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The 'Population Bomb' Echoes

Pack your portfolios with agricultural plays like Potash (POT), Mosaic (MOS), and Agrium (AGU) if Dr. Paul Ehrlich is just partially right about the impending collapse in the world’s food supply. You might even throw in long positions in wheat (WEAT), corn (CORN), soybeans (SOYB), and rice.

The never dull and often controversial Stanford biology professor told me he expects that global warming is leading to significant changes in world weather patterns that will cause droughts in some of the largest food producing areas, causing massive famines. Food prices will skyrocket, and billions could die.

At greatest risk are the big rice producing areas in South Asia, which depend on glacial run off from the Himalayas. If the glaciers melt, this crucial supply of fresh water will disappear. California faces a similar problem if the Sierra snowpack fails to show up in sufficient quantities, as it has for the past two years.

Rising sea levels displacing 500 million people in low-lying coastal areas is another big problem. One of the 80-year-old professor’s early books The Population Bomb was required reading for me in college in 1970, and I used to drive up from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area just to hear his lectures (followed by the obligatory side trip to the Haight-Ashbury).

Other big risks to the economy are the threat of a third world nuclear war caused by population pressures, and global plagues facilitated by a widespread growth of intercontinental transportation and globalization. And I won’t get into the threat of a giant solar flare frying our electrical grid.

?Super consumption? in the US needs to be reined in where the population is growing the fastest. If the world adopts an American standard of living, we need four more Earths to supply the needed natural resources. We must to raise the price of all forms of carbon, preferably through taxes, but cap and trade will work too. Population control is the answer to all of these problems, which is best achieved by giving women an education, jobs, and rights, and has already worked well in Europe and Japan.

All sobering food for thought.

 

 

Paul R. Ehrlich

Fruit MarketBuy Now While Supplies Last!

End of the Commodity Super Cycle

When the Trade Alerts quit working. I stop sending them out. That?s my trading strategy right now. It?s as simple as that.

So when I received a dozen emails this morning asking if it is time to double up on Linn Energy (LINE), I shot back ?Not yet!? There is no point until oil puts in a convincing bottom, and that may be 2015 business.

Traders have been watching in complete awe the rapid decent the price of Linn Energy, which is emerging as the most despised asset of 2014, after commodity producer Russia (RSX).

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the collapse of prices for the many commodities is part of a much larger, longer-term macro trend.

(LINN) is doing the best impersonation of a company going chapter 11 I have ever seen, without actually going through with it. Only last Thursday, it paid out a dividend, which at today?s low, works out to a mind numbing 30% yield.

I tried calling the company, but they aren?t picking up, as they are inundated with inquires from investors. Search the Internet, and you find absolutely nothing. What you do find are the following reasons not to buy Linn Energy today:

1) Falling oil revenue is causing Venezuela to go bankrupt.
2) Large layoffs have started in the US oil industry.
3) The Houston real estate industry has gone zero bid.
4) Midwestern banks are either calling in oil patch loans, or not renewing them.
5) Hedge Funds have gone catatonic, their hands tied until new investor funds come in during the New Year.
6) Every oil storage facility in the world is now filled to the brim, including many of the largest tankers.

Let me tell you how insanely cheap (LINN) has gotten. In 2009, when the financial system was imploding and the global economy was thought to be entering a prolonged Great Depression, oil dropped to $30, and (LINN) to $7.50. Today, the US economy is booming, interest rates are scraping the bottom, employment is at an eight year high, and (LINE) hit $9.70, down $70 in six months.

Go figure.

My colleague, Mad Day Trader, Jim Parker, says this could all end on Thursday, when the front month oil futures contract expires. It could.

It isn?t just the oil that is hurting. So are the rest of the precious and semi precious metals (SLV), (PPLT), (PALL), base metals (CU), (BHP), oil (USO), and food (CORN), (WEAT), (SOYB), (DBA).

