How Wall Street Brought Down Georgia's Suspicious Chicken Price Index : The Salt When a bunch of Wall Street investors sniffed out a potential price fixing scheme in the poultry business, they bet against big chicken. Then they targeted a price index published in Georgia.
NPR logo

How Wall Street Brought Down Georgia's Suspicious Chicken Price Index

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/611869606/611869611" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Wall Street Brought Down Georgia's Suspicious Chicken Price Index

How Wall Street Brought Down Georgia's Suspicious Chicken Price Index

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/611869606/611869611" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to a story about the battle between Wall Street hedge funds and the companies that produce America's chicken. With one man caught in the middle, a bureaucrat working for the state of Georgia, NPR's Dan Charles with our Planet Money team has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's 2016. Stephanie Strom is a reporter with The New York Times, and she gets a hot tip from some Wall Street contacts - big investors, hedge fund guys. They think chicken companies have grown too fast and the nation is headed for a glut of chicken.

STEPHANIE STROM: They were betting that the price of chicken was going to fall.

CHARLES: They were betting that the price of chicken was going to fall and that poultry producers are going to be losing money.

STROM: Right. So they shorted the stock.

CHARLES: These investors had put a lot of money on a bet that the stocks of chicken companies would fall. But they were frustrated because their bet was not paying off.

STROM: When you went to the grocery store, the price of chicken was either stable or even going up slightly, which was probably driving these guys crazy.

CHARLES: And they had a theory that the chicken companies were keeping prices artificially high, using a guy sitting in an office at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Arty Schronce. He was the department's gardening expert. He'd do things like celebrate Georgia's native flowers in videos that look like they were shot on a cellphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ARTY SCHRONCE: Even though it's a cloudy day here in Atlanta, I feel like I need sunscreen standing next to all of these sunny blossoms, and the fragrance is divine.

CHARLES: But then he got another job compiling Georgia's official price of chicken, an index. This was a super low-tech operation. He'd just call up big chicken companies and say, hey, what are you selling drumsticks for this week? He'd put the average price in a newsletter and send it out. And because Georgia is the biggest chicken producing state in the country, Arty's prices were used across the industry. Sometimes, they were part of a formula that supermarkets and big-chain restaurants used to set the price that they paid for their chicken. And what these frustrated Wall Street investors noticed was Arty's numbers looked strange. Other indexes of chicken prices were down. Arty's numbers were high - 30 even 50 percent higher than other chicken indexes.

So The Wall Street guys hire a lawyer to start investigating. And eventually, that lawyer gets his hands on a document, a memo that Arty Schronce wrote to himself about this chicken price index. It's a bombshell. Arty Schronce says he doesn't believe his own index anymore. When he calls those big chicken companies and asks for prices, they're like, eh, put down whatever you put down last week. And Arty just has to trust them. That's the way this works. Even though millions of dollars depended on those numbers, nobody had ever asked for invoices to verify that chicken sales actually happened at that price. The companies could just be making up those numbers, keeping prices high - just what the hedge fund guys thought was going on.

Within a day of the lawyer getting that memo, it's been passed onto The Washington Post. When it's published, it destroys the reputation of that price index. Georgia stops publishing it, which is what Arty Schronce had proposed in his memo. It just took some short-selling Wall Street guys to make it happen. So the Georgia price index went away. And the funny thing is, chicken prices still didn't fall. There's now a big court battle going on over the reasons why. Some big buyers of chicken - supermarkets, restaurants - they say the chicken companies were fixing prices, and they still are. The companies deny it.

By the way, I tried to reach Arty Schronce. He didn't return my calls. I do know he's now retired from the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN CIRCLES' "MLADEK")

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.