I never got around to finishing what was intended to be a thoughtful commentary on this Harper’s article, but since John posted about this earlier, I’m going to give you all the link, at least. Frederick Kaufman, “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it”:
Agriculture, rooted as it is in the rhythms of reaping and sowing, had not traditionally engaged the attention of Wall Street bankers, whose riches did not come from the sale of real things like wheat or bread but from the manipulation of ethereal concepts like risk and collateralized debt. But in 1991 nearly everything else that could be recast as a financial abstraction had already been considered. Food was pretty much all that was left. And so with accustomed care and precision, Goldman’s analysts went about transforming food into a concept. They selected eighteen commodifiable ingredients and contrived a financial elixir that included cattle, coffee, cocoa, corn, hogs, and a variety or two of wheat. They weighted the investment value of each element, blended and commingled the parts into sums, then reduced what had been a complicated collection of real things into a mathematical formula that could be expressed as a single manifestation, to be known thenceforward as the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index. Then they began to offer shares.
As was usually the case, Goldman’s product flourished. The prices of cattle, coffee, cocoa, corn, and wheat began to rise, slowly at first, and then rapidly. And as more people sank money into Goldman’s food index, other bankers took note and created their own food indexes for their own clients. Investors were delighted to see the value of their venture increase, but the rising price of breakfast, lunch, and dinner did not align with the interests of those of us who eat. And so the commodity index funds began to cause problems.
Wheat was a case in point. North America, the Saudi Arabia of cereal, sends nearly half its wheat production overseas, and an obscure syndicate known as the Minneapolis Grain Exchange remains the supreme price-setter for the continent’s most widely exported wheat, a high-protein variety called hard red spring. Other varieties of wheat make cake and cookies, but only hard red spring makes bread. Its price informs the cost of virtually every loaf on earth.
As far as most people who eat bread were concerned, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange had done a pretty good job: for more than a century the real price of wheat had steadily declined. Then, in 2005, that price began to rise, along with the prices of rice and corn and soy and oats and cooking oil. Hard red spring had long traded between $3 and $6 per sixty-pound bushel, but for three years Minneapolis wheat broke record after record as its price doubled and then doubled again. No one was surprised when in the first quarter of 2008 transnational wheat giant Cargill attributed its 86 percent jump in annual profits to commodity trading. And no one was surprised when packaged-food maker ConAgra sold its trading arm to a hedge fund for $2.8 billion. Nor when The Economist announced that the real price of food had reached its highest level since 1845, the year the magazine first calculated the number.
Nothing had changed about the wheat, but something had changed about the wheat market. Since Goldman’s innovation, hundreds of billions of new dollars had overwhelmed the actual supply of and actual demand for wheat, and rumors began to emerge that someone, somewhere, had cornered the market. 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. But there was plenty of real wheat, and American farmers were delivering it as fast as they always had, if not even a bit faster. It was as if the price itself had begun to generate its own demand—the more hard red spring cost, the more investors wanted to pay for it…
By all means, read the whole thing (and if you can spare a few bucks, subscribe to Harpers). Goldman Sachs, and its imitators, are playing with real people’s lives and the global food supply as if those were the markers for their all-important Monopoly money “finance”.