Many senior hedge fund managers are now implementing strategies assuming that the commodity super cycle, which ran like a horse with the bit between its teeth for ten years, is over, done, and kaput.

Former George Soros partner, hedge fund legend Paul Tudor Jones, has been leading the intellectual charge since last year for this concept. Many major funds have joined him.

Launching at the end of 2001, when gold, silver, copper, iron ore, and other base metals, hit bottom after a 21 year bear market, it is looking like the sector reached a multi decade peak in 2011.

Commodities have long been a leading source of profits for investors of every persuasion. During the 1970?s, when president Richard Nixon took the US off of the gold standard and inflation soared into double digits, commodities were everybody?s best friend. Then, Federal Reserve governor, Paul Volker, killed them off en masse by raising the federal funds rate up to a nosebleed 18.5%.

Commodities died a long slow and painful death. I joined Morgan Stanley about that time with the mandate to build an international equities business from scratch. In those days, the most commonly traded foreign securities were gold stocks. For years, I watched long-suffering clients buy every dip until they no longer ceased to exist.

The managing director responsible for covering the copper industry was steadily moved to ever smaller offices, first near the elevators, then the men?s room, and finally out of the building completely. He retired early when the industry consolidated into just two companies, and there was no one left to cover. It was heartbreaking to watch. Warning: we could be in for a repeat.

After two decades of downsizing, rationalization, and bankruptcies, the supply of most commodities shrank to a shadow of its former self by 2000. Then, China suddenly showed up as a voracious consumer of everything. It was off to the races, and hedge fund managers were sent scurrying to look up long forgotten ticker symbols and futures contracts.

By then commodities promoters, especially the gold bugs, had become a pretty scruffy lot. They would show up at conferences with dirt under their fingernails, wearing threadbare shirts and suits that looked like they came from the Salvation Army. As prices steadily rose, the Brioni suits started making appearances, followed by Turnbull & Asser shirts and Gucci loafers.

There was a crucial aspect of the bull case for commodities that made it particularly compelling. While you can simply create more stocks and bonds by running a printing press, or these days, creating digital entries on excel spreadsheets, that is definitely not the case with commodities. To discover deposits, raise the capital, get permits and licenses, pay the bribes, build the infrastructure, and dig the mines and pits for most commodities, takes 5-15 years.

So while demand may soar, supply comes on at a snail pace. Because these markets were so illiquid, a 1% rise in demand would easily crease price hikes of 50%, 100%, and more. That is exactly what happened. Gold soared from $250 to $1,922. This is what a hedge fund manager will tell us is the perfect asymmetric trade. Silver rocketed from $2 to $50. Copper leapt from 80 cents a pound to $4.50. Everyone instantly became commodities experts. An underweight position in the sector left most managers in the dust.

Some 14 years later and now what are we seeing? Many of the gigantic projects that started showing up on drawing boards in 2001 are coming on stream. In the meantime, slowing economic growth in China means their appetite has become less than endless.

Supply and demand fell out of balance. The infinitesimal change in demand that delivered red-hot price gains in the 2000?s is now producing equally impressive price declines. And therein lies the problem. Click here for my piece on the mothballing of brand new Australian iron ore projects, ?BHP Cuts Bode Ill for the Global Economy?.

But this time it may be different. In my discussions with the senior Chinese leadership over the years, there has been one recurring theme. They would love to have America?s service economy.

I always tell them that they have a real beef with their ancient ancestors. When they migrated out of Africa 50,000 years ago, they stopped moving the people exactly where the natural resources aren?t. If they had only continued a little farther across the Bering Straights to North America, they would be drowning in resources, as we are in the US.

By upgrading their economy from a manufacturing, to a services based economy, the Chinese will substantially change the makeup of their GDP growth. Added value will come in the form of intellectual capital, which creates patents, trademarks, copyrights, and brands. The raw material is brainpower, which China already has plenty of.

