In 1979, Nelson B. and William H. Hunt held some 200 million ounces of silver, had forced the price to skyrocket, and at one point were sitting on billions of dollars of paper profits. Things didn’t end too well for the Hunt Brothers, of course. Eventually both had to declare bankruptcy (though Nelson is still involved in thoroughbred horse racing and the John Birch Society). But the Hunt Brothers’ fame lives on, despite that neither is a billionaire anymore. If the Guiness Book of World Records had an entry for “Biggest Cornering Operation Ever, Successful or Not”, the Hunt Brothers might be in the book.
Goldman Sachs has some peculiar quasi-legal scheme on-going to control 1.5 million tons of aluminum, but this can’t put Hunt Brothers’ record in jeopardy – that aluminum totals only $2.4 billion or so in value.
It is the beautiful Miss Lucky S (not quite her real name), Prime Minister and Defense Minister of a major Southeast Asian country, who is attempting to dethrone the Hunt Brothers by cornering the world rice market. Miss Lucky’s stockpile is now 18 million tons, with the government now forced to increase sales because it’s run out of storage space. (Comparing Miss Lucky’s venture with that of the privately-financed Hunt Brothers may seem unfair since Miss Lucky is using the Kingdom’s public treasury for her purposes, and magnanimously allowing taxpayers to absorb all losses. But I think it’s fair: her family openly treats the Kingdom as just another wholly-controlled subsidiary in its business empire.)
Just as “light, sweet North Sea crude oil” is used as a standard in petroleum trading, Thailand is such an important exporter – or rather was until this year – that “5 percent broken milled white Thailand rice” is a standard for rice price quotes. Unfortunately, more than 5% of the rice in Miss S.'s vaults seems to be broken or mildewing by now. (Although long-term rice storage presents rodent-control issues, allegations that the rice is now poisonous are libelous: “Director-general Damrong Jirasuthas said dead rats found at certain warehouses were killed by eating rat poison, not by the fumigants.”)
The country remains one of the world’s largest rice exporters, but is also importing more than 2000 tons per day from its neighbors as smugglers bring in foreign rice to sell it to Miss Lucky at the high price she has promised in her quixotic quest to corner the market. The losses suffered by Miss Lucky already exceed the total losses of the Hunt Brothers, so her venture has won her a position in the Guiness Book whether she ends up Richest Woman in the World or not. Recently she lowered the guaranteed price of rice hoping to stem her losses, but restored the old inflated price quickly (firing a Cabinet Minister or two for emphasis) in response to protests by her rural supporters – the Red-shirt Terrorists.
Miss Lucky’s losses already exceed the Hunt’s net loss, and losses may escalate as she dithers whether to dump her stockpile on the world market or to let it mildew further. Moody’s has adjusted its rating ceilings for Miss Lucky’s country, and threatens further demotions if government incompetence continues. Business confidence is increasingly gloomy, due to this and other government mistakes.
For sheer chutzpah, I nominate Miss Lucky as Woman of the Year! Due perhaps to her sheer charisma the Kingdom still retains a BBB+ rating on its sovereign debt, ahead of Spain and Italy. Bravo!
Fried rice for lunch, anyone?