Are we heading for Peak Food?

From disease in Minnesota to Russia's natural resources squeeze, there are plenty of reasons for soft commodities prices to soar. Kevin Kerr looks at why food's going to get more expensive.

As a loyal Whiskey & Gunpowder reader and personal friend of Byron King, I must say that not only do I subscribe to the Peak Oil theory, I am experiencing it first hand. As I write this, I am only a few short minutes from the border of Russia at my home in Estonia. Yes, Estonia, the small Baltic country with the big heart and the taxes to match it.  

Taxes are a big problem here, but the bigger one is heating fuels. With winter right around the corner and crude oil hitting record highs of almost $83, prices here are surging. Our natural gas and heating oil bills here are going to be three times as much this year and basically that will break the bank for many in this tiny country. The problem is just getting worse as Russia tightens the screws on its natural resources in the region.

Now, Peak Oil may be very familiar to you as a Whiskey reader, but another peak phenomenon may not Peak Food. Russia recently announced it may curtail wheat exports due to low global stockpiles and that has sent wheat to above $9, driving everything from bread to pasta exponentially higher. The worst could be yet to come.  

I have to go chop some more wood for our stoves now. Really, I'm serious. Peak Oil is here. Peak Food will be here soon, too.

What is Peak Food?

There have been few markets in my almost 20 years of trading that have been as exciting as the grain markets have been over the past two years. In my opinion, the best is yet to come.

In the commodities world, energy, metals, and stock indexes have been the most active futures contracts and the most talked about for years. But like so many things in the commodities industry, that's changing too. Sure, oil and gold commentary still rolls off the lips of the various business news channel anchors. But nowadays, in the same breath, you may hear them talking about corn, wheat, or even soybeans. Why the sudden change?

The big push by individual speculators, hedge funds, and others into the agriculture sector in such a short time has been unprecedented. A great deal of this move is a direct result of the ethanol boom and the record corn prices it has helped to generate.

It's pretty ironic that the modern commodities markets owe their success to the original grain markets that started it all. Back only a couple of decades ago, there was no such thing as an energy futures market or a stock market index. In fact, the grain markets were the first organized futures contracts when many of the exchanges started trading. As the markets developed, grains took a bit of a backseat and the financial and energy commodities seemed to take the lead.

Now with the emergence of the electronic trading market and the ethanol boom, grain futures are soaring. The global demand for agricultural and soft commodities is so significant that these markets are not only important, they are vital for price discovery once again.

The simple facts of the matter are that the global population is exploding and exponential increases in demand from countries like China and India are straining a system that is already overloaded by demand and has been taxed by weather problems globally.

The wheat crop has been hit especially hard this year as droughts, floods, disease, and even frost have taken their toll. Wheat has risen to $9 a bushel, and $10 is entirely possible later this year. Meanwhile, the soybean complex is also soaring, as pent-up demand, especially from China, is keeping this market very well supported.

It's important to realize that not only do we have exponentially higher demand for soybeans from a growing world population, but we also have the increased feed demands of a growing cattle population in answer to more demand for beef. Soybeans are also a victim/beneficiary of the biofuel boom.

Combine all of these factors and throw in a little disease and bad weather and you have a recipe for a very hungry world, indeed...and much higher prices.

This has been an incredible year for agricultural commodities, and many 'experts' have been telling me for the last year that I was crazy to buy these commodities at such high levels.

Of course, they started telling me that when corn was at $2.20 a bushel and wheat at $5.50. Today, corn is trading solidly over $3.50 and wheat is trading close to $9. The bad news for wheat supplies just keeps rolling in. In the latest round of bad news, Australia slashed its harvest forecast 31 % because of dry weather. Wheat is surging as importers line up to buy whatever wheat they can. Global inventories are heading for a 26-year low.

Soybeans have outperformed expectations, too, as global demand has put a solid floor underneath prices.

Is all the bad news priced into the grain markets at this point, and have we finally seen the top for the grain rally? Think again. The biggest disaster for the grains may just be getting started.

According to my sources at farms in Minnesota and Iowa, diseases may be setting in, and this could be devastating to the wheat, bean, and corn crops.

Corn could be hit hard after a long summer, and hot and dry conditions and hail affected corn yields in Minnesota. The weather conditions favor the development of a disease called ear rot. Reports of ear rot have been coming in from several different areas, and the quality of grain that comes off these affected fields will almost certainly be reduced.

Meanwhile, things over in the bean patch are not faring much better. According to reports, early defoliation and death in patches of soybeans has occurred recently in fields across Minnesota.

According to Agriculture Online, 'Although numerous soybean fields have started to mature and have suddenly turned yellow in the past week or so, it is obvious in many areas that the yellowing and plant death have been accelerated well beyond what would be typical.'

Sure, bean and grain prices are very high already in fact, some of the prices we have been seeing for the agricultural commodities in the last few years are nothing short of astounding. It's important to recognize, though, that demand has also been astounding. Demand is almost certain to outstrip supply, especially in wheat and soybeans. So even though we are seeing record prices, they may climb further as we head into winter. Therefore, some exposure to the agriculture sector in your portfolio seems like a prudent idea.

Clearly, the agricultural bull market is far from over, but that's not to say that we won't see some extreme volatility. Overall, though, the indications are pretty clear that staple commodities like grains are going to be more in demand and less in supply as time goes on.

So my forecast for the grain markets is as follows: Higher, but volatile. The really nice thing about commodities trading is that it's just as easy to bet on falling prices as on rising prices. So when the time does come, as it does in every market, we will be just as eager to go short and try to profit on the downside. For now, though, the trend is our friend and the trend is up.

By Kevin Kerr for Whiskey and Gunpowder Whiskey & Gunpowder is a free, twice-per-week, e-mail service for more from the team, go to https://www.whiskeyandgunpowder.com

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