Category Archives: Grain Markets

Corn Harvest Through the Commitment of Traders Report

My favorite part of this business has always been analysis. Whether programming something in Tradestation, building a spreadsheet or good old pencil and paper. Years of hand drawing charts finally allowed their nuances to sink in despite my stubbornness. The result of this is that I still do a lot of manual scanning of markets. There are times when a line of code will alert me to certain criteria. Many times, however it’s the human eyeball that eventually begins to compare a current set of visual data points recognized from the past and can extrapolate that into a projected set of assumptions into the future. We’ve had our eye on the corn market’s decline towards $3.00 per bushel not so coincidentally timed with the October 10th USDA World Agriculture Supply and Demand (WASDE) report. In doing so, we’ve discovered a very particular type of behavior in the Commitment of Traders reports among the commercial trader category in corn futures this time of year. You can see the fully mechanical results of our approach in these equity curves.

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Commitment of Traders Report to Turn Supportive of Corn Futures

The Commitment of Traders reports showed that commercial corn producers sold more than 350,000 contracts equal to 1,750,000,000 bushels or, about 12% of this year’s crop as estimated by the October 10th USDA WASDE report between February and April. The average price for these forward hedges was around $5.00 per bushel. The summer’s perfect weather has led to record production and this has caused the market to sell off all the way down to $3.20 per bushel. This sell off has brought out the consumption side of the commercial trader equation and our math suggests that they’re just getting warmed up as you can see on the chart below.

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Trading the Decline in Commodity Prices and Volatility

The commodity markets were designed for commodity producers and commodity end line consumers to limit the volatility and risk in their business models. Producers are only willing to keep producing when they can sell their production at a profit and end line commodity processors are only willing to buy them if they can realize a profit upon selling the goods they’ve finished. The creation of commodity trading floors provided a singular location for these transactions to be recorded along standardized times and qualities. Unfortunately, commodity producers only want to sell at high prices and commodity consumers only want to buy at low prices. This created the market makers, floor traders and speculator categories that have come into the markets to provide liquidity by providing bids and offers in between the producers and end users. This week, we focus on the creation of the commodity indexes and Exchange Traded Funds created by the banking sector and what effect the current period of low volatility and declining prices is having on the very banks that created them.

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Properly Trading the Soybean vs Corn Spread

The soybean versus corn spread has received a great deal of justifiable attention this year and the current spread between the two markets is still near its all time highs. The last statement however, generates as many questions as it answers. We’re going to look at some of the difficulties in quantifying this spread trade, place it in its historical context and walk through the math so that the next time someone mentions this, you can determine if they’re comparing current crop soybeans versus corn or, if they might as well be talking about apples and oranges.

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Compressed Agricultural Commodities Set to Spring

The agricultural commodities produced and traded domestically have all fallen precipitously through this summer’s growing season. Maximum planted acreage and ideal growing conditions have combined to drive many of the agricultural commodities to multi-year lows. In fact some of the technical readings these markets have been registering are just as shocking as the growth in many commercial traders’ positions. Since no individual market really stands out, we’re going to discuss the current state of these markets while attempting to get a hold on what it means going forward.

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Soybean Decline to End with USDA supply & Demand Report

The USDA reports their global Supply and Demand figures this Friday at noon Eastern. This report frequently sets the tone for the rest of the year with the fast and wild action affecting the beans in the bin while the long-term effects play out on the beans in the ground. There’s no denying the seasonal effects of this report on both markets. Post June USDA Supply and Demand leads to one of the most predictable declines in seasonal market forecasting as beans fall through the end of July. Finally, the table is already massively stacked against bean prices with record acreage being planted with the expectation of record yields. Barring any unforeseen weather catastrophes, which are unlikely in our part of the world in an el nino year like this one, the 2014 US soybean crop should be a record setter by a wide margin. But….

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Profitability vs. Responsibility in the Cattle Market

We’ve discussed at length the balance between feeding a growing population in a world of declining resources. These discussions have been primarily focused on the grain markets and the enhanced yields of genetically modified organisms (GMO) versus any applicable health and environmental risks. This week, we’ll focus on a major development within the cattle industry as it tries to balance concern for public and animal well being against the dual mandate of feeding the world while generating some profit.

Tyson Foods unexpectedly announced that they were going to stop buying cattle from feedlots that use Zilmax on August 7th. Zilmax is the brand name of Merck’s beta-agonist feed supplement. The FDA originally approved beta-agonists for the treatment of asthma in humans. One of the noted side effects during the drug’s development was consistently muscular weight gain in treated mice. Merck used this as an opportunity to expand their animal care services and received FDA approval of Zilmax in 2006 for use in cattle. The entire beta-agonist family has received various approvals as a feed additive since 1999.

