http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-how-goldman-gambled-on-starvation-2016088.htmlJohann Hari: How Goldman gambled on starvationSpeculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of millions. What does it say about our system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?
2 July 2010
By now, you probably think your opinion of Goldman Sachs and its swarm of Wall Street allies has rock-bottomed at raw loathing. You're wrong. There's more. It turns out that the most destructive of all their recent acts has barely been discussed at all. Here's the rest. This is the story of how some of the richest people in the world – Goldman, Deutsche Bank, the traders at Merrill Lynch, and more – have caused the starvation of some of the poorest people in the world.
It starts with an apparent mystery. At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn't afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls it "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."
Earlier this year I was in Ethiopia, one of the worst-hit countries, and people there remember the food crisis as if they had been struck by a tsunami. "My children stopped growing," a woman my age called Abiba Getaneh, told me. "I felt like battery acid had been poured into my stomach as I starved. I took my two daughters out of school and got into debt. If it had gone on much longer, I think my baby would have died."
Most of the explanations we were given at the time have turned out to be false. It didn't happen because supply fell: the International Grain Council says global production of wheat actually increased during that period, for example. It isn't because demand grew either: as Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi has shown, demand actually fell by 3 per cent. Other factors – like the rise of biofuels, and the spike in the oil price – made a contribution, but they aren't enough on their own to explain such a violent shift.
To understand the biggest cause, you have to plough through some concepts that will make your head ache – but not half as much as they made the poor world's stomachs ache.
For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer, he'll lose some cash, but if there's a lousy summer or the global price collapses, he'll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked.
Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into "derivatives" that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in "food speculation" was born.
So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutsche Bank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merrill Lynch – and on and on until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles's crop at all.
If this seems mystifying, it is. John Lanchester, in his superb guide to the world of finance, Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, explains: "Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the 20th century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn't be explained in workaday English." Poetry found its break with realism when T S Eliot wrote "The Wasteland". Finance found its Wasteland moment in the 1970s, when it began to be dominated by complex financial instruments that even the people selling them didn't fully understand.
So what has this got to do with the bread on Abiba's plate? Until deregulation, the price for food was set by the forces of supply and demand for food itself. (This was already deeply imperfect: it left a billion people hungry.) But after deregulation, it was no longer just a market in food. It became, at the same time, a market in food contracts based on theoretical future crops – and the speculators drove the price through the roof.
Here's how it happened.
]http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=22948Food Speculation: 'People Die From Hunger While Banks Make a Killing on Food' It's not just bad harvests and climate change, speculators are also behind record prices. And it's the planet's poorest who pay
by John Vidal
Global Research, January 25, 2011
Guardian - 2011-01-23
Just under three years ago, people in the village of Gumbi in western Malawi went unexpectedly hungry. Not like Europeans do if they miss a meal or two, but that deep, gnawing hunger that prevents sleep and dulls the senses when there has been no food for weeks.
Oddly, there had been no drought, the usual cause of malnutrition and hunger in southern Africa, and there was plenty of food in the markets. For no obvious reason the price of staple foods such as maize and rice nearly doubled in a few months. Unusually, too, there was no evidence that the local merchants were hoarding food. It was the same story in 100 other developing countries. There were food riots in more than 20 countries and governments had to ban food exports and subsidise staples heavily.
The explanation offered by the UN and food experts was that a "perfect storm" of natural and human factors had combined to hyper-inflate prices. US farmers, UN agencies said, had taken millions of acres of land out of production to grow biofuels
for vehicles, oil and fertiliser prices had risen steeply, the Chinese were shifting to meat-eating from a vegetarian diet, and climate-change linked droughts were affecting major crop-growing areas. The UN said that an extra 75m people became malnourished because of the price rises.
But a new theory is emerging among traders and economists. The same banks, hedge funds and financiers whose speculation on the global money markets caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis are thought to be causing food prices to yo-yo and inflate. The charge against them is that by taking advantage of the deregulation of global commodity markets they are making billions from speculating on food and causing misery around the world.As food prices soar again
to beyond 2008 levels, it becomes clear that everyone is now being affected. Food prices are now rising by up to 10% a year in Britain and Europe. What is more, says the UN, prices can be expected to rise at least 40%
in the next decade.
There has always been modest, even welcome, speculation in food prices and it traditionally worked like this. Farmer X protected himself against climatic or other risks by "hedging", or agreeing to sell his crop in advance of the harvest to Trader Y. This guaranteed him a price, and allowed him to plan ahead and invest further, and it allowed Trader Y to profit, too. In a bad year, Farmer X got a good return but in a good year Trader Y did better.
