Wall Street is at again.
The nation’s financial sector is on a crusade to dominate an irreplaceable African resource that the world increasingly needs: massive tracts of open land available for large scale industrial farming. The pace of land purchases is flying so furiously that it is now commonly referred to as “a land grab.”
It’s the latest phase in Wall Street’s never-ending quest for profits at-any-cost, but this time the focus of finance’s predatory gaze is the world’s poorest region. The reason is simple: There’s an ocean of money to be made by doing so.
The potential riches stem from the fact that the world needs more food. For Wall Street, scarce resources translate into massive profits, and U.S. financial firms are at the head of the pack to make them.
Global population growth, the rise of middle class diets in fast-developing economies, especially China and India, and falling crop yields due to climate change mean that the planet is in a scramble to increase agricultural output. This year’s drought highlights the problem.
Most of the land available to meet this growing demand is in the world’s most distressed regions, especially in Africa and to lesser extent Latin America. Buying, leasing, and selling that land is expected to lead to double-digit returns for investors—the type of returns seen in high-growth, high-tech companies. And financiers all around the world are beating down the door to get their hands on it.
These acquisitions are another example of the way in which the financial system thrives off of inequality, both internationally and here at home.
This should come as no surprise. It’s not the first time that the financial sector has put short-term gains above all else.
Wall Street’s unapologetic avarice during the housing bubble led to the largest erasure of wealth amongst the descendants of Africa and Latin America living in the United States. Due to the housing crisis, the wealth gap between people of color and whites has grown to the widest level ever recorded. The devastating loss in property and prosperity amongst blacks and Latinos is a direct result of Wall Street’s assessment that these communities were ripe for predation.
Now they’re profiting from the mess they created by snapping up distressed properties for profit.
In Africa and around the world, Wall Street banks on inequality.
A Continent for Sale, Yet Again
Oxfam estimates that over the past decade up to 560 million acres of land, equivalent to the size of Western Union, has changed from local control in the developing world to the hands of global investors. The World Bank says that 112 million acres switched ownership in 2009 alone. Seventy percent of those deals were in sub-Saharan Africa. These deals are occurring in such volume that no part of the continent is immune.
The U.S. is the largest investor. Household names such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan all have their fingers in the pie, along with others such as Black Rock asset managers.
The size of individual transactions is huge.
According to a detailed report by non-profit GRAIN, close to a million acres was leased by a New York-based private equity firm from the world’s poorest and newest country, South Sudan. The same report says that a fund controlled by George Soros owns 600,000 acres of land in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
The land grab is not accidental. Conferences, organized by firms like High Quest Partners, are held in New York, Singapore, and London to facilitate deal and capital flow to Africa. High Quest reports that 700 hundred attendees participated its New York gathering alone to get the latest on the land rush.
Most open land in Africa is owned by the government. As national property, millions of Africans presently farm it without owning the land or paying rent.
Weak taxation, caused by lower levels of economic growth and poor governance structures, lead African governments to constantly look for new sources of income to fund their operations. Selling or leasing a national asset, land in this case, is a logical step to raise badly needed cash. Many countries around the world, including the United States, have done it. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, has offered to lease up to 20 million acres to international investors.
The problem is that deals are done for pennies on the dollar.
The Oakland Institute says that purchase prices can range from as little to $3 to $6 an acre. Leases can be for up to 99 years at $0.75 an acre. Farmland in the U.S. sells for $560 to $12,000 an acre.
Dirt cheap land prices in Africa lead to massive profits on Wall Street. The margins made on these land acquisitions will range between a whopping 20 and 40 percent. This is two to four times above what is considered an amazing return; anything above 10 percent and finance types are gleeful.
Profits are turbocharged because the true costs of converting lands from public use to private, industrial farm purposes is not born by the firms that purchase them.
