CHICAGO, April 2 (Reuters) - Emails between former senior executives at Kraft Foods, including its chief financial officer and a top procurement director, are among the evidence in a U.S. lawsuit accusing the company and Mondelez International of manipulating wheat prices.
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) on Wednesday accused Kraft Foods Group and Mondelez of making massive bets in Chicago’s futures markets in late 2011 as part of a plot to drive down the physical price for wheat they used to make products ranging from Oreos to Ritz crackers.
Kraft, which spun off its snacks business into Mondelez in 2012, said Mondelez would bear most of the costs of the case. Mondelez declined to comment.
The CFTC filed the manipulation charges partly using power derived from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. The agency in 2013 used the provision in obtaining a $100 million settlement against JPMorgan Chase & Co for its “London Whale” trades.
Dry weather around the world was pushing up wheat prices when the U.S. regulator alleges Kraft and Mondelez devised a plan to manipulate markets to save millions of dollars buying the grain.
At the time, Kraft was one the country’s top users of a type of “soft” wheat used to make cookies and crackers and consumed about 30 million bushels a year, which represents about 7 percent of last year’s crop, the CFTC said.
The company was not eager to pay up for physical wheat, according to the lawsuit. Instead, Kraft made a dramatic change to its buying practices by entering contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade for $90 million of wheat futures representing a six-month supply, the regulator said.
Company executives wanted to “induce sellers to believe” Kraft planned to take delivery of loads of wheat, when the company never intended to take delivery, according to the CFTC.
An October 2011 email to Kraft’s former CFO and other senior executives from the company’s senior director of global procurement laid out the plan to depress prices, according to the agency, which included a snippet in the lawsuit.
Another email from the procurement officer six weeks later confirmed the strategy was working, the CFTC said. The lawsuit did not name the executives.
Kraft was in line to save $7 million on the commercial cost of wheat and make up to $3 million from moves in the futures market “if all goes according to plan”, the second email said, according to a portion contained in the lawsuit.
Typically, Kraft had bought most of its wheat directly from farmers or dealers on the physical market, and aimed to keep a two month’s supply in its inventory, the lawsuit said. The company had never before owned 15 million bushels, which was three times its storage capacity, according to the CFTC.
Kraft, as a hedger, is supposed to use futures to offset the risk of a position in the physical market and to enter trades in ways that are not disruptive to the marketplace.
But U.S. regulators say Kraft impacted the futures market and caused physical prices in Toledo, Ohio, where the company grinds 90 percent of the wheat it buys into flour, to drop 5 percent during the first week of December 2011. Kraft earned more than $5.4 million by manipulating the markets, according to the CFTC.
CME Group Inc, which owns the Chicago Board of Trade, declined to comment.
Scott Irwin, an economist at the University of Illinois, said the relatively small profit for Kraft made the regulator’s manipulation charges seem strange.
“If you’re going to manipulate the market, I would think that they would do it in a bigger way than that,” he said.
The case is U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Kraft Foods Group Inc and Mondelez Global LLC, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, No. 15-cv-02881. (Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)