, evolving and often unspoken needs of customers and consumers around the world with physical products and tangible solutions.”
In the global economy, the connections across the food, agriculture, energy, minerals and metals space are increasingly apparent, he said. As science progresses, the interdisciplinary nature of everything is coming to the fore. Interdependent and interconnected value chains either happen naturally, or become uneasy bedfellows because of government policy actions, Page said.
“There’s an inherent conflict between government frameworks and global trading value chains. Governments are, naturally, based on nation states, and legislate and tax on this basis. The value chains are, on the other hand, naturally, cross border, cross region, cross continent, truly global,” he said. “Trade is global, and needs to be recognized as such. It deserves to be supported by coherent legislation and coordinated policy frameworks which support and encourage good, ethical practice, and truly transparent operations.”
Page said there is a belief that the trading houses are secretive, manipulating markets and fixing prices.
“That could not be further from the truth,” he said. “Today every one of us has enormous amounts of information available and at our fingertips, instantaneously. There is no time and date advantage. Everything is totally transparent - and the skill today is in the analysis, interpretation and the insight derived from that openly available mountain of knowledge.”
As an industry, traders must speak out for good policy frameworks that help the market to work to everyone’s benefit.
“We also need to have the confidence to explain what we do and how it works to people’s benefit – how efficient, transparent markets give both producers and consumers the best prices,” Page said. “It is not for us to take on the roles of governments, although we should seek to inform their deliberations, but it is essential that we are a force for bettering people’s lives.”