This can(‘t) be an asset class: The world of money management, “society”, and the contested morality of farmland investments

Stefan Ouma (2018)

Environment and Planning, Volume: 52 issue: 1, page(s): 66-87

Abstract. Drawing on several years of fieldwork-based research on and in the “farmland investment space”, this paper argues that a combined reading of debates on assets and assetization in financialized capitalism and convention theory offers novel insights into the moral struggles associated with the transformation of farmland into an “alternative asset class”. It demonstrates that central to the assetization of farmland is the globally distributed effort to bestow it with a legitimate financial worth. While many financial actors paint the picture that farmland has an absolute or intrinsic value, and that this value can be “unlocked”, the paper demonstrates that farmland only gains its financial worth through collective yet contested practices of classification, valuation and valorization. This process has internal (related to the financial industry) and external (related to “society”) dimensions. Farmland only becomes a legitimate asset class if it can be meaningfully set in relation to other asset classes, and if the underlying “assets” generate legitimate returns to investors. At the same time, the legitimation of farmland as an “asset class” has been threatened by attacks of social forces such as NGOs, as accusations of immorality (i.e. “land grabbing”) have become major reputational risks for the supertankers of the industry – institutional investors. This notwithstanding, “capital” and its supporters have worked hard to overcome these internal and external barriers. Eventually, the case presented here allows us to problematize and repoliticize the often-invisiblized morality of finance, which is as much about “value” as it is about “values”.

Keywords: Financialization, assetization, farmland, morality, land grabbing

Content List
1. Introduction
2. Placing assets and assetization in financialized capitalism
3. Assetization as a moral process: A conventionalist reading
4. Legitimation struggles: From within
5. Legitimation struggles: Outside forces
6. Conclusion

Link to the article

Link to the introduction (ResearchGate)