Thursday, June 5, 2008

Privatize/Nationalize: Food


Huge investment funds have already poured hundreds of billions of dollars into booming financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans.

But a few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets that the world’s need for food will greatly increase — by buying farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment.

One has bought several ethanol plants, Canadian farmland and enough storage space in the Midwest to hold millions of bushels of grain.

Another is buying more than five dozen grain elevators, nearly that many fertilizer distribution outlets and a fleet of barges and ships.

And three institutional investors, including the giant Black Rock fund group in New York, are separately planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture, chiefly farmland, from sub-Saharan Africa to the English countryside.


But the long-term implications are less clear. Some traditional players in the farm economy, and others who study and shape agriculture policy, say they are concerned these newcomers will focus on profits above all else, and not share the industry’s commitment to farming through good times and bad.

“Farmland can be a bubble just like Florida real estate,” said Jeffrey Hainline, president of Advance Trading, a 28-year-old commodity brokerage firm and consulting service in Bloomington, Ill. “The cycle of getting in and out would be very volatile and disruptive.”

By owning land and other parts of the agricultural business, these new investors are freed from rules aimed at curbing the number of speculative bets that they and other financial investors can make in commodity markets.

Grain elevators, especially, could give these investors new ways to make money, because they can buy or sell the actual bushels of corn or soybeans, rather than buying and selling financial derivatives that are linked to those commodities.

When crop prices are climbing, holding inventory for future sale can yield higher profits than selling to meet current demand, for example. Or if prices diverge in different parts of the world, inventory can be shipped to the more profitable market.


These new bets by big investors could bolster food production at a time when the world needs more of it.

The investors plan to consolidate small plots of land into more productive large ones, to introduce new technology and to provide capital to modernize and maintain grain elevators and fertilizer supply depots.

“The world is asking for more food, more energy. You see a huge demand,” said Axel Hinsch, chief executive of Calyx Agro, a division of the giant Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which is buying tens of thousands of acres of cropland in Brazil with the backing of big institutional investors, including AIG Investments.

“What this new investment will buy is more technology,” Mr. Hinsch said. “We will be helping to accelerate the development of infrastructure, and the consumer will benefit because there will be more supply.”

For Gary R. Blumenthal, chief executive of World Perspectives, an agriculture consulting firm in Washington, the new investments by big financial players, if sustained, could be just what global agriculture needs — “where you can bring small, fragmented pieces together to boost the production side of agriculture.”

He added: “Investment funds are seeing that this consolidation brings value to them. But I’m saying this brings value to everyone.”

Financial investors also can provide grain elevator operators the money they need to weather today’s more volatile commodity markets. When wild swings in prices become common, as they are now, elevator operators have to put up more cash to lock in future prices. John Duryea, co-portfolio manager of the Ospraie Special Opportunity Fund, is buying 66 grain elevators with a total capacity of 110 million bushels from ConAgra for $2.1 billion. The deal, expected to close by the end of June, also will give Ospraie a stake in 57 fertilizer distribution centers and the barges and ships necessary to keep them supplied with low-cost imports.

Maintaining these essential services “helps bring costs down to the farmers,” Mr. Duryea said. “That has to help mitigate the price increases for crops.”

Mr. Duryea of the Ospraie fund dismissed the idea that financial investors, with obligations to suppliers and customers of their elevators and fertilizer services, would put their thumb on the supply-demand scale by holding back inventory to move prices artificially.

“It is not in our best interests for anyone to be negatively affected by what we do,” he said.

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