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Craze for Biofuel Causes Grain Prices to Soar

Commodities / Agricultural Commodities Dec 02, 2007 - 08:53 AM GMT

By: Joseph_Dancy


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleAs the dynamic economies of China, India, and Asia continue to expand the size of their middle class – and the population in these areas continues a large scale migration to the major cities – global demand for basic foodstuffs has increased significantly over the last decade. A recent swine virus has adversely impacted Chinese herds, and globally meats and grain inventories are in short supply compared to historical levels.

Meanwhile, biofuels continue to make inroads in the developed countries. The cost of the biofuel feedstock – corn in many cases – has risen with demand. The cost of alternative grains such as wheat and soybeans has also increased. 

We think the higher food prices now being seen in the global markets is a long term trend. Last month we continued to increase our exposure to the agriculture sector. The following developments last month illustrate the bullish trends: 

  • The boom in biofuels is boosting demand and constraining food supplies; 20% of the US corn crop is already used to produce ethanol. Agricultural commodities are the subject of a growing battle between energy demands and food demands of the world's population. The UN's World Food Organization predicts that demand for biofuels will grow by 170% in the next three years.

  • Wheat prices surged to record highs last month. Expectations are that rising global demand for U.S. wheat will deplete inventories, leaving them at the lowest level in three decades. Wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade topped $9 a bushel for the first time ever.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture cut its estimate of Australia's wheat crop to 21 million metric tons from last month's estimate of 23 million tons. Australia was expected to be the world's second largest wheat exporter. The USDA's estimate of Canada's wheat crop also declined 5.6 percent last month.

  • The USDA raised its' forecast of expected wheat exports as foreign buyers are flocking to the U.S. The world market expects poor harvests in major producing regions, and rising demand from industrializing nations such as China.

  • The USDA estimates crop-year ending stocks of wheat will fall to 362 million metric tons in 2007- 2008, down from 456 million metric tons a year earlier. This is the lowest inventory level since 1973-1974. 

  • Ukraine was the world's seventh-biggest wheat exporter last year. The Ukraine government said it will restrict grain exports last month to moderate domestic food price increases. 

  • Russia, last year's third-largest wheat exporter behind the U.S. and Canada, said it may impose a 10 percent export tax on the grain in November and a 30 percent export duty on barley. 

  • Global wheat inventory stockpiles at the end of June in the five biggest-exporting countries fell to 107 million tons, a 34-year low. Wheat was the fourth-biggest U.S. crop in 2006, behind corn, soybeans and hay, according to government data. 

  • The higher wheat prices have increased the cost of staple foods such as bread and pasta. Higher pasta prices prompted consumer groups in Italy to launch a one-day boycott of pasta last month. Prices there have soared as much as 20 per cent over the last several months.

  • Corn prices hit a three-month high last month after China signaled that it could become a net importer for the first time in more a decade. One of the world's four biggest corn exporters last year, China will encourage more imports of the grain, and discourage domestic output of crop-based fuels, in an attempt to keep food inflation under control. 

  • The amount of U.S. lands planted in corn has increased 18.5 percent this year, from 78.3 million acres last year to 92.9 million acres. The USDA forecast that fertilizer use should increase by 5 percent overall, with use on corn up 9.5 percent. 

  • The USDA is forecasting record fertilizer expenditures for 2007. Fertilizer accounts for roughly 20% of a corn farmer's operating cost. 

  • Over the last year the price of eggs went up by 33.7 percent, whole milk 31.1 percent, and navel oranges were up by 13.6 percent in the U.S. according to a government report. Other dramatic increases included fresh chicken up by 8.4 percent, apples up by 8.7 percent, and dried beans up by 11.5 percent.

  • Barley prices in Winnipeg, Canada, gained 41 percent in the past year on increased demand for animal feed and for brewing beer. Canada is one of the world's biggest barley producers. Corn has gained 53 percent in that market as demand for grain-based ethanol surged.

  • Driven by a combination of trade policies and competition for cattle feed from biofuel producers, global milk prices have doubled over the last two years. There are reports of cows being stolen from Wisconsin dairy farms.

  • Developing countries face serious social unrest as they struggle to cope with soaring food prices, the United Nations' top agriculture official warned last month. While food may be less than 10 per cent of the household budget in the developed world, in poorer countries it is 65 per cent.

  • The USDA is expecting a record breaking year for agricultural exports from the U.S. Exports are expect to reach a record $79 billion in fiscal year 2007, topping the old record set the previous year. USDA says sales are expected to reach another record in 2008.

  • The value of all U.S. crop production this year is forecast to rise 14 percent from 2006, to $136.2 billion. The value of production from cattle, hogs, chickens and eggs will increase 18 percent, to a record $140.2 billion

  • Rising prices for livestock and grains should push U.S. net farm income to a record high in 2007, 48 percent greater than a year earlier according to the USDA. Farm income is expected to rise to $87.1 billion from $59 billion last year. "This is a great time to be a farmer," said Christopher Hurt, an economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Farming may be the healthiest sector of the economy."

  • A rise in agricultural income could boost sales of farm machinery, seeds, and farmers will also be able to afford more fertilizer according to agricultural economists.

  • A boost in farm income this year has accelerated agricultural equipment sales according to representatives of the equipment manufacturing industry. Combine sales are up so far this year by nearly 9 percent according to Russ Green, president of Caterpillar's North American operations. “Obviously there is reason for optimism,” Green said. “Usually 14-18 months after an upturn in commodity prices we'll see an upturn in equipment sales.”

  • Ag Equipment Newsletter, a publication for agricultural equipment marketers, in its Sept. 15 issue reported results of its annual survey of North American equipment dealers, noting, “It's difficult to find a product category that dealers aren't enthused about next year.”

When we examine firms that appear on our financial screens we focus on their business niche. A business niche that is growing, provides for expanding margins, and provides opportunities for thinly capitalized companies is ideal for investors. 

Warren Buffett has noted that a ‘good business boat' – a company in an expanding business sector with a good niche - will make even marginal management look good. Investors in these situations tend to do well. On the flip side a shrinking business sector with poor margins will challenge even the best managers. 

We think the higher food prices, increasing global demand, biofuel expansion, and expanding U.S. exports are long term trends that will create a positive business environment for small companies. For that reason we are increasing our exposure to small, growing, profitable, and undervalued firms in this sector. 

By Joseph Dancy,
Adjunct Professor: Oil & Gas Law, SMU School of Law
Advisor, LSGI Market Letter


Copyright © 2007 Joseph Dancy - All Rights Reserved

Joseph R. Dancy, is manager of the LSGI Technology Venture Fund LP, a private mutual fund for SEC accredited investors formed to focus on the most inefficient part of the equity market. The goal of the LSGI Fund is to utilize applied financial theory to substantially outperform all the major market indexes over time.

He is a Trustee on the Michigan Tech Foundation, and is on the Finance Committee which oversees the management of that institutions endowment funds. He is also employed as an Adjunct Professor of Law by Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, Texas, teaching Oil & Gas Law, Oil & Gas Environmental Law, and Environmental Law, and coaches ice hockey in the Junior Dallas Stars organization.

He has a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Michigan Technological University, a MBA from the University of Michigan, and a J.D. from Oklahoma City University School of Law. Oklahoma City University named him and his wife as Distinguished Alumni.

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