There will no longer be any need to import massive amounts of commodities from abroad. If I am right, this would explain why prices for many commodities have fallen further that a Middle Kingdom economy growing at a 7.5% annual rate would suggest. This is the heart of the argument that the commodities super cycle is over.

If so, the implications for global assets prices are huge. It is great news for equities, especially for big commod
ity importing countries like the US, Japan, and Europe. This may be why we are seeing such straight line, one way moves up in global equity markets this year.

It is very bad news for commodity exporting countries, like Australia, South America, and the Middle East. This is why a large short position in the Australian dollar is a core position in Tudor-Jones? portfolio. Take a look at the chart for Aussie against the US dollar (FXA) since 2013, and it looks like it has come down with a severe case of Montezuma?s revenge.

The Aussie could hit 80 cents, and eventually 75 cents to the greenback before the crying ends. Australians better pay for their foreign vacations fast before prices go through the roof. It also explains why the route has carried on across such a broad, seemingly unconnected range of commodities.

In the end, my friend at Morgan Stanley had the last laugh.

When the commodity super cycle began, there was almost no one around still working who knew the industry as he did. He was hired by a big hedge fund and earned a $25 million performance bonus in the first year out. And he ended up with the biggest damn office in the whole company, a corner one with a spectacular view of midtown Manhattan.

He is now retired for good, working on his short game at Pebble Beach.

Good for you, John.

 

LINE 12-15-14

TNX 12-15-14

COPPER 3-21-14

FXA 12-15-14

GOLD 3-21-14

WTIC 12-12-14

 

Gold Coins

Not as Shiny as it Once Was

Is the Turnaround at Hand, and Ten Stocks to Buy at the Bottom?

War threatens in the Ukraine. Iraq is blowing up. Rebels are turning our own, highly advanced weapons against us. Israel invades Gaza. Ebola virus has hit the US. Oh, and two hurricanes are hitting Hawaii for the first time in 22 years.

Should I panic and sell everything I own? Is it time to stockpile canned food, water and ammo? Is the world about to end?

I think not.

In fact the opposite is coming true. The best entry point for risk assets in a year is setting up. If you missed 2014 so far, here is a chance to do it all over again.

It is an old trading nostrum that you should buy when there is blood in the streets. I had a friend who reliably bought every coup d? etat in Thailand during the seventies and eighties, and he made a fortune, retiring to one of the country?s idyllic islands off the coast of Phuket. In fact, I think he bought the whole island.

Now we have blood in multiple streets in multiple places, thankfully, this time, it is not ours.

I had Mad Day Trader, Jim Parker, do some technical work for me. He tracked the S&P 500/30 year Treasury spread for the past 30 years and produced the charts below. This is an indicator of overboughtness of one market compared to another that reliably peaks every decade.

And guess what? It is peaking. This tells you that any mean reversion is about to unleash an onslaught of bond selling and stock buying.

There is a whole raft of other positive things going on. Several good stocks have double bottomed off of ?stupid cheap? levels, like IBM (IBM), Ebay (EBAY), General Motors (GM), Tupperware (TUP), and Yum Brands (YUM). Both the Russian ruble and stock market are bouncing hard today.

There is another fascinating thing happening in the oil markets. This is the first time in history where a new Middle Eastern war caused oil price to collapse instead of skyrocket. This is all a testament to the new American independence in energy.

Hint: this is great news for US stocks.

If you asked me a month ago what would be my dream scenario for the rest of the year, I would have said an 8% correction in August to load the boat for a big yearend rally. Heavens to Betsy and wholly moley, but that appears to be what we are getting.

It puts followers of my Trade Alert service in a particularly strong position. As of today, they are up 24% during 2014 in a market that is down -0.3%. Replay the year again, and that gets followers up 50% or more by the end of December.