There is no doubt that cattle fed beta-agonists gain weight quickly. The cattle production cycle typically sends cattle to feed lots for, “finishing” before being sent to slaughter or, “processing” in today’s politically, correct terminology. This is where feed additives come into play and the final pounds are added on. Kansas State has a widely respected animal husbandry division and their published research clearly shows that feedlot animals have grown much larger and more quickly than they have in the past. Cattle are gaining more weight per day than ever and are spending less time on the feedlots. The feedlots, in turn are sending heavier animals to slaughter. The result is that the U.S. is producing nearly 20% more meat from nearly 20% fewer animals.

Tyson’s concern is based on the health of the animals being delivered to their processing facilities. We all remember the video clips on the news during the mad cow scare. These included disturbing images of animals unable to walk or shaking with tremors. That is a neurological disorder. The current issue is strictly physiological. Animals are becoming so large, so quickly that their bodies are shutting down as they try to support the dramatically rapid increase in mass. Dr. Bryan McMurry states that cattle now average 1,350 pounds and have gained 300 pounds over the last 30 years. His primary concern is that 1,350 pounds is now the average, which means over half the animals are larger and the first standard deviation places 16% of the animals above 1,500 pounds. His analysis shows that these animals aren’t even able to reproduce effectively through lower calf weights and lighter weaning weights. The animals simply require too much of their bodies effort to sustain themselves and therefore don’t have enough in reserve to foster healthy calves.

Our society is constantly debating the battles between science and morality. We’ve grown faster technologically than we have ethically. Revenues drive research. Morality is not a revenue producer. Tyson’s announcement that they will not accept Zilmax fed cattle after September 6th is a major statement considering they control 25% of the meat industry.  However, they are a publically traded company and need to continue turning a profit. Therefore, they will still accept animals fed Ractopamine and Optaflexx made by Eli Lilly. Neither of these compounds has been as effective as Zilmax, which has been banned in over 100 countries but both are better financial alternatives to longer finishing times and lower weights.

The financial implications on the cattle futures market have been a chaotic glimpse into the dichotomy of public speculative action versus the cooler heads of commercial traders. Initially, the market rocketed to limit up. Speculative buying on the idea that the largest packer in the U.S. would have to buy more cattle at lighter weights going forward fueled this. The secondary reaction brought the market back to unchanged and lower as it digested the fact that there will be an initial glut of cattle coming to market to beat the September 6th deadline. Commercial traders meanwhile have been light buyers over the last week. I felt the important thing was to wait on commercial reaction to the news. This meant I had to wait for this week’s Commitment of Traders report.

The math behind lighter cattle means that another 90 million bushels of corn will have to be dedicated towards animal feed rather than ethanol or other crops or development land. We will also need to add about 10 million more cattle to the production chain to make up for lighter weights. That represents an increase of more than 10%. The balancing act comes down to the environmental strains of producing another 10 million animals and growing another 90 million bushels of corn against as well as higher processing costs at the slaughterhouses and extra finishing time at the feedlots versus profitability. This will lead to higher prices down the road in spite of a short-term glut of animals coming to market.

Finding a Bottom in the Corn Market

The 2013 United States’ corn crop started off with predictions of being the largest ever. This was primarily due to the USDA acreage report issued on June 28th that showed 97.4 million acres planted for corn. This was the highest acreage allotted to corn since 1936 and also marked the fifth consecutive year of acreage gains for corn. This caused December corn futures (this year’s crop) to fall 9% in the next few trading sessions. Even though the market is now trading even lower than it was then, I think there are signs pointing to a bottom in this market. End line users should take advantage of the lowest prices we’ve seen in over a year.

Record planted acreage along with trend line yields would produce the largest corn crop in history. However, the University of Illinois pointed out as recently as last week that the USDA’s planting intentions report of June 28th won’t materialize the way the market initially reacted. The Fighting Illini pointed towards the prevented plantings number to support their argument that corn acreage may be more than 8 million acres less than originally forecasted. This is primarily due to the lateness of this year’s plantings. Furthermore, they comment on the currently declining characteristics of the corn crop condition, which may impact yields if pollination doesn’t get the weather it needs.

We often talk about a market’s, “fear premium.” Fear premium is the market participants’ disproportional concern of the market moving one direction instead of the other. Fear premium in the grain markets is always on the high side. Call options, which make money when the market goes up are always more expensive than put options in the grain markets. The difference between the current market price and the price of a put and a call option equally distant from the current price is 0 in an unbiased market. However, call options currently have a built in fear premium of approximately 30%. Therefore, the markets’ participants are 30% more concerned about prices moving higher by $.50 per bushel than the market falling by another $.50 per bushel.

