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World food prices hit another record, high oil adds to fears

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Food prices rise again Global food prices continue to hit record highs, and elevated oil prices so crucial to farmers and shippers are adding to the concern.

Food prices rose in February for the eighth month in a row, up another 2.2 per cent, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said in a report today. Prices rose in all the commodity groups measured, but for sugar.

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This comes amid a feared tightening of the world's cereal supply. There are also concerns that high oil prices could prompt farmers to plant more corn, which can be converted into ethanol, taking away the incentive for more needed crops.

"Unexpected oil price spikes could further exacerbate an already precarious situation in food markets," David Hallam, director of the agency's trade and market division, said in a statement.

"This adds even more uncertainty concerning the price outlook just as plantings for crops in some of the major growing regions are about to start."

High food costs and unemployment have been catalysts in the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

ECB signals possible rate hike The European Central Bank held its key rate steady at 1 per cent today but warned of a possible hike next month as inflationary pressures rise.

The comments from ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet, who told reporters that a rate hike at the central bank's next meeting is "possible," sent the euro climbing.

Mr. Trichet, according to Bloomberg News, said the central bank is "prepared to act in a firm and timely manner."

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The latest estimate from the European Union's statistics agency puts inflation at 2.4 per cent in the euro zone, which is made up of 17 countries sharing the common currency.

Given Europe's deep troubles, a rate hike now would be a bad move, warned Avery Shenfeld, the chief economist at CIBC World Markets. But it wouldn't be the first time.

"We have argued that a rate hike now would be a policy error, with fiscal tightening, a fragile banking system and the continued concerns over sovereign credit all likely to contribute to slower growth," Mr. Shenfeld said.

"The euro has pushed stronger today, and further gains would threaten exports which were the key source of growth in [the fourth quarter] But the ECB has made a similar error as recently as mid-2008, when it hiked just as the global recession was getting underway, and Trichet recently boasted about that move as an appropriate response to inflation risks.

"While an April rate hike could end up being a similar isolated error, followed by a long pause as growth slows, expectations for a more generous short end yield will delay our call for euro weakening, and might also impact expectations for the timing of moves by the [Bank of England]or the Bank of Canada to some extent."

Economist Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt Burns agreed a rate hike at the next meeting might not be the smartest move.

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"They are clearly concerned about the potential for second round effects from the rise in commodity prices, and similar to the July 2008 rate hike, the bank appears eager to prove its inflation-fighting credentials," Mr. Reitzes said.

"However, considering the sovereign debt crisis has yet to be resolved and much of Europe, outside of Germany and France, are struggling mightily, a rate hike is a risky move."

Banks on an earnings roll Canada's banks are on a roll, beating expectations for first-quarter earnings by hefty margins, Globe and Mail banking writer Grant Robertson reports today.

Royal Bank of Canada , the biggest in the country, posted a 23-per-cent rise in quarterly profit to $1.84-billion or $1.24 a share, compared to $1.5-billion or $1 a year earlier. Cash earnings per share, which excludes one-time items, came in at $1.26, well above the $1.01 expected by analysts.

"Overall, we expect [RBC]to trade at a premium given its dominant position in Canadian financial services," said National Bank Financial analyst Peter Routledge. "However, the prospect of volatile capital markets revenues and capital intensive wealth management acquisitions should cap [RBC's]premium valuation over the medium-term, in our view."

As The Globe and Mail's Tara Perkins reports, Toronto-Dominion Bank also topped estimates today, and added a little more for shareholders with a 5 cent hike to its dividend to 66 cents.

TD posted first-quarter profit of $1.54-billion or $1.69 a share, up from $1.3-billion or $1.44. Adjusted for unusual items, profit was $1.74 a share, topping the $1.54 analysts expected.

"We believe the stock remains a very good value for investors, particularly in light of the strong performance in the U.S.," Mr. Routledge said.

Alberta nabs mining crown Not only is it home to the oil patch, but Alberta can now boast it holds the top spot in the Fraser Institute's survey of the world's most attractive regions for mining exploration and development.

"Alberta's resource-friendly government, competitive taxation regime, and superior infrastructure render the province a standout for mining investment, not only in Canada but also globally," Fred McMahon, co-ordinator of the think tank's Survey of Mining Companies, said in releasing the report today.

Quebec had held top spot in the global rankings for three consecutive years, but dipped to be topped not only by Alberta, but also Nevada and Saskatchewan.

"Quebec damaged its reputation when the government proposed tax increases last spring and tabled a bill amending the provincial mining act in December 2009," Mr. McMahon said in a statement accompanying the survey of almost 500 companies.

"These variables rocked miners' confidence in the province and we see the result with the drop in rankings."

Canadian Natural boosts dividend Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. today hiked its quarterly dividend by 20 per cent, to 9 cents, even as it posted a fourth-quarter loss.

The energy company lost $416-million or 38 cents a share in the quarter, falling from a profit of $58-million or 53 cents a year earlier. Adjusted net earnings from operations were $618-million or 57 cents, up from $606-million or 55 cents.

"Canadian Natural reached a milestone in 2010 as we achieved an overall record yearly production level of over 632,000 barrels per day of oil equivalent," said chairman Allan Markin.

"In addition, we increased our total proved plus probable company gross reserves by 9 per cent to 6.9 billion barrels of oil equivalent, replacing 341 per cent of our 2010 production and providing us a strong base of reserves with significant upside potential for years to come."

CIBC cuts CPR target Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has cut its price target on shares of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. after the unexpected retirement of Ed Harris, the executive vice-president of operations and the driver behind a recent efficiency push.

CP announced late yesterday that Mr. Harris, 61 and on board since only last year, is retiring at the beginning of April, and will be replaced by Mike Franczak, 48, the senior vice-president of operations.

"We believe the unexpected retirement of Mr. Harris (COO) increases the risk CP will fail to deliver on its operating performance targets," analyst Jacob Bout said as he cut his target to $74 from $78.

"CP is targeting an operating ratio in the low-70 per cent range within the next three to five years. We believe Mr. Harris was spearheading much of the recent network efficiency initiatives at CP, and to that extent, the company's ability to achieve its targeted operating ratio was pinned on Mr. Harris," he added.

U.S. jobless claims fall As senior economist Jennifer Lee of BMO Nesbitt Burns put it, "fingers crossed" on the U.S. jobs crisis.

Her comments followed the government's report showing initial jobless claims fell during the week of Feb. 26 to 368,000, the lowest reading since mid-2008. The four-week moving average is also at its lowest in more than two years.

Weston profit climbs Canadian food giant George Weston Ltd. posted a jump in fourth-quarter profit to $101-million or 70 cents a share from $82-million or 56 cents a year earlier. Sales, though, dipped to $7.4-billion from $7.5-billion.

Boyd Erman's Morning Meeting Investors are going to have to get used to a bouncy ride from RBC's capital markets earnings, as the bank's high proportion of trading revenues yo-yo, Streetwise columnist Boyd Erman writes today.

In Economy Lab today

Canada trails the U.S. and the rest of the world in having strategies for developing women leaders, The Globe and Mail's Tavia Grant writes.

In Personal Finance today

Tax Matters columnist Tim Cestnick offers some good advice on how to lower your taxes if you can't collect what's owed to you.

The mutual fund industry is good at charging fees but not so good at revealing them to investors, writes Rob Carrick, who has some ideas for increasing their transparency.

Ever been caught in a sticky money situation and unsure how to resolve it? Angela Self weighs in with some advice from a pro.

From today's Report on Business

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About the Author
Report on Business News Editor

Michael Babad is a Report on Business editor and co-author of three business books. He has been with Report on Business for several years, and has also been a reporter and editor at The Toronto Star, The Financial Post and United Press International. His articles have appeared in major newspapers around the world. More

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