New Meaning to the Old Adage "Don't Play with Your Food"
At one time food was considered a poor speculative investment, because it was too perishable to be stored until market conditions were right for resale. But that changed with the development of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and other financial innovations.
As first devised, speculation in food futures was fairly innocuous, since when the contract expired, somebody actually had to buy the product at the "spot" or cash price. This forced the fanciful futures price and the more realistic spot price into alignment. But that changed in 1991. In a revealing July 2010 report in Harper's Magazine titled "The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It," Frederick Kaufman wrote:
The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991, at a time when no one was paying much attention. That was the year Goldman Sachs decided our daily bread might make an excellent investment. . . .
Robber barons, gold bugs, and financiers of every stripe had long dreamed of controlling all of something everybody needed or desired, then holding back the supply as demand drove up prices.
As Kaufman explained this financial innovation in a July 16 interview on Democracy Now:
Goldman . . . came up with this idea of the commodity index fund, which really was a way for them to accumulate huge piles of cash for themselves. . . . Instead of a buy-and-sell order, like everybody does in these markets, they just started buying. It's called "going long." They started going long on wheat futures. . . . And every time one of these contracts came due, they would do something called "rolling it over" into the next contract. . . . And they kept on buying and buying and buying and buying and accumulating this historically unprecedented pile of long-only wheat futures. And this accumulation created a very odd phenomenon in the market. It's called a "demand shock." Usually prices go up because supply is low . . . . In this case, Goldman and the other banks had introduced this completely unnatural and artificial demand to buy wheat, and that then sent the price up. . . . [H]ard red wheat generally trades between $3 and $6 per sixty-pound bushel. It went up to $12, then $15, then $18. Then it broke $20. And on February 25th, 2008, hard red spring futures settled at $25 per bushel. . . . [T]he irony here is that in 2008, it was the greatest wheat-producing year in world history.
. . . [T]he other outrage . . . is that at the time that Goldman and these other banks are completely messing up the structure of this market, they've protected themselves outside the market, through this really almost diabolical idea called "replication" . . . . Let's say, . . . you want me to invest for you in the wheat market. You give me a hundred bucks . . . . [W]hat I should be doing is putting a hundred bucks in the wheat markets. But I don't have to do that. All I have to do is put $5 in. . . . And with that $5, I can hold your hundred-dollar position. Well, now I've got ninety-five of your dollars. . . . [W]hat Goldman did with hundreds of billions of dollars, and what all these banks did with hundreds of billions of dollars, is they put them in the most conservative investments conceivable. They put it in T-bills. . . . [N]ow that you have hundreds of billions of dollars in T-bills, you can leverage that into trillions of dollars. . . . And then they take that trillion dollars, they give it to their day traders, and they say, "Go at it, guys. Do whatever is most lucrative today." And so, as billions of people starve, they use that money to make billions of dollars for themselves.
Other researchers have concurred in this explanation of the food crisis. In a July 2010 article called "How Goldman Sachs Gambled on Starving the World's Poor - And Won," journalist Johann Hari observed:
Beginning in late 2006, world food prices began rising. A year later, wheat price had gone up 80 percent, maize by 90 percent and rice by 320 percent. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries, and 200 million people faced malnutrition and starvation. Suddenly, in the spring of 2008, food prices fell to previous levels, as if by magic. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has called this "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."