Here is my own shopping list of what to buy when we hit the final bottom, which is probably only a few percent away:

Longs

JP Morgan (JPM)
Apple (AAPL)
Google (GOOG)
General Motors (GM)
Freeport McMoRan (FCX)
Corn (CORN)
Russell 2000 (IWM)
S&P 500 (SPY)

Shorts

Euro (FXE), (EUO)
Yen (FXE), (YCS)

S&P 500 Future

S&P Weekly

RSX 8-8-14

GM 8-8-14

IBM 8-8-14

Bullets

Gun-Ammunition-War RoomNo, Not This Time

The Reception That the Stars Fell Upon

My friend was having a hard time finding someone to attend a reception who was knowledgeable about financial markets, White House intrigue, international politics, and nuclear weapons.

I asked who was coming. She said Reagan?s Treasury Secretary, George Shultz, Clinton?s Defense Secretary, William Perry, and Senate Armed Services Chairman, Sam Nunn. I said I?d be there wearing my darkest suit, cleanest shirt, and would be on my best behavior, to boot.

When I arrived at San Francisco?s Mark Hopkins Hotel, I was expecting the usual mob scene. I was shocked when I saw the three senior statesmen making small talk with their wives and a handful of others.

It was a rare opportunity to grill high-level officials on a range of top secret issues that I would have killed for during my days as a journalist for The Economist magazine. I guess arms control is not exactly a hot button issue these days. I moved in for the kill.

I have known George Shultz for decades, back when he was the CEO of the San Francisco based heavy engineering company, Bechtel Corp. I saluted him as ?Captain Schultz?, his WWII Marine Corp rank, which has been our inside joke for years. Since the Marine Corps didn?t know what to do with a PhD in economics from MIT, they put him in charge of an anti-aircraft unit in the South Pacific, as he already was familiar with ballistics, trajectories, and apogees.

I asked him why Reagan was so obsessed with Nicaragua, and if he really believed that if we didn?t fight them there, we would be fighting them in the streets of Los Angeles. He replied that the socialist regime had granted the Soviets bases for listening posts that would be used to monitor US West Coast military movements in exchange for free arms supplies. Closing those bases was the true motivation for the entire Nicaragua policy. To his credit, George was the only senior official to threaten resignation when he learned of the Iran-contra scandal.

I asked his reaction when he met Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986 when he proposed total nuclear disarmament. Shultz said he knew the breakthrough was coming because the KGB analyzed a Reagan speech in which he had made just such a proposal.

Reagan had in fact pursued this as a lifetime goal, wanting to return the world to the pre nuclear age he knew in the 1930?s, although he never mentioned this in any election campaign. As a result of the Reykjavik Treaty, the number of nuclear warheads in the world has dropped from 70,000 to under 10,000. The Soviets then sold their excess plutonium to the US, which today generates 10% of the total US electric power generation.

Shultz argued that nuclear weapons were not all they were cracked up to be. Despite the US being armed to the teeth, they did nothing to stop the invasions of Korea, Hungary, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.

I had not met Bob Perry since the late nineties when I bumped into his delegation at Tokyo?s Okura Hotel during defense negotiations with the Japanese. He told me that the world was far closer to an accidental Armageddon than people realized.

Twice during his term as Defense Secretary he was awoken in the middle of the night by officers at the NORAD early warning system to be told that there were 200 nuclear missiles inbound from the Soviet Union. He was given five minutes to recommend to the president to launch a counterstrike. Four minutes later, they called back to tell him that there were no missiles, that it was just a computer glitch.

When the US bombed Belgrade in 1999, Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, in a drunken rage, ordered a full-scale nuclear alert, which would have triggered an immediate American counter response. Fortunately, his generals ignored him.

Perry said the only reason that Israel hadn?t attacked Iran yet, was because the US was making aggressive efforts to collapse the economy there with its oil embargo. Enlisting the aid of Russia and China was key, but difficult since Iran is a major weapons buyer from these two countries. His argument was that the economic shock that a serious crisis would bring would damage their economies more than any benefits they could hope to gain from their existing Iranian trade.

