Speculation on hunger

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am


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What is happening? A company called Glencore, the world's largest commodities trader, is planning a US$11 billion stock sale on the London and Hong Kong stock exchanges. Critics say some of the company's actions are behind rising food prices.


Who is Glencore? The firm is an energy, metals and food producer and marketer. It is worth US$60 billion. Although most of its money comes from mining, Glencore controls 10 per cent of the world's wheat production and almost a quarter of the barley, rapeseed and sunflower market.


How does it affect world food markets? Last year, a drought severely affected Russia's wheat output. A Glencore official publicly urged the Russian government to ban wheat exports, The Guardian said. The government did. (It is impossible to prove whether Glencore's advice was factored into the government's decision.) The surge in wheat prices caused food riots in other countries and pushed tens of thousands of people towards hunger.


Why does it affect everyone? Economists like to argue 'speculating' does not affect the real price of a commodity. Speculating means buying or selling ahead of time to offset increases or reductions in price. They say that if someone makes money speculating, that just means someone else who speculated loses. That is not entirely true. Just as speculating in property drives up rents and flat prices in Hong Kong, a sudden flood of money into food drives up wheat prices. Only in this case, instead of being unable to afford a flat, people die.


When will Glencore list? On May 19.


Where is it based? In Switzerland, so it does not have to worry about market regulations. It will have to comply with some weak Hong Kong and British rules, but for the most part, it is out of reach of the law.