In a cyclical, commodity business-price volatility is nothing new. Balance sheets calculated on real market prices often are 30% overstated at the market peaks, and 30% or more undervalued at the lows. We sit back at these times, and say we need to make sure that these wild fluctuations (bubbles) don't occur, but they seemingly always come back.
From a macro-economic standpoint, we just came off the high- tech/Internet bubble. We’re now are facing a housing/credit bubble that by its nature is far more significant and global in its reach.
This is the point where we begin to assess things and ask why, despite all our knowledge and improved management, we are right back in the same boat? While we’ll always want to prevent these type of wild fluctuations, they are probably a fact of life.
I remember as a green kid at Cattle-fax talking to one of the legends of our business who seemed to align himself on the right side of the market more times than not. I asked him what his secret was. He just smirked and said, “Whatever you do, you don't want to sell out too late, but don't sell too early, either.”
These swings may be with us for all time; they represent human nature, greed and fear in their most perfect form. Still, when things turn downward, there is another part of human nature that isn't so pure; that is, that we seemingly always have to find a scapegoat.
Alan Greenspan kept rates too low, corporate executives were corrupt, Canadian cattle are ruining the market, large funds are manipulating the futures, or corporate packers and feeders are conspiring to manipulate the market via captive supplies or even more subtle forms of value-based marketing. Most of these things have some grains of truth. There were predatory lenders, Alan Greenspan did keep interest rates too low for too long, large funds have increased the volatility in the futures, etc.
Others will blame greed, capitalism, a lack of intelligence or current leadership. They probably all played a role as well, but if we take a step back we probably have to admit these market swings are largely an unavoidable byproduct of capitalism.
What makes the current situation in the cattle markets and the broader markets so disheartening is that it’s a combination of the human element and government bungling in the free markets that created the current problems.
The next step – before climbing our way out and making heaps of money on the way up – is to find someone to blame. George W. Bush, of course, is a great target; so is a Congress with a 9% approval rating; and corporate fat cats are good, as well. But Bush is essentially gone, we’re all too cynical to expect Congress to do anything but what they have done, and while we all we all want to blame greedy corporations or foreign competitors, a hard look at the facts usually make those arguments pretty untenable.
Then there’s ethanol, but I'm not counting on corn returning to pre-ethanol levels any time soon. Of course, $50/barrel oil and $5 corn don't mix, and this spring could be a brutal one for the ethanol boys, as well.
Truth is, I don't mind Congress, USDA, corporate packers, large feeders, or foreign countries being the target, but somehow they seem kind of old hat. I think we need some new enemies to keep us from looking in the mirror. Perhaps we should start a poll – who should we blame?