FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Food, Egypt and Wall Street

The dramatic rise in food prices is fueling a great deal of discontent in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. It’s a deep undercurrent propelling many of the poor, who face prospects of starvation to resort to the streets and to violence. According to the United Nation’s Food Agency (Food and Agriculture Organization — FAO) world food prices are up for the 7th month in a row and are likely to surpass the record high reached in December 2010.

No end is in sight for this destabilizing battle with food price inflation in places like Egypt, where more than half of an average income goes for food. According to the State Department, more than 60 food riots occurred worldwide over the past two years.

In March 2008, a dramatic spike in food prices led thousands of people on the brink of starvation in Egypt to violently riot — sending a seismic shock wave through the Mubarak regime. After the Egyptian military was able to distribute enough wheat to dispel the rioting, efforts to stockpile wheat by the Mubarak government have failed, as food prices continue to hover at record highs.

The media is reporting many reasons for this problem ranging from soaring demand, cuts in food subsidies, droughts, and government mandates to use more grain-based biofuel. But, another significant factor is at play: unfettered speculation by investment banks. As noted in USA Today, in 2008, “the bulls may not be running on Wall Street, but they’re charging in the commodities pits.‰

At issue are the still deregulated commodity markets ushered in by the Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress with the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Before this law, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) served as a cop on the beat, enforcing rules that prevent the distortion or manipulation of prices beyond normal supply and demand. But Wall Street banks and companies such as ENRON and British Petroleum were determined to make a lot more money from speculation by exempting energy-derivative contracts and related swaps from government oversight.

For this reason, the 2000 law allows entities that have no stake in whether adequate amounts of food and fuel are available for ordinary people and commodity-dependent businesses to make huge sums of money by gambling with other people‚s money.

Soon after passage of the 2000 law, “dark” unregulated futures trading markets emerged, most notably the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) in London — created by Wall Street and European investment banks and several oil companies. A key practice involves “over the counter index trading” in which hundreds of billions of dollars of pension, sovereign wealth, and other institutional funds are used to flood “dark” commodity markets to buy and hold futures contracts without an expiration date or oversight. When it’s time to make money on a losing bet, these funds are withdrawn, causing commodity price crashes and economic instability.

These transactions don’t involve customary “bona fide commodity traders, such as an airline company hedging on the price of jet fuel by purchasing futures contracts. As prominent hedge fund manager Michael McMasters noted before a U.S. Senate panel in 2008, this amounts to “a form of electronic hoarding and greatly increases the inflationary effect of the market. It literally means starvation for millions of the world’s poor.”

Some world leaders are willing to speak out against the pernicious role of “dark” commodity markets. Recently, French President Sarkozy warned of further unrest and even war at the Davos forum, unless commodity speculation is reined in — something that Wall Street and Republican lawmakers are bitterly fighting. The Dodd/Frank Financial Reform Law places some restrictions on this practice by the CFTC. In particular, the CFTC is beginning the process of weeding out “non bona fide‰ investment bank speculators.

True to form, House Republicans are demanding that the CFTC slam on the brakes. They’re planning hearings and legislation to hamstring these efforts.

The spontaneous mass uprising of ordinary people in Egypt and the Middle East against their authoritarian regimes has many root causes. One that deserves much greater attention is unfettered speculation by powerful private financial institutions that don’t care about world-wide starvation and its impacts. It’s distorting global food supplies.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999.

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail