By Frederick Kaufman
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.
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.
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling,” one grain trader told the Wall Street Journal. “You don’t ever want to trade wheat again,” another told the Chicago Tribune.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” Jeff Voge, chairman of the Kansas City Board of Trade, told the Washington Post. “This isn’t just any commodity,” continued Voge. “It is food, and people need to eat.”
2011 began with food prices as high as they were during the 2007/08 crisis. Erratic weather, speculators, conflicts, trade restrictions, the cost of fuel and the use of food grains to produce bioethanol all play their part in keeping food, including all the major staple food grains, expensive.
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