Speculation drives up food prices as bankers gamble on hunger

Tuesday, December 20, 2011
By Paul Martin

Frederick Kaufman
December 20, 2011

Last year, the price of global food floated high as ever. That’s bad news for most of us, but not for those who trade commodities. In fact, 2011 was a great year for the traders, who thrive on bad news, currency woes, drought, flood, freeze, fire and all other manifestations of imminent apocalypse.

2011 was a wild ride. One spring morning, cocoa futures dropped 12% in less than a minute. Corn ascended to all-time peaks and sugar fluctuated more in one day than it used to in a month. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, railed against speculators in coffee, while PepsiCo forecast its own medium-term commodity cost increases to exceed $1bn. All of which meant a bumper crop for the world’s commodity exchanges – even those that used to be backwaters, like the Kansas City Board of Trade and the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, both of which recorded their highest electronic trading volumes in history.

It was a volatile year, and the volatility posed problems for the food industry. Faced with a high-stakes game of price-shifting basic ingredients, the world’s largest food processors and retailers put out the call for maths PhDs and economic modellers to theorise and implement ever-more complex risk-management strategies just so they could keep up with the second-by-second spikes and dips of grain and livestock futures. In the meantime, high-frequency traders and momentum-driven hedge funds made it their business to speculate on food.

There were plenty of ways to get in on the action, but as an increasingly complex amalgam of food-based commodity derivatives piled one on top of the other, the more difficult it became to perceive what it was that lay at the bottom of the speculative scrum. What drove the global food market in 2011 – other than those old faithfuls, fear and greed? I put in a call to Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, of the New England Complex Systems Institute (Necsi), to see if he might have an answer.

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