I told Perry that I doubted Iran had the depth of engineering talent needed to run a nuclear program of any substance. He said that aid from North Korea and past contributions from the AQ Khan network in Pakistan had helped them address this shortfall.

Ever in search of the profitable trade, I asked Perry if there was an opportunity in the nuclear plays, like the Market Vectors Uranium and Nuclear Energy ETF (NLR) and Cameco Corp. (CCJ) that have been severely beaten down by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. He said there definitely was. In fact, he personally was going to lead efforts to restart the moribund US nuclear industry. The key here is to promote 5th generation technology that uses small, modular designs, and alternative low risk fuels like thorium.

I had never met Senator Sam Nunn and had long been an antagonist, as he played a major role in ramping up the Vietnam War. Thanks to his efforts, the Air Force, at great expense, now has more C-130 Hercules transport planes that it could ever fly because they were assembled in his home state of Georgia. Still, I tried to be diplomatic.

Nunn believes that the most likely nuclear war will occur between India and Pakistan. Islamic terrorists are planning another attack on Mumbai. This time India will retaliate by invading Pakistan. The Pakistanis plan on wiping out this army by dropping an atomic bomb on their own territory, not expecting retaliation in kind. But India will escalate and go nuclear too. Over 100 million would die from the initial exchange. But when you add in unforeseen factors, like the broader environmental effects and crop failures (CORN), (WEAT), (SOYB), (DBA), that number could rise to 1-2 billion. This could happen as early as this year.

Nunn applauded current administration efforts to cripple the Iranian economy, which has caused their currency to fall 70% in the past six months. The strategy should be continued, even if innocents are hurt. He argued that further arms control talks with the Russians could be tough. They value these weapons more than we do, because that?s all they have left. Nunn delivered a stunner in telling me that Warren Buffet had contributed $50 million of his own money to enhance security at nuclear power plants in emerging markets. I hadn?t heard that.

As the event drew to a close, I returned to Secretary Shultz to grill him some more about the details of the Reykjavik conference held some 26 years ago. He responded with incredible detail about names, numbers, and negotiating postures. I then asked him how old he was. He said he was 92. I responded ?I want to be like you when I grow up?. He answered that I was ?a promising young man.? It was the best 62nd birthday gift I could have received.

NLR 3-20-14

CCJ 3-20-14

CORN 3-20-14

George Shultz

Sam Nunn

Atomic-Bomb-Nuclear-Explosion-WorldOops, Wrong Number

Population Bomb Echoes

Pack your portfolios with agricultural plays like Potash (POT), Mosaic (MOS), and Agrium (AGU) if Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich is just partially right about the impending collapse of the world?s food supply. You might even throw in long positions in wheat (WEAT), corn (CORN), soybeans (SOYB), and rice.

The never dull, and often controversial Stanford biology professor told me he expects that global warming is leading to significant changes in world weather patterns that will cause droughts in some of the largest food producing areas, causing massive famines. Food prices will skyrocket, and billions could die.

At greatest risk are the big rice producing areas in South Asia, which depend on glacial run off from the Himalayas. If the glaciers melt, this crucial supply of fresh water will disappear. California faces a similar problem if the Sierra snowpack fails to show up in sufficient quantities, as it has done in two of the last three years.

Rising sea levels displacing 500 million people in low-lying coastal areas is another big problem. One of the 81-year-old professor?s early books The Population Bomb was required reading for me in college in the 1960?s, and I used to drive up from Los Angeles to Palo Alto just to hear his lectures (followed by the obligatory side trip to the Haight-Ashbury).

Other big risks to the economy are the threat of a third world nuclear war caused by population pressures, and global insect plagues facilitated by a widespread growth of intercontinental transportation and globalization. And I won?t get into the threat of a giant solar flare frying our electrical grid. That is already well covered on the Internet.

