This portfolio originally appeared in Jump Point 5.7.
There has been one constant throughout the history of the Empire, one that has managed to weather political changes, military actions and even interspecies wars — the sale and acquisition of commodities. It was the search for these basic raw resources and primary products that first sent explorers to the stars, and in many ways, it is what fuels the expansion of Humanity throughout the universe even today.
Every new jump point discovered, every new system uncovered, every new asteroid scan completed has the potential to unveil new sources of commodities that are vital to the continuing growth and development of Humanity, so it should come as no surprise that commodity trading comprises a significant portion of the UEE’s total economy. With the commodity market being of such vital importance, the government agency responsible for this has become near ubiquitous in every system of the Empire. Dating as far back as the United Nations of Earth (UNE), the Trade & Development Division supervises this staggeringly complex flow of commerce and has grown to one of largest government employers outside of the military. But many may wonder: how could such an important economic regulatory body come to be a branch of the otherwise small Customs Bureau?
In With the Good, Out With the Bad
By 2380, the Croshaw system had been terraformed and the first settlements outside of Sol system had taken hold. Unfortunately, as Humanity’s frontier expanded in the following decades, so too did its lawlessness. With entire new solar systems for pirates to hide in, Sol found itself on the receiving end of an overwhelming influx of contraband. Outlawed weapons and substances that had been close to eradication came flooding back in force now that criminals could hide their operations with relative ease in remote extra-system outposts. Major urban areas on Mars and Earth faced escalating violent crimes and a rampant drug epidemic that decimated several communities. When attempts to curtail the dire situation via more traditional policing methods failed to stymie the growing problem, the UNE ordered the Navy to establish strict checkpoints at both jump entrances leading to Sol.
Within the first months of the operation, hundreds of tonnes of contraband were seized and dozens arrested. However, despite this initial success in stemming the tide of illegal goods making their way into Sol, there were many detractors. Vehement protest came from almost every major financial sector, arguing that while the heavy patrols were netting smugglers, the searches also slowed down the regular civilian transports and haulers, strangling the flow of commerce. At the same time, civil rights groups were quick to decry the draconian measures used by the Navy in forcing vehicles to comply with the scans and searches. In one incident, heavily reported at the time, a team of researchers were forcefully subdued and dragged off their ship when they refused to open scan-resistant containers that carried light-sensitive material. And this was far from the only such reported case of routine stops escalating to violence. Many argued that a Navy trained for warfare with an enemy force was not the ideal candidate for dealing with the civilian population in this capacity.
It would all come to a head when one of the members of Intersystem Haulers United was incarcerated in a Naval prison for impeding a search. A massive strike caused the majority of jump point traffic to slow to a crawl. At the end of a week of negotiations, it was announced that control of the checkpoints would be handed off to a new government office, the Customs Bureau.
Staffed by civilian employees, it proved to be a valid compromise between security and commerce. A program was established for expedited crossings for ships with a proven track record, and complex algorithms used to intelligently select ships for more in-depth searches reduced wait times while still keeping a firm check on contraband. At the start, the Bureau may have been mostly concerned about ship traffic inbound to Sol, but after first contact with the Banu in 2438, they greatly increased their scope. Wary of what Banu ships might be carrying within their haulers, the Customs Bureau spread throughout UNE-controlled space, establishing dozens of additional checkpoints along major traffic lanes. It was this far-reaching infrastructure that positioned the Bureau to take on an even greater responsibility.
As miners and harvesters rushed to farm resources from newly discovered worlds, it was only a matter of time before commodity markets would be established. When dealing with minerals, gases and grains, there is often little difference between a commodity coming from one source and the same commodity from another. This meant that rather than manufacturers purchasing what they needed from dozens of smaller operations spread across multiple systems, they could use a single marketplace to simplify and standardize their trade contracts. In addition, the financial risk of collecting the resources could be potentially mitigated through the use of futures contracts to gather funding for their operations by pre-selling commodities at an agreed-upon price in advance of the actual procurement of the materials. It was a proven formula that had worked for centuries in Sol, but few were ready for the complications that data decay would bring.
These commodity markets swelled rapidly during their initial years of operation and it wasn’t long before opportunists began trying to take advantage of nascent institutions. With the deals being struck based on knowing how much of a certain commodity was in production at any given time, there were numerous cases of manipulation. Waylaying a courier or drone even for a few minutes could result in huge financial gains. Other investors would make contracts and then work behind the scenes to ensure that the seller was unable to fill the order, triggering forfeiture payments. In 2461, the price of millet was driven to a record high briefly when falsified information was delivered to the Angeli Mercantile Exchange. As a direct result, the markets fell into chaos, and the UNE had no choice but to step in to avoid a total market crash.
The solution would once more prove to be the recently created Customs Bureau. With their detailed scans of vessels transporting cargo, they were the government agency with the most accurate picture of what commodities were being transported at any given time. The Customs Bureau created the Trade & Development Division (TDD) in 2463 to collect and collate commodity market information for distribution to all the major exchanges. Utilizing the information already being stored by the Bureau as a starting point, the TDD included production constraints, environmental factors, current market demand, and more in their analytics. At first these official numbers were enough to stabilize the market, but soon the office began to field requests to authenticate deals to verify that they matched current data. In just a decade, it came to be that many traders would not do a deal unless it was TDD bonded. From there, it was only a short step for them to act in receivership on future contracts, regulating storage and delivery. By the turn of the 26th century, almost the entirety of commodity brokering was done through the TDD.
Today, there are TDD offices in almost all ports and hubs throughout the Empire . Every second, tens of thousands of commodities traders are selling and buying mind-bogglingly huge sums of raw resources. Though it is still a part of the Customs Bureau, the TDD overshadows the rest of its parent organization in size and funding, and has become a symbol of the Empire’s wealth and power. For almost five centuries, TDD has been choreographing a complicated financial ballet that manages staggeringly complex price calculations, factoring reports and estimates from all over the UEE.
While not perfect — remember the outlaw tampering at the Reis TDD in 2945 that used false high prices to lure in targets, or the recent double-down glitch in Bremen that saw millions of chickens sold twice as recent examples — overall the TDD has an impressive track record. While some traders prefer to use the smaller, more variable independent markets, it is the consistency of the TDD that has made it trusted for so long. As the organization nears its quincentenary, it continues to strive to improve price indexing and minimize information lag with ever-more advanced comm drone networks. And with the recent passing of the Human-Xi’an Trade Initiative, the TDD is bracing itself to embark on a new chapter as it works closely with our Xi’an neighbors on the formation of an inter-species commission. In other words, where commodity trading is concerned, the future of the TDD is looking stronger than ever.