Tag Archives: ethanol production

Higher Cattle Prices in 2013

The outlook for cattle prices in 2013 appears to be even higher than 2012 due to declining herd sizes and an increasingly favorable export climate. The US cattle herd has been in decline over the last few years. The drought of 2012 has led to the culling of more animals including non-productive dairy cows and heavier steers that have managed to avoid the feedlots. The addition of these animals into the production mix did three things. First, it increased the average weight of cattle coming to market. Secondly, the increasingly tight supplies already pushed the April live cattle futures contract above the 2012 highs. Finally, it has led to the smallest U.S. starting herd since 1952.

The USDA’s January cattle inventory report shows a total U.S. cattle herd of 89.3 million head. This is the smallest calf crop since 1949 and is the 18th consecutively smaller calf crop. Producers and finishers appear to be coming to the consensus that it’s better to have fewer animals at heavier weights than more animals at lighter weights. The University of Missouri points out that steer weights are up over 34lbs from last year and December marked the 49th consecutive week of heavier steers on a year over year basis. There is an argument within the industry as to the real reason behind the growing weights between those who say weights are increasing due to better animals being culled versus the addition of the beta-agonist, ractopamine.

Politically, 2013 will see a good boost in demand due to Japan’s relaxation of the ban on U.S. beef following the mad cow episode of late 2003. This year, Japan will allow U.S. imports of cattle up to 30 months old. This relaxes the 20-month age limit rule that effectively crushed U.S. exports to Japan. Prior to mad cow, Japan was the number one destination for U.S. beef exports. In fact, Japan imported more than 500,000 tons of American beef as recently as 2000 in contrast to 2012’s total imports estimate of just over 200,000 tons. Many agribusiness insiders see the relaxation of the age limit as Japan’s recognition of globally tight supplies for the foreseeable future.

We’ve addressed the certainty of a declining cattle supply in 2013 as well as sourcing added demand in this marketing year due to freer trade, that leads us to the primary variable of input costs. This brings us to the feed vs. ethanol battle over the 2013 corn crop. Some of the blend tax incentives for ethanol producers were allowed to expire in 2012. Ethanol producers are still bound to the Renewable Fuels Standards mandate that shows 2013 as the first time that the mandate’s target is set beyond the blend wall. This year, 13.8 billion gallons of our fuel supply is supposed to come from ethanol. However due to our primary blend of 10% ethanol, we are unlikely to produce the 13.8 billion gallons to meet the mandate target.

The Renewable Fuels Standards face an application dilemma that must be sorted out by the bureaucrats to put the fundamental factors of the ethanol market back into equilibrium. Currently, unblended ethanol is trading around $2.37 per gallon while wholesale gas prices are about $2.65. The disequilibrium comes into focus when we realize that ethanol is about 25% less efficient than gasoline and should therefore, trade at a corresponding discount. Using the example above, ethanol should be trading at $1.99 per gallon. Ethanol blenders will have to push for either reenacting the expired ethanol blending subsidies or, governmental clarification of E85 liability and warranty issues that will allow the expansion of the E85 delivery infrastructure.

Finally, the cattle market will keep its eyes focused clearly on the skies. The drought of 2012 was genuinely historic with many ranchers still feeling the pinch through the high price of hay this winter. The run-up in grain prices was brutal to cattle ranchers, as crop insurance provides no relief for livestock ranchers. Therefore, this may be the most important weather year that I’ve been witness to as a steady and useful supply of rain will be necessary for both grazing and growing feed crops. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects 2013 to be a normal year however, several universities’ grain forecasting models are leaving room for exceptional volatility with average December corn (2013 crop) prices expected to finish around $5.75 per bushel but, quickly tailing out to more than $6.50 per bushel without factoring in the rising tide of any additional volatility.

Cattle farmers appear to be taking proactive steps to managing their businesses in 2013. The Commitment of Traders Report clearly shows commercial buying both in the grain markets and the cattle futures market itself. Commercial traders have bought more than 11,000 contracts of corn below the $6.50 per bushel level in the December contract. This is evidence of cattle producers attempting to lock in their feed costs for the coming year at anything near normal feed prices. We’ve also seen commercial traders nearly double their long position in the cattle futures as they guarantee their ability to make future delivery. U.S. Cattle ranchers locking forward production costs at these levels shows that they’re projecting their profit margins based on growing global demand rather than declining input costs. Given the miniscule herd numbers, we could see prices really skyrocket in 2013 if the weather is decent and ranchers can hold back animals to re-grow the herd size on forage, rather than feed.

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.

Crack Spread and High Gas Prices

The price of gasoline is holding above $3.00 per gallon and bouncing its way higher. This is happening even though the price of crude oil remains fairly well capped technically at $90 per barrel in spite of the Egyptian conflict and concern over control of the Suez canal. The price of crude oil is also showing fundamental weakness at these levels. The weekly commitment of traders report shows a record net short position by commercial traders who are expecting the market to decline from these prices. Furthermore, the gap in prices between current crude oil and crude for future delivery continues to widen. This is called, “contango.” The wider the spread becomes, the more economic incentive there is to sit on and store the oil. In the face of bearish fundamentals, why is the price of gasoline so stubbornly high?

I believe that gasoline demand as a finished product will outpace demand for raw crude over the coming months. A barrel of crude oil equals 42 U.S. gallons.  The refined barrel produces 2/3 gasoline and 1/3 heating oil depending on the quality of the crude oil input. The difference in price between the combined value of the heating oil and unleaded gasoline produced versus the crude oil input is called the, “crack spread.”

The first part of the answer to our question lies in the global dynamics of this spread. Refineries are currently making about $17.20 per barrel that they refine. This is significantly higher than the $6.50 or, so they averaged throughout 2010.  This added profit margin should incentivize greater refinery capacity utilization. This is where the first disconnect becomes clear. Refineries in the U.S. are only operating at 85% of capacity. Our main foreign suppliers are operating at lower levels than that. China, however, ran at record levels of refinery operation throughout 2010.

The Chinese position demands recognition. China sold approximately 18 million cars in 2010 while the U.S. sold just over 12 million. More importantly, the China Association of Auto Manufacturers claims that 2010’s sales pushed Chinese vehicle ownership up to about 6% of the total Chinese population. By contrast there are approximately 80 cars for every 100 Americans. China’s crude oil imports for January have increased by 33% over last year’s and their 2011 projection is for 5.27 million barrels per day. The Chinese are building a wealth of strategic reserves. It won’t take long for them to compete head to head on the open market for the 8.9 million barrels per day the United States currently consumes.

The second primary contributor to stubbornly high domestic gas prices is the mandatory edition of ethanol to the fuel we use. The government mandate is to increase the ethanol per gallon of fuel to 11% from 8.5% for 2011. U.S. ethanol production is uncompetitive because it is based on corn. Sugar based ethanol, like Brazil’s is more efficiently produced. The government’s energy plan currently imposes a $.54 per gallon tariff on imports while subsidizing the creation of ethanol plants and the corn that goes into them. Gas prices topped $4 per gallon in 2008 and  corn is 20% higher now than it was at this time in 2008.

Asian refineries continue to soak up the global supply of crude oil while our refineries enjoy the profits of the crack spread foreign demand is generating. We are sitting near the seasonal lows in petroleum products and the corn market has yet to build in weather related planting premium. Our low operating capacity combined with higher ethanol content and the rising price of corn could create quite a domestic price shock.

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.