The speculative scrum driving up food prices
Bankers, hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds are gambling on hunger by speculating on food supply. Global regulators should step in to stop them
High-frequency traders and momentum-driven hedge funds made it their business to speculate on food in 2011. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters
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.