Bunhill: There's a future for cheddar

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The Independent Online
It's a humbling, and perhaps unpalatable thought but nearly everything you eat is at some time chewed up, spat out and generally shoved around the mouths of the young traders on the world's futures exchanges.

These are loud and volatile markets but ones whose language has parallels to the conversations unfolding every day in British cafes. To illustrate, for "three rashers, double egg, sausage, tomato, black pudding, beans, chips, two slices and a large tea to go please, mate" read "hold bacon, go long on potatoes, freeze dried coffee, sell tomatoes short and sit on beans".

Futures trading is horrendously complicated and involves so many indigestible terms - derivatives, put options and hedges, to name but three - that you wish you hadn't bothered with breakfast in the first place. To the uninitiated, however (and even the initiated wish they were still uninitiated), it means agreeing to buy or sell a commodity at a certain date in the future, and hoping in the meantime that the price will fall or rise in your favour. It seems an other-worldly sort of market but nothing is too mundane to be traded there, and word now reaches me of another humble product that is being plunged into the maelstrom.

Apparently, the Chicago Futures Exchange is creating an option in that staple diet of the ploughman, unassuming old cheddar cheese. Except that it isn't very unassuming these days; it has moved on from its Somerset roots to become a global industry worth $5bn a year, offering big enough margins to keep financial whizz-kids in sandwiches for the rest of their lives.

Well if cheddar can make it, there seems no end to the products that could be hawked around by market traders with loud voices and even louder jackets. But if I was forced to select a few, they would be ones bearing some relation to the jargon of the industry. So, for instance, you could dip into baked beans, hold soft tissue, drop trousers, take a position on toilets and go liquid on laxatives. The best term, however, has probably already been used by traders who foresaw the recent outbreak of swine fever: hedge hogs.

GLAD TIDINGS to Chris and Victoria Houldsworth of Nottingham, winners of a competition in the Independent on Sunday to find a couple of extras for the recent Bafta bash at London's Royal Albert Hall.

The Houldsworths' prize, courtesy of the hotel reservations agency Expotel, was an all-expenses-paid trip to the film and TV awards shindig, accommodation in a luxury hotel, a chauffeur-driven limousine, entry to the champagne reception and celebrity gala dinner, and two of the best seats in the house. All of which made it that rarity in the world of British film-making: a big-budget production with plenty of action, a happy ending and a plot you could just about follow.

Questions to order

ONE OF the great bastions of British democracy, tosh masquerading as tradition, is under threat of extinction following Tony Blair's decision to strip Prime Minister's Question Time of those recurring requests for information on what else he'd be doing that day.

People whose memories stretch back as far as John Major's Government (and it does seem several epochs ago) will recall the fascinating exchanges that used to enliven proceedings in the twice-weekly 15-minute question- and-(no) answer sessions. It was said that a week is a long time in politics, but in reality half a minute was a long time because no sooner had the Prime Minister explained what his engagements for the day were then some other MP was asking exactly the same question, prompting the now-infamous response: "I refer the Honourable Member to the reply I gave earlier." It was confrontation at its most compelling, and Mr Major was never more uncomfortable than when having to admit (five or six times) to the baying ranks of the Opposition benches that after a light tea of scones and orange juice, he would be discussing nuclear stockpiling with the President of Russia.

The behaviour of the House Of Commons during Question Time has earned it the reputation of being something of a bearpit - in which case bear- baiting must have consisted of a spot of torture, some questions about its speaking engagements, and then a bit more torture. Nevertheless, few were cynical enough to suggest that our MPs suffered from appalling short- term memories, or that the constant probing of the Prime Minister's schedule by friendly backbenchers was a time-wasting exercise designed to cut down on awkward questions about economic and social mismanagement. Instead, other Western leaders regarded this quintessentially British practice as quaint, and Prime Minister's Question Time has become a big hit on cable TV in the US.

Clearly, then, the art of asking pointless questions is a national treasure which must be preserved, and an alternative arena suggests itself in the seething cauldron of shareholders' meetings, where companies could dot representatives around the hall to ensure hostile questions were mixed with much more enlightening lines of inquiry:

Pretend shareholder: "Where will the chief executive be straight after this meeting?"

Chief executive: "In the toilet."

Real shareholder: "In the light of his appalling performance this year, will the chief executive please go now."

Chief executive: "No, I don't need the toilet yet."

Pretend shareholder: "Where will the chief executive be straight after this meeting?"

Chief executive: "I refer the investor to the reply I gave earlier."

Real shareholder: "Can the chief executive explain why his salary has increased by 30 per cent when profits are down by the same amount?"

Chief executive: "The reason for the rise is fully disclosed in the annual report, and anyway it's none of your business."

Pretend shareholder: "Where will the chief executive be straight after this meeting?"

Chief executive: "I refer the investor to the reply I gave earlier."

Real shareholder: "Why are we asking these questions?"

Chief executive: "Search me."

Pretend shareholder: "Where will the chief executive be straight after this meeting?"

Chief executive: "I refer the investor to the reply I gave earlier."

Real shareholder: "Where do you see this company in one year's time?"

Chief executive: "I refer the investor to the reply I gave earlier."

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