Commodity trading houses are secretive, largely unregulated, pay relatively little tax and, until recently, have made big profits. Not surprisingly, they have come under increasing scrutiny with the Financial Times headlining a major investigation on Monday ahead of its global commodities summit which was marked by an anti-industry protest. NGOs argue that their speculative activities increase volatility, creating more uncertainty for farmers, and force up prices for consumers. They also reinforce asymmetries in north-south relations. For a special issue of Food Ethics on this subject go here: Food Ethics
Leading commodity houses such as Cargill are reacting by saying they need to be more transparent about their activities. But there is a tension there, because it is having an information edge in relation to supply and demand patterns that enables a commodity house to trader profitably. Their defenders would argue that they enable the market to work more efficiently by clearing the market and helping price adjustments. They link regions of surplus and deficit around the world.
Commodity houses cover a number of sectors of the economy including minerals, metal and oil, as well as agriculture. According to the FT, the net income of the largest trading houses since 2003 surpasses that of the combination of mighty Wall Street banks Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, or that of an industrial giant such as General Electric. They made more money than Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford Motor, BMW and Renault put together. However, times are now more difficult, particularly since the recent drop in commodity prices. Aggregate profit growth has stalled.
When I have attended specialist agriculture conferences, someone from Cargill is often there, but they generally keep a low profile. Probably their own data is better than that being presented. William Wallace founded Cargill in 1865 as an Iowa grain elevator, but it now operates in 65 countries, employing 140,000 people. The company is privately held by about 80 of Wallace's descendants, although staff have a 17 per cent stake. It is by far the world's largest trader of agricultural commodities, a turning point being when it bought rival Continental in 1998. It has the biggest market share in key raw materials such as sugar, corn and wheat, putting it in a position to be a price maker rather than a price taker.
Cargill's name is well known, but there are also less known companies in niche markets. For example, the Hamburg-based family-owned Neumann Kaffee Gruppe is behind the beans that go into one in seven cups of coffee worldwide. Swiss-based trading house Ecom Agroindustrial mills more coffee beans than any other company. According to the World Bank, its clients include Starbucks and Nestlé. Company turnover in 2011 was in excess of $4 billion.
The sector is largely unregulated. Switzerland, the main hub of these companies, has admitted that 'Physical commodities traders are, in principle, not subject to any oversight.' The tax burden is low. According to the FT, they pay less tax than oil or mining groups or Wall Street banks.
But the growing level of scrutiny is ringing alarm bells. Cargill has warned that trading houses must embrace ethical and transparent business practices or risk getting into hot water with regulators.