Food or, Fuel?

Corn is facing unprecedented demand on all fronts. The USDA
reported that prospective corn planting for 2011 is expected to be 5% higher
than last year. That would make this the second largest crop planted since
1944. The 92.5 million acres is second only to 2007’s record of 93.5 million
acres. In spite of the growing acreage in corn and higher yields driven by
greater technology, corn stocks are still down 10% from this time last year. In
fact, the corn on hand versus this year’s expected demand, (stocks to usage
ratio), stands at 5%. This is the lowest number since 1937. There are currently
6.5 billion bushels of corn in storage versus global demand of 123.5 billion
bushels.

The government’s push towards ethanol was actually initiated
by Carter during the oil crisis of the 70’s. It was left dormant until the post
9/11 energy independence push. Corn was trading at $2.25 per bushel in 2001.
Cheap, clean burning corn made it a political win/win for energy independence
and the global warming, green energy crowd. This led to government mandates and
subsidies to increase ethanol production every year through 2015. This year, up
to 40% of the corn crop, at a price above $6.50 per bushel, will be allocated
to ethanol production. If we multiply the intended planting acreage times an
average yield of 155 bushels per acre, we can see that the cost of the corn
input of ethanol production will be more than $37 billion dollars.

The U.S. also exports more than 60% of the corn we produce. Our
exports have continued to climb even as the price of corn has nearly doubled in
the last year alone. Meat consumption has just begun to grow in Asian countries
as they’ve begun to prosper and develop their own middle class. This will not
only continue, it will accelerate. Global meat consumption is still only 20% of
the U.S. average. The demand for feed grains continues to outpace production by
1-4% per year. China is determined to have a self -sustaining hog industry by
2013. These factors help explain the continual decline in ending stocks in the
face of growing harvests.

The demands on the corn market from ethanol and food
production leave absolutely no room for weather related issues. This year’s
crop is crucial to restoring our reserves. Based on the current ethanol
policies, it would have to rally another $.50 cents per gallon just to catch up
with the current price of gasoline. Corn would have to reach $8.82 per bushel
for gas and ethanol to reach equilibrium at $3.15 per gallon. Ethanol/ gasoline
blenders also receive a federal credit of $1.30 per bushel. This pushes the break-even
corn price to $10.12 per bushel for ethanol producers.

The price of corn hit an all time high of $7.79 in June of
2008. Remember, this followed the largest crop ever harvested in 2007. We
already know that global gasoline demand will increase, as fuel must be
exported to Japan. We also know that Japan’s imports of all foods will be
higher than ever. China is doing everything they can to put the brakes on their
economy but it won’t derail the growing appetites of their people. Finally, the
continued decline of the U.S. Dollar will serve as double coupon day for global
shoppers as we remain the world’s supermarket.

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.


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One thought on “Food or, Fuel?”

  1. This is good stuff. I trade commodities and have read multitudes of comments/opinions re: grain prices and why they are doing what they are doing. Andy’s blog is the best rationale I have seen as to why corn prices are where they are at. It all makes perfect sense to me. I suggested to my wife that she read the blog herself so she will have a better understanding as to why she is paying more at the grocery store. We are all affected by these price increases in some way or another.

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