Wednesday, October 5 2022

When journalist Rupert Russell landed in Caracas with $10,000 stuffed in his underpants, his goal was to circumvent hyperinflation and tight currency controls in Venezuela while reporting on the survival tactics of the local population.

He saw a street vendor update a makeshift sign several times a day showing the price of his lemonade, and was presented with a 45-minute bolivar bill after a restaurant meal that required two bank account numbers. international: one to pay for the food, another for the tip.

He saw desperate children fighting over discarded chicken bones; and interviewed a woman who earns extra money by queuing for hours to buy rare rationed goods at official prices, then marking them up (her commission) and reselling them.

In a supermarket, he found empty shelves sometimes interspersed with others stocked with identical mayonnaise, ketchup or mineral water bottles “like an Andy Warhol lithograph, the pattern of consumer products repeated every which way” . These full shelves were a response to edicts aimed at deflecting negative perceptions.

Such anecdotes are among the best parts of Price wars, Russell’s book, which provides a colorful description of the economic pain inflicted in some of the exotic regions of the globe. However, despite the quality of some of the stories, Russell analytically fails to deliver on the promise of its subtitle: how chaotic markets create a chaotic world.

The author describes, with a legitimate critical eye, many difficulties and inequalities throughout the world, from the orphaned children of post-Isis Mosul to the inhabitants of bombed-out Mogadishu. He rightly pings the inflated bonuses of financial elites after 2008 when so many others, including many disillusioned Trump and Brexit supporters, suffered.

Yet despite back cover praise from such curiously diverse figures as Liaquat Ahamed, author of Finance Lordsand Griff Rhys Jones, the British comedian, his attempt to find a common thread lacks coherent arguments.

His book is mostly a compilation of skits drawn from aerial journalism, with occasional bursts of self-revelation and somewhat over-dramatized personal danger as he projects the strange encounter with the administration, or a distant military conflict. , with imaginary threats of persecution, imprisonment or worse.

The structure is essentially a travelogue of multiple short assignments, with a final chapter seeking to distill almost a century of thought in political economy with critiques of neoliberal policies, International Monetary Fund austerity measures and speculation financial.

Sometimes – unsurprisingly for someone looking to cover such a complex range of topics – there are outright mistakes. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not, as he asserts in a chapter on the conflict in Ukraine, the former mayor of Saint Petersburg, for example. Nor was he “coincidentally” chosen by Boris Yeltsin as his successor due to a poll suggesting he looked the most like a fictional spy hero.

Elsewhere, he skims over the detail or nuance in favor of reductionism, seeking an explanatory equivalence for vastly different scenarios: “Is Venezuela really more corrupt, authoritarian, or centralized than other cursed oil states like Russia or Saudi Arabia ? he asks rhetorically, shifting the blame for the chaos of Chavez country to American politics, the free market and fluctuating oil prices.

Periodically, Russell highlights some interesting analyst work: the extent to which support for Brexit was inversely correlated with house prices; that high food prices are not always linked to food shortages but tend to trigger riots; and that conflicts in Africa often occur during times of exceptionally low or high rainfall.

He has some insightful examples of how markets work, or don’t work. For example, hedge funds have successfully arbitraged food prices based on differences between information provided by satellite imagery about likely crop yields and inaccurate government forecasts that fuel consensus opinions. Meanwhile, algorithmic trading apparently mistakenly drove up Berkshire Hathaway’s stock price after mistaking the company for actress Anne Hathaway, who made news hosting the Oscars.

His general thesis seems to be that “prices” – by implication, markets – are the primary driver of human suffering. Yet there are few attempts to disentangle cause and effect, interpret conflicting results in different circumstances, or place recent trends in historical context. Prices, after all, reflect complex underlying factors.

His rejection of the threat of inflation – itself a driver of high “prices” and poverty – seems overtaken by events. The same goes for his analysis of Putin’s escalating war against Ukraine. The conflict may have been made possible in part by high oil and gas prices, but there were clearly other reasons behind his aggression.

There is no doubt that the growing volumes and interconnections of trade, finance and information are increasing the possibilities for market manipulation and the global repercussions of formerly isolated effects. Further investigation could have explored more closely the extent to which prices are, in other circumstances, out of step with commercial realities and the changing factors that cause them to fluctuate.

Finally, Russell provides no clear proposal for mitigating the worst effects of this system, much less for an alternative. As Oscar Wilde almost said, focusing on price alone is of little value on its own.

Price wars: How Commodity Markets Made Our World Chaotic by Rupert Russell, Double day, $29.00

This article is part of FT Wealtha section offering in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investing

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