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Speculation is the main driver behind higher world food prices - the evidence is there in the data

World food inflation is the crisis of the moment. Prices for basic commodities are rising across the world, causing enormous distress, particular for the poorest and most vulnerable.

food commodity index
© Unknown
There are several ideas running around the internet seeking to explain this appalling state of affairs. As I mentioned in previous posts, these explanations can be grouped into three broad categories;

* Rising demand due to rapid economic growth in emerging markets, expecially in Asia:

* Supply shocks reducing the quantity of available food:

* Speculation and the search for higher yield, which has been facilitated by negative real interest rates in the developed world.

There is a difficulty in adjudicating between these three explanations. All three are, to some extent, true. They are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, we need to arrive at a relative weighting. Which of these three factors is the real driver behind the devastating rise in food prices?


Accusations of Fraudulent Mortgage Documents Led Citigroup to Settle With Homeowners

In a handful of cases around the country, Citigroup has reached settlements with homeowners who accused the bank of filing fraudulent mortgage documents to prove its legal standing to collect the debt in bankruptcy proceedings, Bloomberg reported today.

The cases put a twist on recent efforts by banks to patch over problems created because lenders and securitizers were sloppy with documentation during the housing bubble. These homeowners alleged that Citigroup's mortgage assignments - a key document produced whenever the ownership of a mortgage changed hands - were flawed because they were dated after the bankruptcy was filed.

Mortgage assignments, as we've noted , are sometimes processed in-house by mortgage servicers, but they may also be contracted out to companies, in this case a Texas company called Orion Financial Group. (Orion has not been accused of wrongdoing but told Bloomberg it does not "create fraudulent documents.")

In the settlement agreements with homeowners, Citigroup did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to cover their legal costs and slash their interest rates. In a few cases, the bank also reduced the amount outstanding on mortgages. Here's Bloomberg:
Citigroup paid almost $82,000 in opponents' legal costs when settling challenges to four bankruptcy claims that used Orion letters in 2010, according to agreements filed with federal bankruptcy courts in New York and Arkansas. The bank reduced interest rates on the remaining debt by an average of 49 percent, while cutting the outstanding mortgage balance in three cases by a combined $55,000, the filings show.


Tide turns in favour of Egypt's Brotherhood in revolt

mubarak out writing
© Unknown
The first time Essam el-Erian, went to jail, he was 27. Last Sunday, he left prison for the eighth time at the age of 57.

The medical doctor's crime for each incarceration was belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential and best-organised Islamist opposition movement and long feared by President Hosni Mubarak, Israel and the United States.

Egypt's courts have repeatedly rebuffed the Brotherhood's requests for recognition as a party on the grounds that the constitution bans parties based on religion.

Now the world could not look more different to the past three decades when Brotherhood members were repressed, arrested, tried in military courts and shunned by the Egyptian government.

After the last tumultuous days of popular revolt against Mubarak, it is now the government that is seeking out the Muslim Brotherhood to discuss Egypt' future.


Israel jittery about gas supply from Egypt

© Unknown
An explosion at an Egyptian gas terminal that disrupted the supply of fuel to Israel had Israeli officials pressing Sunday to speed development of a natural gas deposit that they say can make Israel energy independent.

Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau wants the government to back loans so financing can be obtained to develop the Tamar field, off Israel's coast in the Mediterranean Sea, a spokesman said. Landau also favors exempting the field's developers from a proposed windfall tax.

"We have to do everything to improve Israel's energy security," Landau told Israel Radio on Sunday. "It is Israel's obligation to remove as soon as possible every obstacle" to developing Tamar, he said.


Fearful Russian lawmaker flees to US

Ashot Egiazaryan
© AP / Jacquelyn Martin
Billionaire Russian lawmaker Ashot Egiazaryan poses for a portrait in a Washington law office Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, after fleeing Russia over accusations that some of its richest and most influential people swindled him in a real estate deal. Egiazaryan tells The Associated Press he's considering seeking asylum in the U.S. But after suing another Russian billionaire and several ex-business partners, including Moscow's former mayor and two longtime friends of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, he said he doesn't feel completely safe even in this country

A wealthy Russian lawmaker has fled with his family to the United States, where he says he fears assassination over accusations that some of Russia's richest and most influential people swindled him in a real estate deal. Back home, he's been charged with financial crimes.

Ashot Egiazaryan (pronounced Ah-shawt Yeh-gee-ah-zar-ee-AHN) says he is considering seeking asylum in the U.S. But after suing a Russian billionaire and several former business partners -- including a close friend of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow's former mayor -- he said he doesn't feel safe even in this country.

"I do think it's possible than an assassination attempt can be mounted against me here," he said flanked by lawyers in a conference room a few blocks the White House. The interview with The Associated Press was his first with Western media and came a few weeks after one of his relatives was gunned down in the Russian city of Astrakhan on Dec. 7, an attack he claims is connected with his suit.


Iran test-fires new supersonic missile

Iran's Revolutionary Guard have test-fired a supersonic ballistic surface-to-sea missile capable of hitting warships and targets within a 300km range.

The missile, called Persian Gulf, is supersonic, immune to interception and features high precision systems, Chief Commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari was reported as saying on Iranian state TV on Monday.

Jafari said the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is currently manufacturing 500km stealth radars and has plans to mass-produce long-range passive radars with a range of 1,100km.


Top US lawmaker: Aid recipients face sacrifices

© Unknown

Washington - Countries that get US aid, such as Pakistan, will have to shoulder more of the burden for their own growth as Washington eyes deep cuts in overseas assistance, a top US lawmaker warned Wednesday.

"Greater sacrifice by aid recipients is required to sustain the generosity of the American people," said Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Subcommittee that manages US aid flows.

"For example, Pakistan, which receives $1.5 billion per year in civilian aid alone, has one of the lowest effective tax rates in the world," Lowey said in an opinion column in the online politics and public affairs magazine Politico.

Star of David

Israel Deliberately Bombs Medical Supply Building in Gaza

Israel has intentionally dropped two large bombs on the AL-Qerem Medical Supplies Factory in Jabalya, Gaza. The building is totally destroyed, as was all of the medical supplies and equipement. Gaza is already in crisis mode for lack of medical supplies, this bombing will mean even the most basic of medical needs will continue to be impossible to satisfy.



Propaganda Alert: New website to open spy agency to public - CIA

© AFP/Getty Images
Washington - The CIA has launched a revamped website with links to YouTube and Flickr to help the public better understand the spy agency's often clandestine work, officials said.

"The idea behind these improvements is to make more information about the Agency available to more people, more easily," CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a statement on Monday.

"The CIA wants the American people and the world to understand its mission and its vital role in keeping our country safe," he said.

Although the Central Intelligence Agency's mission has always hinged on secrecy, the spy service is conscious of its public image -- partly for recruiting reasons -- and in recent years has added games and links for children on its website.


ACLU Slams Chicago's Pervasive Surveillance System

A vast network of high-tech surveillance cameras that allows Chicago police to zoom in on a crime in progress and track suspects across the city is raising privacy concerns.

Chicago's path to becoming the most-watched US city began in 2003 when police began installing cameras with flashing blue lights at high-crime intersections.

The city has now linked more than 10,000 public and privately owned surveillance cameras in a system dubbed Operation Virtual Shield, according to a report published Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

At least 1,250 of them are powerful enough to zoom in and read the text of a book.

The sophisticated system is also capable of automatically tracking people and vehicles out of the range of one camera and into another and searching for images of interest like an unattended package or a particular license plate.