Monday, February 28, 2011

The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991...!

The title of this post I took from an article written by Ellen Brown for where she says:

"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."  Read more here.

I found this image of the supermarket trolley below on a blog that was posting on food security in Barbados... and the writer was deeply disturbed at the lack of FS in his country. Its struck me that this image was a potent symbol of the common misconception of where food comes from. Backyard food growing efforts, as empowering, important and useful as they are, dont automatically lead people to think deeply about this topic. I would argue that our food security is a complex thing ... and you may want to see the film I recommend below to understand more on why increasing speculation on food commodities puts us globally so at risk. We are not separate and contained by our quarter acre blocks ( for those of who even have that or more!) Its no longer a case of "I'm OK Jack...  so long as Im fine!"

Higher rents and house prices already make life unbearable for many in this country and elsewhere. Hands up who's been affected. If you haven't you're lucky! The film I refer to shows that speculation and risk ventures on housing led directly to the problem we have now around the world in the housing sector ( and employment sector).
What I learnt from this film is that despite the fall out in 2008's GFC little has changed ... and in fact commodities now more than ever before are being gambled on in the way that housing was. 

symbol of food security for many!

"Shrink in the Kitchen" is a fascinating and engaging website/blog by Scott Haas based in Cambridge, Massachusetts : 

Scott Haas is the author of “Hearing Voices” (Dutton) and “Are We There Yet?” (Plume) and a co-author of “The Da Silvano Cookbook” (Bloomsbury).   He won a James Beard award in 2004 for his radio work.  His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, The Boston Globe, and Gastronomica.  He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work.  

Before I share the article from the Shrink in the kitchen with you I want to explain something... I am one of millions who has little real comprehension of what derivatives and financial markets jargon is about. Mind you ... I could see the GFC looming... that whole thing that happened with Sub-prime housing had to give. '

In London in 1988 I had a job making and delivering sandwiches to several Japanese and other banking firms in The City monday to friday - 7 am till 11 am - before I went off to my next job. Working with a bunch of South Africans (who could not bear the closing years of apartheid and escaped to London) we would catch lifts with the lunch trolley and suited men talking strategies to the floors where guys on the phones to global stock-markets awaited their BLTs and Turkey with cranberry sangers.

the BLT
 My boss had scrambled to put together this little business after leaving a privileged lifestyle with her Iranian arms-dealing boyfriend - empty handed and desperate to get away. The crunch had come when his business interests became clear. When working for her we drove a toyota hi-ace... but she'd started with a lent Rolls... a friend who'd offered support. This was London 1988 ... a world away from my previous job in a remote Australian coastal village teaching Art. 
The word 'strategy' peppered every sentence spoken in those buildings. Something about that word sat with me uneasily.'

Last night I went to see the film  INSIDE JOB.  Curiously the peculiar sensation I'd had around that massively over-used word "strategy" in 1988, London was laid out for us all to examine in Charles Ferguson's  film narrated by Mat Damon. Made on location in the US, England, France, Singapore, China  and opening in Iceland the film had me perched on alert, eyes and ears open for the entire time it rolled. Not only was it dense and demanding but it actually succeeded brilliantly in keeping one's level of interest high throughout. Dinner conversation later was very animated ... each of us unanimous in our agreement that the filmmaker had seriously delivered a remarkable documentary.

The website for this film is resourceful... click jargon to read more like this:

a derivative is an agreement between two parties that is contingent on a future outcome. In finance, a derivative is a financial contract with a value linked to the expected future price movements of the asset it is linked to - such as a share, currency, commodity or even the weather. Derivatives allow risk about the price of the underlying asset to be transferred from one party to another. Options futures and swaps, including credit default swaps are types of derivatives.

NOTE: a common misconception is to refer to derivatives as assets. This is erroneous, since a derivative is incapable of having value of its own as its value is derived from another asset.

So... you might be wondering what this film has to do with the Kitchen shrink. A lot it would seem. Until I saw this film last night I could not fully piece together the facts of financial engineering in all its complexity to understand the GFC.  Much of what occured I'd read about in one form or another... this film put all that together and more.

Hence this morning when on twitter I read this link to the blog of the Kitchen Shrink I was struck by the similarity of the main agenda of this post to the film last night... that of the role of speculation on food commodities pushing prices up ...hedge funds now active in food commodities is NOT good news in light of lessons learned in the film last night.

To really understand the market and futures trading and all that jargon I cant stress strongly enough how useful that film was for putting it into an accessible context. Its in all our interests to see this film and see how markets send prices sky high...and how those same companies bolster themselves against loss ... meanwhile the humble grower is mortgaged to the very banks that sail close to the wind or had to be bailed out!

from the "Shrink in the Kitchen":

Food Prices Going Up, Up, Up: Why is That?

February 26th, 2011 · 3 Comments ·

A front page story in today’s Boston Globe on surging food prices made it all so mysterious: Rising fuel costs, low yield of crops, increased demand are the cause of the price increases.  However, these are not the principal reasons for the increases here and abroad, nor do they explain why it is happening now.  What kind of reporting is dat?
Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, has added to the debate by describing the role that speculation plays in the rising prices of food commodities.
William Pfaff, writing in TNYT also, summed it up: “The conventional explanations for the flare in prices are population growth, diversion of corn and soybeans to biofuel production, rising Asian and Middle Eastern demand for high-value foods, higher transport costs and crop failures.  Oddly little has been said about the role of speculation in the rise in commodity prices generally and specifically in food.  On the Chicago CME Group market, which deals in some 25 agricultural commodities–it is a merger of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade–the volume of contrasts has increased by 20% since the start of the year and now has reached the level of a million contracts per year.  This will soon exceed the rate of growth reached in all of 2007.  The hedge funds are now active in commodities and are playing the futures contracts, where upwards of 30 million tons of soybeans for future delivery are contracted for every day.  They are also buying the companies that stock.”
The Guardian reports the same data and applies them the the developing  world where consequences are dire:
“Olivier de Schutter, UN rapporteur on the right to food, is in no doubt that speculators are behind the surging prices. ‘Prices of wheat, maize and rice have increased very significantly but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets,’ he says.
‘People die from hunger while the banks make a killing from betting on food,’ says Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement in London.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation remains diplomatically non-committal,saying, in June, that: ‘Apart from actual changes in supply and demand of some commodities, the upward swing might also have been amplified by speculation in organised future markets.’
The UN is backed by Ann Berg, one of the world’s most experienced futures traders. She argues that differentiating between commodities futures markets and commodity-related investments in agriculture is impossible.
‘There is no way of knowing exactly [what is happening]. We had the housing bubble and the credit default. The commodities market is another lucrative playing field [where] traders take a fee. It’s a sensitive issue. [Some] countries buy direct from the markets. As a friend of mine says: ‘What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitised asset class.’”
I know this is heavy reading... Its Monday afternoon and the week is just beginning. Excuse the capitalisation of this last section ... it wont correct! 
The film 'Inside job' was announced winner of the best documentary award at the Oscars a couple of hours ago.   Upon accepting his Oscar Ferguson, who created Inside Job said,                   
“Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail and that’s wrong.” 


iNdi@na said...

all frankly terrifying.

Sophie Munns said...

I totally agree India!

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