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Hedge funds may be retreating from ag commodities

Hedge funds may be in retreat from agricultural commodity markets - with a "disastrous" bet on corn futures adding to the pressures on profitability raised, ironically, by their own success, a former Chicago Board of Trade director said.

Ann Berg, also the first recorded female grain exporter, said that the retreat in hedge funds' net long positions in major US-traded agricultural commodities in April to their lowest since 2006 may be a sign of waning interest in the sector.

In particular, she flagged that the drawdown – which has since reversed somewhat – came even as agricultural commodity prices rose, appearing a signal that "funds were sounding a retreat from the sector".

The position data "do illustrate a change in hedge fund behaviour", said Ms Berg, now an advisor on crop markets to governments and organisations such as the FAO, the UN food agency.

'Long bet turned disastrous'

A withdrawal would be consistent with hedge funds' declining profitability from crop positions.

Commodity hedge funds recorded negative performances in both 2011 and 2012, disappointing investors who withdrew about 20% of their cash last year, according to Newedge.

"By 2011, the performance of the commodity hedge funds declined and their positioning in agricultural futures no longer seemed to be predictive of market trends," Ms Berg said, with speculators appearing to have been caught out particularly this year in the Chicago corn market.

"Hedge funds enlarged their long position in corn in anticipation of a bullish US Department of Agriculture planting intentions report.

"The long bet turned disastrous when, in March, the USDA announced potential record corn production for 2013, causing a two-day sell-off of about $40 a tonne."

Volatility factor

Hedge funds have also been victim of their own success, in muffling the volatility which the exploited to great profit during the crop price boom and bust in 2008-09.

Hedge fund algorithms "might have been instrumental in reducing the level of price volatility… especially those specializing in arbitraging market anomalies," Ms Berg said.

"High volatility – peaking at 80 during the food crisis five years ago but declining to levels around 12–20 for most of the past year and a half – was most likely a significant factor in commodity hedge fund success in years past."

The comments came as the UN FAO itself forecast calmer grain markets ahead, thanks to the prospect of a rebuild in world cereals stocks to their highest in 11 years.

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