Who, What, Why: Will chocolate prices rocket at Christmas?

Cocoa beans spill from a torn jute bag
Image caption Cocoa prices have reached a 23-year high

A hedge fund manager has bought up nearly all the physical stocks of cocoa in Europe - leading to speculation that chocolate prices could rise in the run up to Christmas.

It might sound like a chocoholic's dream - enough cocoa to make five billion bars of the nation's favourite treat.

But Anthony Ward is no Willy Wonka.

And the £650m ($992m) worth of cocoa reportedly bought by his Armajaro fund could leave chocolate makers feeling a touch queasy, according to industry experts.

Cocoa prices were already soaring after a decline in production in Africa, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) market report for June.

Now this deal, for pretty much the entire stock held in the 35 warehouses of the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (Liffe), has pushed them to their highest level since 1977.

You might wonder where a hedge fund would put 7% of the world's annual cocoa output but the ICCO's Laurent Pipitone says it is likely to be stored in Liffe's warehouses - mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium - until being sold on.

But what could Mr Ward's decision mean for sweet-toothed consumers?

According to Mr Pipitone, the organisation's senior statistican, it is highly unusual for just one buyer to snap up such a large quantity.

While most buyers are looking to secure their supply for a specified sum - insulating themselves against sudden rises in costs - another motive could be to "squeeze" the market by controlling supply, forcing prices higher.

"A company might want to take the opportunity of the shortage on the markets to try to buy all the cocoa and benefit from the high price. Maybe they will have some market power in the coming months," Mr Pipitone says.

Sixteen European cocoa firms and trade associations have already written to the exchange to complain that manipulation of trading rules - albeit perfectly legal - was becoming a problem, the ICCO has reported.

With the next African cocoa harvest not due until late September and October, there are concerns within the industry of a continued shortage of supply during September - the exchange's next trading month.

"Companies will be buying for Christmas so we might have a problem," suggests Mr Pipitone.

About a third of all cocoa available to European firms is traded on the Liffe but buying direct from suppliers in Africa incurs shipping and insurance costs and is unlikely to be much cheaper, he says.

So, could there be a lack of chocolate in Christmas stockings this year - due to the price of a selection box rocketing?

Consumer strength

"There will certainly be some nervousness in the market because someone has cornered so much supply - that in itself can force prices up," says retail analyst Neil Saunders.

However, he says it may not necessarily be bad news for shoppers.

"One reason the consumer is in a strong position is that there's quite a lot of competition in the market and resistance to putting up prices," says Mr Saunders, of Verdict Research.

"The increase in costs could be absorbed between retailers and manufacturers."

If consumers do share the pain, it may only be a matter of a few pence - or else they may see the weight of products reduced as prices remain static, he says.

However, Mr Saunders adds that manufacturers are particularly keen to keep prices low around key seasons like Christmas, when retailers offer heavy promotional discounts.

So, those two for £10 deals on bumper tins of Christmas chocolates may yet be safe.

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