Backgrounder: The Folly of Food Hoarding
by Tyler Watts, Ph.D.
Advertising on talk radio and cable news is full of alarmist inducements to stockpile gold and food, rife with implications and predictions that the next economic crisis will feature food riots and a complete societal breakdown.
As both a Christian and an economist I am bothered by this kind of alarmism. I wonder how many paranoid, credulous listeners are buying in to the doom-and-gloom and foolishly over-preparing for extremely unlikely catastrophes and meanwhile mismanaging those resources with which they’ve been entrusted.
My critique of food storage, gold hoarding and the entire “prepper” phenomenon is grounded in both economics and scripture. On the economic side, history indicates that markets don’t just disappear during or after catastrophes — even severe ones — but rather they persevere and adapt toward providing those things that are most in demand, such as food. On the scriptural side, we have God’s sure and certain promises to provide our “daily bread” for the needs of body and His provision of the “bread of God, ii.e., Jesus Christ, who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).
Therefore, with eyes fixed upon actual historical experience and hearts inclined to trust in God’s promises to sustain what He created until the actual end (Genesis 8:21-22), let’s see if the rationales for stocking up on food or gold hold up to realistic expectations of what a natural, economic or political catastrophe might bring.
Recent tragic experiences in the U.S., whether Katrina, Sandy or this year’s Louisiana floods, have revealed clearly that there are two major negative outcomes possible if a natural disaster strikes: 1) You are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and become a casualty; or 2) you leave or are rescued and, after a perhaps extended period of turmoil resume your life, possibly having relocated. In neither case is long-term food storage or a gold stockpile going to be of much, if any, assistance. Food stockpiles are likely to become either inaccessible or damaged beyond usefulness in a tornado or flood, and relief efforts will have plenty of emergency supplies available for struggling survivors. Bulk food storage, moreover, will do little good for those who need to evacuate and relocate due to the disaster. While gold is more portable, a significant stockpile, responsibly stored in a heavy safe, will merely add to the burden of escaping or relocating, and will prove far less convenient than cash — whether in the form of currency or bank accounts — which will not be subject to a sudden loss of purchasing power. In a worst-case scenario that necessitates long-term evacuation or destruction of your home, gold hoards may be lost and food stockpiles, if not ruined by flooding or pests, will merely sit in an abandoned or destroyed home and feed no one.
Historical experience indicates that economic downturns typically bring falling food prices. In the Great Depression, the value of the dollar rose and food prices crashed. In the U.S., the price index for “food at home” fell from a pre-Depression peak of 48.3 in 1929 to a Depression-era low of 30.6 in 1933 — a 36 percent drop. Even though mild price inflation resumed in 1934 with FDR’s abandonment of the (domestic) gold standard, food prices remained depressed below their 1920’s level for the entire Depression decade. Those holding cash were therefore well-positioned to continue feeding their families even if they faced unemployment, as 25 percent of American workers did by 1933. While overall production — especially durable goods and capital goods — did drop markedly during these years, the economy did by no means grind to a halt. Enough grocers, butchers and restaurants survived to ensure ongoing, orderly food markets. A simple cash hoard thus would have sufficed for sustaining a family through episodes of hardship, with the added advantage of portability and negligible risk of sudden or massive losses in value due to inflation.
It is true that basic foods and supplies can be hard to come by in the world’s most repressive, dictatorial regimes. Take Venezuela as a case in point, where the Chavez-Maduro version of socialism has literally resulted in bare shelves and riots. Basic food and supplies can still be had in Venezuela, however, albeit in underground markets at steeply inflated prices. Preppers might argue that forward-thinking Venezuelans would have been quite wise to have stockpiled food and gold in preparation for the present crisis. Perhaps so, but again I will argue that a cash hoard — especially in the form of a stable currency such as the U.S. dollar — would not only have sufficed to meet the emergency, but would have outperformed food storage and even gold in terms of convenience, portability, and financial returns. A Venezuelan could have acquired $1,000 U.S. at a cost of about 4,300 Bolivars in 2011. That $1,000 would now, in late 2016, acquire over one million Bolivars in the unofficial foreign exchange market. That’s a 25,000 percent nominal return in terms of Bolivars — plenty sufficient to compensate for the harrowing 300 percent (and rising) food inflation rate Venezuela has recently experienced.
The upshot of these reflections is that the prospect of a disaster large enough to imperil food supplies is so remote as to not be worthy of your worry, not to mention your time and effort in contingency planning. If you think a disaster, or perhaps a combination of catastrophes, will eliminate one’s ability to buy food in some form of market system, you might as well prepare for a cataclysmic meteor strike or the implosion of the sun.
If you insist on worrying and must plan for the worst of all possible worlds, you’re better off holding a diversified portfolio of cash: dollars, Euros, Swiss Francs, even some gold. But note well the cost of such hoarding, which is the opportunity to invest one’s wealth in assets like stocks, bonds or real estate that yield actual incomes and grow in value to provide a better future standard of living for the saver-investor.
Jesus Christ articulated this principle clearly in the well-known parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). A wealthy man had left significant sums of money to three servants to invest on his behalf while he was away. The first and second servants were praised for achieving 100 percent net returns and were entrusted with larger roles in the man’s business. The third servant, however, merely hoarded (buried) the money, fearing potential failure and the loss of principal. The wealthy man rebukes this “wicked and slothful” servant for refusing to invest the money, and this “worthless” servant is condemned to “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
A healthy and balanced economic worldview should be able to recognize the hazard of saving too much — by literally setting aside wealth as did the slothful servant — just as much as it recognizes the threat of saving too little by living extravagantly. Solomon warned of “a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture . . . As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” (Eccl. 5:13-16).
Indeed, you can’t take it with you, but there is a wise and a foolish way to save and prepare for the future. You don’t want to be the grasshopper of Aesop’s fable, but neither do you want to be Scrooge McDuck, who fetishized his cash and stored it in a huge silo.
At times we all may be like that slothful 3rd servant, afraid to take risks and try to grow, through investment and enterprise, whatever wealth God has entrusted to us. But, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ did not come to be a financial guru, but our savior — to die and rise again and so forgive our sins of mismanagement and failure to trust in God’s provision, along with all other sins. So, forgiven and relieved of our guilt and fear of failure, we can apply God’s gift of reason through economic and financial learning to seek wise management and growth of those resources He has given us.
Tyler Watts, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and formerly with the Economics Department of Ball State University, is director of the Institute for Economic Education at East Texas Baptist University.