Bushels of corn reached their highest prices in nearly three years this week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that corn inventories will fall to levels not seen since 1996.
We’ve witnessed nearly a 100 per cent surge in the price of corn over the past year as increased demand has been met with diminishing supply. Dry weather conditions due to La Niña in Argentina and other disruptions have shriveled supply despite a near record amount of acreage being planted.
Globally, corn consumption has increased 10 per cent over the past five years to reach record levels and stock-to-use ratios for corn suggest we’re currently experiencing the tightest global corn market since the late 1970s, according to Macquarie.
This jump is due to increased corn consumption for ethanol and greater demand for feed grain. The USDA estimates that just under 40 per cent of U.S. corn production will be consumed for ethanol, up from 31 per cent in 2008-2009. China will likely need to import 5 million tons of corn in 2011 in order to meet the country’s booming need for feed grain. In the U.S., an additional 60 million bushels will be used for feed despite a reduction in livestock, according to the Des Moines Register.
Corn is just one part of the food pyramid that is rising. Around the world, prices for wheat, soybeans, cocoa and other grains have jumped in the last 18 months in conjunction with the global recovery. Prices have jumped because demand outstripped supply.
This chart from Potash Corp. shows that grain production has failed to meet consumption in seven of the past 11 years. This is despite producing a significantly larger amount of grain in 2009 than in 2000. Potash Corp. estimates world grain production declined more than 4 per cent in 2010. An extreme drought in Russia chopped grain production in the country by 38 per cent and 13 per cent in neighbouring Ukraine.
These tight supply/demand fundamentals reflect the impact of a growing global population and increasing economic strength in emerging markets, Potash says.
As per capita wealth has grown in other countries, there has been a huge jump in demand for grains. This chart shows the amount of bushels consumed as GDP per capita rises.
Much of the rise is due to people consuming more meat as their fortunes rise. To meet this higher protein diet, more chickens, cows and hogs are fed grains and demand skyrockets. You can see that China and India are still in the very early stages of increased consumption.
We think the agricultural space is ripe with opportunity. With global grain inventories relative to demand at multi-year lows and the rising emerging market middle class showing a healthy appetite for more meat and dairy products, demand for increased crop yields should remain strong.
None of U.S. Global Investors Funds held any of the securities mentioned in this article as of 12/31/10.