When this process of "hedging" was tightly regulated, it worked well enough. The price of real food on the real world market was still set by the real forces of supply and demand.
But all that changed in the mid-1990s. Then, following heavy lobbying by banks, hedge funds and free market politicians in the US and Britain, the regulations on commodity markets were steadily abolished. Contracts to buy and sell foods were turned into "derivatives" that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. In effect a new, unreal market in "food speculation" was born
. Cocoa, fruit juices, sugar, staples, meat and coffee are all now global commodities, along with oil, gold and metals. Then in 2006 came the US sub-prime disaster and banks and traders stampeded to move billions of dollars in pension funds and equities into safe commodities, and especially foods.
"We first became aware of this [food speculation] in 2006. It didn't seem like a big factor then. But in 2007/8 it really spiked up," said Mike Masters, fund manager at Masters Capital Management, who testified to the US Senate in 2008 that speculation
[.pdf] was driving up global food prices. "When you looked at the flows there was strong evidence. I know a lot of traders and they confirmed what was happening. Most of the business is now speculation – I would say 70-80%."
Masters says the markets are now heavily distorted by investment banks: "Let's say news comes about bad crops and rain somewhere. Normally the price would rise about $1 [a bushel]. [But] when you have a 70-80% speculative market it goes up $2-3 to account for the extra costs. It adds to the volatility. It will end badly as all Wall Street fads do. It's going to blow up."
The speculative food market is truly vast, agrees Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, president of the Strategic Investment Group in New York. She estimates speculative demand for commodity futures has increased since 2008 by 40-80% in agricultural futures.
But the speculation is not just in staple foods. Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world's stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years
. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.
]http://stephenleahy.net/2011/02/28/rampant-speculation-inflated-food-price-bubble-wall-stgrain-traders-pushing-price-rises/Rampant Speculation Inflated Food Price Bubble – Wall St./Grain Traders Pushing Price Rises
By Stephen Leahy
Jan 28, 2011 Billions of dollars are being made by investors in a speculative “food bubble” that’s created record food prices, starving millions and destabilising countries, experts now conclude.[This is the second of a multi-part series investigating what is driving food prices higher]
Wall Street investment firms and banks, along with their kin in London and Europe, were responsible for the technology dot-com bubble, the stock market bubble, and the recent U.S. and UK housing bubbles. They extracted enormous profits and their bonuses before the inevitable collapse of each.
Now they’ve turned to basic commodities. The result? At a time when there has been no significant change in the global food supply or in food demand, the average cost of buying food shot up 32 percent from June to December 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Nothing but price speculation can explain wheat prices jumping 70 percent from June to December last year when global wheat stocks were stable, experts say.
“There is no food shortage in the world. Food is simply priced out of the reach of the world’s poorest people,” said Robert Fox of Oxfam Canada in reference to the estimated one billion people who go hungry.
“Hunger is not a food production problem. It is an income problem,” Fox told IPS.
The conditions that created the 2007-08 price hike and food riots have not changed, he said. It is no surprise to see record-high food prices and riots again in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and elsewhere.
Weather used to be the big determinant of food prices, but not anymore. Trillions of dollars have been pumped into food commodities markets in the last few years thanks to deregulation of commodities trading in the U.S., reports Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
In an analysis of the food price crisis of 2007-08, De Schutter documents how the U.S. government passed legislation in 2000 deregulating the food commodity markets and for the first time permitted speculation on speculation.
Here’s how it used to work. In January, Farmer Brown would sign a contract to sell his 2011 future crop to a grain trader like industry giant Cargill for 100 dollars a tonne. In the fall, Cargill would then sell Farmer Brown’s grain at whatever price they could get to a bakery or feedlot company for cattle. These “futures” contracts insulated both the farmer and the grain trader from wild price fluctuations.
Now, after the passage of the U.S. Commodity Futures Modernisation Act
in 2000, Cargill could sell Farmer’s Brown “futures” contract to an investment bank on Wall Street for 120 dollars a tonne, who could in turn sell it to a European investment company for 150 dollars a tonne and then sell it to a U.S. public pension fund for 175 dollars a tonne and so on. Add in some complex financial instruments like ‘derivatives’, ‘index funds’, ‘hedges’, and ‘swaps’, and food become part of yet another highly-profitable speculative bubble.
A deeply-flawed global financial system was largely responsible for the 2007-08 food crisis, concluded De Schutter in a September 2010 briefing note.
