May 28, 2008

Why Beef Prices are Heading Higher

Bonddad recently wrote about a Bloomberg article on rising beef prices. My quibble isn't with his technical analysis, but with one of his comments. He thought that demand was increasing for beef because... the world's standard of loving [sic] increases (think India and China making more and more money) people will want better things like steak.

Now, generally speaking, what he said is true; as people's incomes rise, we do want goods that are better than what we had before. In economics, we call these "normal goods." A normal good is any good for which demand increases when income increases. A car is an example of a normal good. All things being equal, what would you rather do if your income increases, continue taking the bus or train to work or buy a new car? Of course, you'd buy the new car. (Conversely, an "inferior good" is a good that decreases in demand as income rises; an example for the US being ramen noodles.) Anyhoo, Bonddad is suggesting that because incomes are rising in countries like India and China, they want to eat better foods such as American steak. However, the truth is that beef exports to other countries isn't the reason.

In 2006, the US exported a total of 1.145 billion pounds of beef out of a total supply of 29.912 billion pounds, which comes to 3.83%. So a little under 4% of all US beef available in the country was exported. In 2007, the percentage was 4.74%, in 2008 total beef exports is projected to be 5.44%, and for 2009, 6.21%. [All of these numbers and the following data come from the US Department of Agriculture's monthly report, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, for April and May 2008.] So, beef exports are increasing, but very slowly. Rising beef exports out of the total available for sale in the US will cause domestic beef prices to rise, but not by that much. Let's look at the more likely culprit.

American cattle are normally either grass-fed or corn-fed. Per Wikipedia, "In the United States, cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are typically fed corn, soy and other types of feed that can include "by-product feedstuff." As a high-starch, high-energy food, corn decreases the time to fatten cattle and increases yield from dairy cattle." Per a 2003 Colorado State University study, "80% of consumers in the Denver-Colorado area preferred the taste of United States corn-fed beef to Australian grass-fed beef." And so a very significant portion of America's annual corn crop goes to feed cattle, and the price of corn has been rising dramatically, like other agricultural products, such as rice. Just how much corn is being used to feed cattle?

In 2005/6, the US had a total supply of 13.237 billion bushels of corn. Of that amount 6.155 billion bushels (46.50%) were used as "feed and residual," 2.981 billion bushels (22.52%) were used as "food, seed and industrial," and 2.134 billion bushels (16.12%) were exported. The remainder (1.967 billion bushels, 14.86%) was "closing stock" and used in the following year, 2006/7. Now, looking at these individual categories, we see that "feed and residual" was 44.73% in 2006/7 and is estimated to be 42.73% in 2007/8 and 39.19% in 2008/9. Clearly, "feed and residual" isn't a problem. Likewise, exports aren't a significant cause of corn inflation either: 16.98% of all US corn was exported in 2006/7, and 17.37% and 15.53% is expected to be exported in 2007/8 and 2008/9, respectively. Which leads to "food, seed and industrial."

The first two of these should be self-explanatory. It's the industrial that we're concerned with. The industrial use of corn comes primarily in the form of ethanol. You know, the alcohol addititive to your gasoline so that you wouldn't pay as much money (you hoped) to run your car? Turns out that ethanol is bringing up the price of corn. The USDA breaks out the amount of corn that's used in the production of ethanol, which is very helpful for our analysis. In 2005/6, corn used for ethanol made up 1.603 billion bushels out of the 2.981 billion bushels mentioned above (the remainder was presumably used for food and seed). Which means that that 1.603 billion bushels made up 12.11% of the total American corn supply. In 2006/7, that percentage increased to 16.92%, and is expected to increase to 20.84% and 29.58% in 2007/8 and 2008/9, respectively. That's where the corn's going! So, let's connect the dots.

Because Americans prefer corn-fed cattle over grass-fed, cattle producers feed them lots of corn and other grains that, in turn, help them to fatten up quicker before they're slaughtered. Still, it takes feedlot cattle 14-18 months before they are killed, which means they eat a lot of corn. (I don't know exactly how much an average cow eats in its lifetime. No doubt the farmers do.) Because the price of corn has been going up ($2.00 per bushel in 2005/6 to $3.04 per bushel in 2006/7), it costs the cattle producer that much more to feed a cow until it gets to its terminal weight. Which means that cattle producers are actually losing money now for every cow they sell. According to the Bloomberg article, the feedlots were losing $139.56 a head in April, up from a record loss of $169.80 a head in March, and down from a profit of $46.79 a head in April 2007. No doubt there are some other factors that probably have affected the price increases for corn (oil and fertilizers come to mind), but the primary cause of the price increases in beef appears to be due to the increases in the price of corn. Which, no doubt, must be a relief to the Indians and Chinese, who don't tend to eat beef anyway; the former tend to eat mutton and chicken, the latter pork.

Cross-posted at J2TM and at Daily Kos, where there are a lot of very good comments. Check them out.

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