Economists: Commodity Prices Dropping

A trio of economic factors that sent commodity prices soaring in mid-2008 has since reversed course and is pushing prices lower, according to an updated report by three Purdue University agricultural economists.

"The three major drivers that we identified last year were trends in global production and consumption, the value of the dollar, and biofuels," said Wally Tyner, who, along with Philip Abbott and Chris Hurt, released "What’s Driving Food Prices?" this past July. "One of the key questions we asked in doing this new study was, ‘Are these same three that drove prices up the ladder now driving prices down the ladder?’ The answer is yes."

Tyner and Hurt, who presented the update on March 11 in a Farm Foundation Forum at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, found that a stronger American dollar, falling ethanol demand, and rising grain stocks combined to send corn, soybean, wheat, and rice prices cascading in late 2008. Behind those dramatic changes is the global financial crisis, the economists said.

"The dollar had lost about 67 percent of its value through July 2008, and since July it has gained 22 percent of that value back," Tyner said. "Since July, the expectations on supply and demand are that our stocks are going to be better than we thought since 2008 was a good production year and world demand has dropped. So supplies are not nearly as short now in terms of stocks-to-use ratios as they were before.

"And then the demand for biofuels is not near what we thought it was going to be. The price of oil comes down, the price of gas comes down and demand for ethanol goes down. That means there’s not as much corn needed to make ethanol, and, therefore, not near as much pressure on the price."

Given time, consumers are likely to see lower prices for some food items, Tyner said.

"Demand is down for everything," he said. "In particular, demand is down more for meat products, which means less demand for the corn and soybean meal to produce meat. It filters through the system.

The news for crop growers is that production costs have not fallen as quickly as commodity prices. As a result, input prices remain relatively high, Tyner said.

"Had commodity prices stayed high, farmers could have supported those input prices," he said. "It’s going to be a tight margin year for farmers. They came off of two really good years, but this year is going to be much different."

Hurt said, "The future for agriculture is also closely tied to the depth and duration of the current recession, as well as to the magnitude of the recovery in coming years. Other important factors will be how governments and consumers respond to the downturn and how biofuels policy evolves in coming years."

To read the July 2008 "What’s Driving Food Prices?" report and update, visit the Farm Foundation Web site at www.farmfoundation.org.

(Source: Purdue University)

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