“Speculators increasingly entered the market in order to proﬁt from short-term changes in price,” wrote agricultural economist Jayati Ghosh, in a more recent analysis of the 2007-08 food price spike.
With the pending implosion of “the U.S. housing ﬁnance market, large investors, especially institutional investors such as hedge funds and pension funds and even banks, searched for other avenues of investment to ﬁnd new sources of proﬁt,” said Ghosh, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in the Journal of Agrarian Change
Food commodity speculation became the “hot ticket” and unregulated trading zoomed from 0.77 trillion dollars in 2002 to seven trillion dollars in 2007. Food prices shot upwards until the speculators took their profits in the first half of 2008 to cover their losses in the U.S. housing and other markets, she concluded
“What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitized asset class.”--Futures trader Ann Berg, quoted in the UK Guardian
Underlying the sudden, volatile uprising in Egypt and Tunisia is a growing global crisis sparked by soaring food prices and unemployment. The Associated Press reports
that roughly 40 percent of Egyptians struggle along at the World Bank-set poverty level of under $2 per day. Analysts estimate that food price inflation in Egypt is currently at an unsustainable 17 percent yearly. In poorer countries, as much as 60 to 80 percent
of people's incomes go for food, compared to just 10 to 20 percent in industrial countries. An increase of a dollar or so in the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread for Americans can mean starvation for people in Egypt and other poor countries.
Follow the Money
The cause of the recent jump in global food prices remains a matter of debate. Some analysts blame the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program (increasing the money supply with credit created with accounting entries), which they warn is sparking hyperinflation. Too much money chasing too few goods is the classic explanation for rising prices.
The problem with that theory is that the global money supply has actually shrunk
since 2006, when food prices began their dramatic rise
. Virtually all money today is created on the books of banks as “credit” or “debt,” and overall lending has shrunk. This has occurred in an accelerating process of deleveraging
(paying down or writing off loans and not making new ones), as the subprime housing market has collapsed and bank capital requirements have been raised. Although it seems counterintuitive, the more debt there is, the more money there is in the system. As debt shrinks, the money supply shrinks in tandem.
That is why government debt today is not actually the bugaboo it is being made out to be by the deficit terrorists. The flipside of debt is credit, and businesses run on it. When credit collapses, trade collapses
[.pdf]. When private debt shrinks, public debt must therefore step in to replace it. The “good” credit or debt is the kind used for building infrastructure and other productive capacity, increasing the Gross Domestic Product and wages; and this is the kind governments are in a position to employ. The parasitic forms of credit or debt are the gamblers’ money-making-money schemes, which add nothing to GDP.
been driven up by too much money chasing too few goods, but the money is chasing only certain selected goods. Food and fuel prices are up, but housing prices are down. The net result is that overall price inflation remains low.
While quantitative easing may not be the culprit, Fed action has
driven the rush into commodities. In response to the banking crisis of 2008, the Federal Reserve dropped the Fed funds rate (the rate at which banks borrow from each other) nearly to zero. This has allowed banks and their customers to borrow in the U.S. at very low rates and invest abroad for higher returns, creating a dollar “carry trade.”
Meanwhile, interest rates on federal securities were also driven to very low levels, leaving investors without that safe, stable option for funding their retirements. “Hot money” – investment seeking higher returns – fled from the collapsed housing market into anything but
the dollar, which generally meant fleeing into commodities.
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 set the price up. . . . Hard 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. . . . The irony here is that in 2008, it was the greatest wheat-producing year in world history.
. . . The 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 . . . . What 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. . . . What 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. . . . Now 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.”
Some economists said the hikes were caused by increased demand by Chinese and Indian middle class population booms and the growing use of corn for ethanol. But according to Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi, demand from those countries actually fell
by 3 percent over the period; and the International Grain Council stated that global production of wheat had increased
during the price spike.
According to a study by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation jumped from $13 billion to $260 billion from 2003 to 2008. Not surprisingly, food prices rose in tandem, beginning in 2003. Hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that on the regulated exchanges in the U.S., 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely in anticipation of price inflation and resale. George Soros said it was "just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices."