Environmental degradation from factory farms and increased poverty, caused by the forced removal of millions from native land and into overburdened cities, are among the long-term tolls of Wall Street’s “land grab” that are not paid for by the companies that initiated and benefit from it.
Hundreds of pounds of chemical fertilizer are used in industrial agriculture to increase crop yields on just one acre. Data from Sustainable Table indicates that an industrial hog farm produces up to 200 million pounds of waste per year. Over 700,000 people in Ethiopia are in the process of being moved to make way for just one land deal.
These environmental and human costs will be shouldered by the ecosystems and people who are the victims of them. As with the U.S. housing crisis, costs are socialized and the benefits privatized. This seems to be Wall Street’s formula for making the numbers work.
Given the bargain basement prices and future food demand, buying, holding and cashing out on land in Africa is money in the bank for investors.
Black and Brown America’s ‘For Sale’ Sign
So is the wreckage from the foreclosure mess caused by Wall Street.
Over 9 million property foreclosures flowed from the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, and 3.6 million of these, more than four out of ten, were owned by blacks and Latinos.
Just last month, Wells Fargo settled with the Justice Department on charges that it deliberately steered people of color into toxic subprime loans. These loans set up borrowers, whom loan agents referred to as “mud people,” for failure.
As a result of the foreclosure process that followed, millions of properties have been transferred from black and brown individuals to banks, hedge funds, and other financial institutions, which are turning them around at a profit.
Property is the number one way that people of color build wealth. Blacks and Latinos hold fewer stocks, bonds and other financial assets. Consequently, rising property values is an even more important source for net gains in those communities over time. The $7 trillion in home real estate values that has been erased since the 2008 crisis are felt disproportionately on the balance sheets of blacks and Latinos.
A generation will likely pass before hard hit communities recover what was lost. But banks and hedge funds, including those grabbing land in Africa and Latin America, stand to profit from the mess they created.
All over the world, Wall Street is at work to separate millions of people from their property at a dizzying pace. Delivering returns to their shareholders means doing whatever is necessary to the rest of the population in order to achieve them.
Once bearish Goldman Sachs is now bullish on the U.S. housing market. Since late last year, financial institutions have started to buy distressed properties. Forbes reports in that just in the last 10 days a $1 billion fund was created to snap up foreclosed houses, apartments and condos to transform them into rentals.
Due to the actions of Goldman Sachs and others which precipitated the current crisis, millions of former black and brown home owners now need those rentals. In fact, demand for rental properties is at all time high. In some markets, like New York City and San Francisco, rents have soared to pre-crisis levels.
Americans have lost at every stage of the sub-prime process, but the financial sector gains. No matter where or who—Africa, Latin America, or amongst African Americans or Latinos in the United States—Wall Street manages to prosper from inequity and wrongdoing.
No one has held them account for it yet. Just last week, the Justice Department declared that it wouldn’t prosecute Goldman Sachs for its role in the subprime mess. In response to a recent question over whether Wall Street should answer for its egregious deeds, JP Morgan’s Chair Jamie Dimon shouted, “It’s a free fucking country.” He and his fellow financiers don’t seem to get the distinction between being free and getting off scott-free. For them, they’re one in the same.
“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial maneuvers are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” warned the Oakland Institute’s Executive Director Anuradha Mittal on CNN.
Africa’s and America’s experience with Wall Street shows that predatory behavior not only abounds, but may be endemic to the way the financial sector does business.
The only way to minimize the damage, barring muscular regulation not seen in 40 years, is to cut the banks down to size.
Everyone from the nation’s former chief banker, Paul Volcker; to the Godfather of the nation’s first too-big-to-fail institution, former Citigroup Chair and CEO Sandy Weill, have called for it. Weil recently said that the time had come for the mega-banks to be “split up.” Even President Obama has signaled support for it. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Whatever the reason, the failure to bring the financial sector to heel has global consequences, especially for those that have historically been least able to afford it.
Imara Jones writes about economic justice for Colorlines.com.