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Barclays’ ‘A-MAIZING returns’

United Kingdom

Heydon Prowse and Jolyon Rubinstein from The Revolution Will Be Televised take on Barclays.

‘We make money from inflation, stagnation, and even starvation,’ says the brash young banker outside a branch of Barclays bank in the City of London.

‘Yes,’ agrees the Barclays branch worker, although she seems unsure about the posters he’s sticking up in the window. ‘Have THEIR cake and eat it,’ reads one. The other depicts a golden sheaf of maize and advertises ‘A-MAIZING returns’.

The banker stops passers-by, extolling the benefits of brand-new food investment products. The investments could force people to go hungry, but, the banker and his colleagues assure them, ‘those people are in a place you’re never going to go to.’

The banker is an actor, and the unsuspecting members of the public are suitably outraged by the idea of making money at the expense of starving people. But the World Development Movement’s new video, made with the pranksters from the BBC TV show The Revolution Will Be Televised, parodies the real-life impact Barclays has on food prices and hunger.

It has been estimated that the bank made up to $800 million from speculating on food prices in 2010 and 2011, helping to fuel sharp spikes in price that pushed basic foods like maize and wheat beyond the reach of millions of people.

Financial speculation by banks and hedge funds now dominates food commodity markets, sending food prices swinging wildly, often in a steep upwards direction. And it amplifies the effects of more tangible factors like extreme weather, and the world’s increasing tendency to put food in the tanks of cars.

In Britain, the average household’s annual grocery bill was £152 ($243) higher in 2011 than in 2010. But in the Global South, where people in poverty often spend up to 90 per cent of their incomes on food, sudden price hikes cause acute hardship. They also cause social unrest, with rising prices widely acknowledged as one of the sparks of the Arab Spring in early 2011.

Barclays has taken a public battering for speculating on food, among other well-reported misdemeanours. In January it won a Public Eye Award for being the ‘world’s worst company’, and its last two annual general meetings have been marred by protesters in blue ‘evil eagle’ masks parodying the bank’s logo. The bank seems unconcerned, like most of the finance sector – preoccupied, perhaps, by efforts to keep the politicians on side. Barclays alone had 15 meetings with British Treasury ministers within a year of the current coalition government coming to power.

The banks know that the days of unfettered speculation may be numbered, as public pressure has forced regulators to examine their activities. The US was the first to pass legislation to curb speculation, though its implementation has been delayed by a legal challenge from Wall Street.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union is formulating new rules to tackle speculation, the strength of which will depend on political decisions made in the coming weeks and months. Crucially, British Chancellor George Osborne and the other European finance ministers are due to vote on the proposed rules. So far, the British government has failed to back tough regulation, and the video ends by asking viewers to email Osborne demanding action.

The decision Osborne and his counterparts make could prevent speculation driving millions of people into hunger and poverty – but only if they are brave enough to resist pressure from banks like Barclays. Their decision surely depends on whether people like those filmed on the London street, who were outraged by the idea of gambling on hunger, can make their voices loud enough.

Miriam Ross is a campaigner at the World Development Movement.

For more background on food speculation check out November 2011’s New Internationalist: ‘Banking on hunger.’

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