End line users of corn have been stocking up on futures contracts with abandon. This is another good way of determining the underlying value of a market. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission issues it Commitment of Traders Report every week. The report tracks the market’s largest traders and categorizes them according their type of trading. Primarily, we look at three groups of traders – speculators, index funds and finally, commercial traders. We focus on the commercial trader category. It is our belief that those who produce the good and those who sell the good have the best understanding of a market’s value. Farmers, as a collective, ought to know what a fair price is for the corn they’re growing just as cereal producers or, cattle feeders should know what a fair price to pay is. End line commercial traders have built up a record position on the market’s decline. Clearly, they are willing to lock in as much of their future input needs as they’re bank accounts and storage facilities will afford them.

End line users of corn understand that even if we do end up with record acreage and good yields, we’ll still barely budge the global ending stocks number. The world currently stands at about 70 day’s worth of grain supplies. This is not just corn but an index tracked by AgriMoney that includes rice and wheat. The point of the chart published by AgriMoney is that peak production relative consumption has shifted to a deficit trend over the last 20 years. It has dwindled from 130 day’s supply in the mid 1980’s to our current level of 70 days. All things considered, this year’s US harvest could add about four days to the world’s supplies. This is hardly a drop in the bucket.

There’s no question that corn prices have been declining since the June 28th USDA acreage report and the next major report isn’t due out until August 12th. This leaves the market with time to trade its way through pollination and the trend to continue lower. However, the record net short position in managed money cannot continue to profit from corn’s decline for much longer. The market can only trade so low relative to its fundamental value. Commercial traders clearly see this market entering their value area. We’ll side with them and be on the lookout for a reversal in prices. Most importantly, we’re approaching prices that leave no more room for bearish surprises, therefore, the path of least resistance will soon turn higher.

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.

Sugar Based Ethanol Boost

Many markets, both commodities and equities declined substantially during the month of May. Two weeks ago, we mentioned that we were nearing fundamental value areas in certain markets. This week, we’ll make the case for a bottoming sugar market as well as its effect on the coming corn crop’s prices.

First, lets review the global ethanol market. The ethanol here in the U.S. is made from corn and the finished product is, “anhydrous ethanol.” Anhydrous ethanol is blended with gasoline. The end result is E85 at the pump. E85 is the maximum ethanol blend allowed. It consists of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. The typical ethanol blend here in the U.S. is up to 10% ethanol and 90% standard gasoline. The mixture of E15, which will boost ethanol content to 15% was just approved in 2010 for car models 2007 and newer.

The primary source of ethanol on the open market is made from sugar cane. Brazil is the world’s largest sugar producer and is responsible for about one third of global production. Brazil’s sugar cane derived ethanol is a much more efficient process both in terms of the finished ethanol and product cycle regeneration. Brazilian ethanol production also produces, “hydrous” ethanol. Hydrous ethanol is used in 100% ethanol fueled vehicles, which we see as E100 as well as any Flex-Fueled vehicle.

Ethanol production from sugar cane is much more efficient than production from corn. Ethanol production from sugar produces about 5,166 liters per acre while production from an acre of corn yields only 1,894 liters. The self-sufficient energy mandate that has been the guiding force here in the U.S. for the last 10 years or so has allocated nearly 35% of this year’s corn crop to the production of ethanol. So, why are we basing our future on such an unfeasible model? The answer lies in the government subsidies going to the farm and energy industries. This year marks the end of the $.45 per gallon ethanol subsidy as well as the end of the $.54 tariff we impose on ethanol imports. This combination fostered the proliferation of business entities whose primary profit center was the exploitation of a protected and subsidized market to the tune of $.99 per gallon.

Both of these policies expired at the end of 2012. The price swing of nearly $1 per gallon made U.S. subsidized ethanol inventories a bargain on the open market. Ironically, this led to Brazil being the number one importer of corn based, U.S. ethanol on the global market. Our subsidized production paid for by the taxpayers was sold at the discounted price to Brazil by the blending stations earning the tax credits.  It is important to note that further corn subsidies also exist here to the tune of $3.5 billion to corn farmers in the U.S. and $0 subsidies to U.S. sugar cane growers.

The loss of the ethanol subsidy combined with the remaining direct government subsidies for growing corn should shift total global production of ethanol from corn to sugar. The interesting point will be how many corn based ethanol plants here in the U.S. go the way of Solyndra as the poster children of a misdirected governmentally mandated and subsidized pipe dream. Meanwhile, excess sugar production over the current growing season should be digested, as it is shipped world wide for foodstuffs while Brazil works through their own domestic surplus. This shift will allow the largest corn crop ever planted to be diverted to traditional uses. Furthermore, we can track the huge imbalance in the sugar market between commercial trader and the small speculators through the Commitment of Traders Report. The net effect will be falling corn prices, perhaps under $5 per bushel and a sugar price base around $.185 per pound.

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.