Chris Mayer

In 1972, Russia’s wheat crop failed. Russia had to dip into the global grain markets to meet demand. Before Washington knew the plight of its Cold War adversary, Russia bought up all of the surplus wheat in the US. Dubbed “The Great Grain Robbery,” Russia’s purchases sent grain prices soaring around the world.

Grain prices soon hit 125-year highs in Chicago. In a 10-month span, soybeans went from $3.31 to $12.90 a bushel. Food prices around the world rose 50% in 1973.

Some of the old traders are wondering if it’s happening all over again.

On Thursday, wheat prices hit $7.25 a bushel, a 71% increase since the June low. It’s the biggest one-month jump in three decades. The last time prices got this high was during the food crisis in 2008. (Wheat prices topped out at $13 then.) You may recall the ensuing food riots across the globe from Haiti to Egypt to Bangladesh.

Russia is again the center of attention. The worst heat wave and drought in a century has baked crops to a crisp in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. These three are among the biggest exporters of wheat in the world. They provide critical food supplies to the largest importing regions in the world – the Middle East and North Africa.

In some areas of Russia, the heat and lack of rain killed half the crop. Withered wheat stalks litter the usually fertile fields along the Volga River. This is one of the world’s breadbaskets. Russia and the Ukraine alone were supposed to supply 18% of the world’s wheat. Now it looks like Russia’s exports could drop to zero.

Originally, forecasts called for 81-85 million metric tons of wheat, rye, barley and other crops. Now the Russian Grain Union says 72-78 million. Skeptics abound on that number, which looks too optimistic. The head of Glencore, the giant grain-trading house, thinks the real number will be closer to 65 million tonnes.

Holy smokes, I hear you say. Yes, it is bad. But it gets worse.

It’s so bad that Glencore begged Moscow to ban the export of grain – as it did in the food crisis of 2007-2008. That’s because Glencore thinks that trading houses around the world won’t be able to fulfill their contracts to deliver grains. When Moscow bans exports, then trading houses can declare force majeure, a clause that allows them to escape these deals. On Thursday afternoon, Russia did just that.

Russia’s crop failure comes at a bad time. Most of the world’s wheat exporters are having problems. The Aussies battle locusts. The Canadians suffer from too much rain. Even European farmers struggle with drought. The Italians’ beloved tomato crop will come up 10-15% short this year. Belgian potato farmers say drought will nick their yields. Polish fruit orchards will be down by a fifth. The French wheat farmers curse the skies as their wheat fields shrivel in the sun. The English sheep farmers, short on hay and grass, have sold their flocks early. Even the Dutch expect 10% fewer tulip bulbs this year.

The market is tightening and there are ripple effects across the globe. Over the weekend, Egypt bought 180,000 metric tons of wheat – its second purchase in two weeks and more than expected. Egypt is the world’s largest importer.

One key difference this time around compared to 2007-08 is that inventories are in better shape – at least on paper. But I have to wonder. In India, government officials have let their once-plentiful grain stockpiles rot in the fields. India thinks food is too important to leave to the private sector. The government is in charge of food stockpiles. In a common display of government folly, bureaucrats, apparently, threw thin plastic sheets over these supplies and let them sit in the fields to rot and wash away in the rains.

The savior in all this looks like it will be the US. Stockpiles here should be healthy, at almost 30 million tons.

It seems like only yesterday the market took a cheerful look at the grain markets and said all was well. Global harvests looked like they were going to put in another record. I warned that nothing counts until the crops hit the bin.

Now that record harvest is gone, kaput, in just a month’s time.

So what are the effects of all this? Expect ripples across the food chain. Prices for everything will rise. Prices for cocoa, coffee and pork bellies have already gone up. Beer brewers will pay more for barley, as the barley crop will be down by 20%. All flour-related products – breads, biscuits and the like – will be more costly. As The Financial Times reported, “Food executives are also warning about surging prices for feeding and malting barley, which could push higher the retail cost of products from poultry to beer.”

How will this go over with the already rattled consumer in a fragile recovery? Many companies seem reluctant to raise prices. As Domino’s CEO said, “Consumers are still hurting out there.” Many companies hedge their exposure to food commodities, but if these prices continue to climb, it could crimp their bottom lines.

Meanwhile, the fertilizer stocks have rallied. From July 6 lows, PotashCorp (NYSE:POT) shares are up 34% and Mosaic (NYSE:MOS) is up 31%. The logic is simple enough. High grain prices inspire more planting. More planting means more fertilizer use. Already, as we’ve seen, volumes are snapping back in the fertilizer business. In their last quarterly reports, both Potash and Mosaic doubled their profits from a year ago.

Recent events show you, once again, the challenges in meeting the world’s demand for food. The food crisis of 2007-2008 was not a one-off event. It was a warning. And today, we see again how quickly and easily we can get to another food crisis.

Hang onto those fertilizer stocks.

Chris Mayer
for The Daily Reckoning

Chris Mayer

Chris Mayer is managing editor of the Capital and Crisis and Mayer's Special Situations newsletters. Graduating magna cum laude with a degree in finance and an MBA from the University of Maryland, he began his business career as a corporate banker. Mayer left the banking industry after ten years and signed on with Agora Financial. His book, Invest Like a Dealmaker, Secrets of a Former Banking Insider, documents his ability to analyze macro issues and micro investment opportunities to produce an exceptional long-term track record of winning ideas. In April 2012, Chris released his newest book World Right Side Up: Investing Across Six Continents. 

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