Tag Archives: ethanol

Energy Fork in the Road

One economic topic that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is the energy policy. The drought of 2012 along with the expiration of subsidies paid to ethanol blenders will make it nearly impossible to reach the Renewable Fuels Standards (RFS) as early as next year. The standards that were put in place to increase this country’s energy independence were based on protectionist interests and were only viable as long as ethanol produced by the U.S. was subsidized while Brazilian ethanol was simultaneously taxed.

The difference between U.S. ethanol and Brazilian ethanol is the source of their primary inputs. We use corn, which is slower to grow, harder to use and more expensive than the cane sugar Brazil uses as the feedstock for their ethanol production. It will be very interesting to hear how the Presidential candidates debate their renewable energy policies, especially as 40% of our primary crop is diverted from food to energy production. This year’s drought has created a political collision course between food costs and the Renewable Fuels Mandate as well as the Energy Independence and Security Act.

The corn market is about as American as you can get. The U.S. produces as much corn as the next two largest producers, China and Brazil, combined. Unfortunately, production will fall nearly 15% short of 2011’s 314 million tons. The current Renewable Fuels Mandate allotted 40% of last year’s corn to produce 13.95 billion gallons of renewable fuel and 2012 will require an additional 8% increase over 2011. This brings total renewable fuel sources to 15.2 billion gallons on total consumption of 134 billion gallons in 2012.

The drought has pushed corn prices to an all time high of $8.43 per bushel. While the market is now 14% lower at  $7.25, the rally has been more than enough to shatter the profit margins of ethanol blenders. The combination of expiring refining subsidies along with higher input costs is leading to the shut down of major ethanol blenders. This raises the capital market question of who’s going to be responsible for meeting the aforementioned production targets? Ethanol distillers are losing more than $.40 per gallon at the current prices.

The idea of diverting 4.7 billion bushels of an estimated 11 billion bushels in total U.S. production towards an inferior yet, more expensive product seems silly in the face of rising global food prices. This is exactly what would be required to happen to meet next year’s Mandate. Furthermore, reaching next year’s goals using the current 10% ethanol blend is nearly impossible given the current mix of gasoline and diesel motors. Diesel biofuels and biodiesels are given a 50% bonus in RFS for their lower greenhouse gas emissions as measured by the EPA. The friction this creates in meeting the Renewable Fuels Mandate is called the, “blend wall.” The blend wall is the physical limitation of production and blending facilities based on the most common 10% ethanol blend. The mandate calls for 13.8 billion gallons, 10% of expected 2013 US consumption. However, current facilities, assuming they were all open and operating at full capacity, can only produce 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol.

The candidates will have to address the subsidies that farmers and blenders are paid as well as their plan on handling imports. These are most likely, the easy issues to address. Developing a complete energy plan will also include a discussion on the much more economically friendly topic of our vast natural gas reserves which have the capacity to place us on a much more sustainable path.

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.

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.

Lost in the Confusion

Lost in the Confusion

 

Amid the roar of the financial chaos and their ability to affect,
seemingly every market, one sector has been quietly building a base and should
be renewing buying interest. Remember back in late May and June during the
wettest spring ever when the concerns of crop planting were making the local
news? The ensuing run up in grain prices soon had everyone beating the drum of ethanol’s
demand on corn prices and the cost of bread, chips and cereal.

Since the grain markets peaked in July, many of them have
sold off considerably. Soybeans have fallen from an all time high of $16.47
down to $11.00 per bushel. Corn and wheat are also off 30 – 35%. The main
reasons for this sell off has been the exceptional growing conditions helping to
make up for the wet spring as well as the typical seasonal pattern the grain
markets have of selling off once the crop has been planted. Further pressure
was added this summer by the rise in the U.S Dollar and the global demand
reduction associated with increasing purchase costs as a result of the exchange
rate.

Soybeans and wheat continued to decline this past week amid
the global uncertainty of the financial markets and a general flight from
derivative based investment. However, corn made its low of $5.00 per bushel
more than a month ago. Also, the corn market failed to make new lows amid the
financial panic. Technically, corn need only close above $5.67 to setup a
genuinely bullish breakout of a double bottom.

Fundamentally, while the corn crop has grown well, the late
planting has had an effect on the maturation process of the crop. The saying
being floated by the corn pundits is, “Looks good from the road but not in the
field.” This year’s crop will be especially vulnerable to an early frost or
cool late summer as the late planting is affecting the finishing of the crop.
Lastly, and most importantly, the global corn crop began this year at one of
the tightest stocks to usage ratio on record. Basically, this means that there
was less of the previous year’s corn crop still available in the pipeline at
the beginning of this year’s planting season.

It appears in the USDA grain reports that given the acreage planted, the projected
yield and demand for this year’s crop will do little to ease this issue. While
we move to global “on demand inventory,” it’s important to know that commodity futures
supplies are static. Government’s can print money. Stock exchanges can forbid
short selling and banks can be bailed out. However, neither the U.S. Federal
Reserve nor the European or English Central Banks can create more corn. Those
who have been losing sleep over the next financial market, “Breaking News
Bulletin,” may wish to consider something more grounded.

 

Andy
Waldock

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