An August 2009 paper by Jayati Ghosh
[.pdf], professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Dehli, compared food staples traded on futures markets with staples that were not. She found that the price of food staples not traded on futures markets, such as millet, cassava and potatoes, rose only a fraction as much as staples subject to speculation, such as wheat.Nomi Prins
, writing in Mother Jones
in 2008, also blamed the price hikes on speculation. She observed that agricultural futures and energy futures were being packaged and sold just like CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), but in this case they were called CCOs (collateralized commodity obligations). The higher the price of food, the more CCO investors profited. She warned:
]http://www.opednews.com/articles/Speculating-with-our-Food-by-Dr-Stuart-Jeanne-B-110705-853.htmlSpeculating with our Food
By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
July 5, 2011
In 2011, "food derivative" speculation has replaced financial derivatives as the hot new investment promoted by major investment banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. According to new research from the World Development Movement, the same banks that caused the 2008 economic crash are also responsible for skyrocketing food prices (see this
). They estimate that in 2010 Goldman Sachs made $1 billion in profits from speculating on food
. The really scary news is that in addition to speculating heavily on food commodities, these same private equity funds are also buying up huge tracts of land in the third world.Trading in Commodities Futures
Individual investors have always had the ability to trade in commodities futures (i.e. buy a 2012 bushel of corn at a fixed price before it's produced). However the commodities market has always been so unreliable that serious investors have viewed it in the same category as roulette and horse racing. Recently, however, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and other investment banks have used factors that appear to threaten food security -- extreme weather events, water shortages and increasing demand due to the Asian economic boom -- to aggressively pitch "agri" funds in a big way to investors. The ultimate effect of massive trading in food futures is to drive up the current cost of food, in the same way the subprime mortgage bubble massively inflated the cost of real estate prior to the 2008 economic crash.
The difference here is that high food prices are a life or death issue for billions of people around the world. Yet, as usual, the issue is virtually invisible in the US media.The Great Land Grab
A 2009 research project by the Oakland Institute (The Great Land Grab
[.pdf]) reveals startling facts about the corporate land grab in the third world -- another major factor in skyrocketing food prices. The Spain-based non-governmental organization GRAIN first drew attention to the land grab issue in its October 2008 brief, Seized! The 2008 land grabbers for food and financial security
. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IF PRI) has reported that foreign investors sought or secured between 37 million and 49 million acres of farmland in the developing world between 2006 and the middle of 2009. In addition to the role played by major investment banks, multilateral institutions like the International Financial Corporation (the private sector branch of the World Bank) are also major players in the "corporatization" of global agriculture. The IFC plays a dual role in increasing private investment in the third world -- via direct investment and by lobbying developing countries to create "business enabling environments." Another World Bank agency, The Foreign Investment Advisory Service (FIAS ), also plays a role in pressuring third world governments to improve their "investment climate," by relaxing environmental, tenant rights and food security laws and abolishing tax and duties on foreign investments.
]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/the-real-hunger-games-how-banks-gamble-on-food-prices--and-the-poor-lose-out-7606263.htmlThe real hunger games: How banks gamble on food prices – and the poor lose outIn the last decade, financiers have speculated billions of pounds in food, helping to make prices dearer and more volatile
01 April 2012
Speculation by large investment banks is driving up food prices for the world's poorest people, tipping millions into hunger and poverty. Investment in food commodities by banks and hedge funds has risen from $65bn to $126bn (£41bn to £79bn) in the past five years, helping to push prices to 30-year highs and causing sharp price fluctuations that have little to do with the actual supply of food, says the United Nations' leading expert on food.
Hedge funds, pension funds and investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital now dominate the food commodities markets, dwarfing the amount traded by actual food producers and buyers. Purely financial players, for example, account for 61 per cent of investment on the wheat futures market, according to the World Development Movement report Broken Markets.
Speculative investment in agricultural commodities in 2011 was 20 times the amount spent by all countries on agricultural aid. Goldman Sachs, the largest player in the agricultural commodities market, earned £600m from food speculation in 2009, and Barclays Capital, the world's third-largest player and largest British bank in this market, earned up to £340m in 2010, according to the report. Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital declined to comment.
Before it was deregulated in the year 2000, the agricultural commodities futures market was used mainly by farmers and food buyers seeking to insure themselves against changes in the prices of products such as wheat, maize and sugar. When George W Bush passed the Commodities Futures Modernization Act 12 years ago, there was an influx, led by Goldman Sachs, of purely financial players who had no interest in ever buying food, but who sought solely to profit from changes in food prices, says Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food.
He added: "What we are seeing now is that these financial markets have developed massively with the arrival of these new financial investors, who are purely interested in the short-term monetary gain and are not really interested in the physical thing – they never actually buy the ton of wheat or maize; they only buy a promise to buy or to sell. The result of this financialisation of the commodities market is that the prices of the products respond increasingly to a purely speculative logic. This explains why in very short periods of time we see prices spiking or bubbles exploding, because prices are less and less determined by the real match between supply and demand."