?Super consumption? in the US needs to be reined in where the population is growing the fastest. If the world adopts an American standard of living, we need four more Earths to supply the needed natural resources. We must raise the price of all forms of carbon, preferably through taxes, but cap and trade will work too. Population control is the answer to all of these problems, which is best achieved by giving women educations, jobs, and rights, has already worked well in Europe and Japan, and is now unfolding in Latin America.

All sobering food for thought. I think I?ll skip that Big Mac for lunch.

Wheat Yields Chart

RJA 9-4-13

POT 9-4-13

CORN 9-4-13

Crowd - Overcrowding Is There Room for Me?

Paul R. Ehrlich

A Perfect Storm Hits the Grain Trade

Grain traders have suffered a terrible 2013, a perfect storm of great news for farmers and terrible news for prices. But while farmers can make up for low prices with higher production, no such convenience exists for grain traders.

In January, right out of the gate, the USDA predicted that the US would produce the largest corn crop in history, or some 96 million bushels. That would be the largest since 1936. It now appears that this could be a low-ball figure.

Some private estimated see the total reaching 100 million bushels before the crying is over. Some 63% of the corn crop is now rated good/excellent, well above the five-year average of 58%, and trending northward.

Geopolitics has also conspired to drive prices southward. Egypt, with its burgeoning 83 million population, with a single river (the Nile) and a bleak desert to support it, is far and away the world?s largest wheat importer. A recent coup d??tat on the heels on an economic collapse promises to remove it from the marketplace soon. Buyers without cash are not buyers at all, no matter how dire the need. Only food aid from the US government or the United Nations can step in at this stage to head off mass starvation.

As if the news were not bad enough, the Russian cartel that controls two thirds of the world?s $22 billion a year potash supply, a crucial fertilizer used globally, collapsed last week over a price dispute. Known to chemists like me as Potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, or potassium chloride, this compound is a key factor in strengthening roots during the growing cycle. One analyst said that the breakup of the cartel is akin to ?Saudi Arabia dropping out of OPEC.?

The move promises to take potash prices down from the 2008 peak of $1,000/tonne to $300 by yearend. Potash stocks crashed worldwide, with lead firm Potash (OT) diving 30%. Agrium (AGU) was down by 15%.

This will enable farmers to buy more fertilizer at cheaper prices next year, driving down the prices on far month futures contracts today. Too bad the Canadian government didn?t allow the sale of Potash (POT) to China go through on national security grounds. The shareholders must be kicking themselves.

The move promises to demolish the entire grade trade for this year. Not only has the Potash industry been hurt, so have agricultural equipment manufacturers, like Deere (DE) and Caterpillar (CAT) and the Powershares Multisector Agricultural Commodity Fund ETF (DBA).

Long gone are the heady days of last year, when scorching temperatures induced by global warming caused grain prices to nearly double. Some nine out of the ten last years have been the hottest in recorded history. Global warming denier-in-chief, Texas governor Rick Perry, saw his state suffer 100 consecutive days of over 100 degree temperature.

For me, these developments put the grain trade off limits for the foreseeable future. The only kind thing to be said here is that this will eventually lead to a final bottom that we can eventually trade off of. That would set up a killer position for the nimble if hot weather returns in 2014.

POT 8-2-13

AGU 8-2-13

CORN 8-2-13

DBA 8-2-13

CAT 8-2-13

Potash Crystals Potash Crystals

Mob Scene I Don?t See Any Grain Buyers Here

The Bottom is in for the Ags

Take a look at the drought monitor below, and you?ll see that it looks exactly like the one we saw a year ago. Yes, that?s the one right before we saw prices double for corn (CORN) and most other agricultural products.

The global warming trade may be about to return with a vengeance. If the weather so far this year is any indication, the trading pits in Chicago could break out in riots at any time. This winter, hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, tornadoes decimated Kansas, and California suffered its driest winter in 20 years. Water rationing on the west coast is now almost a certainty. Extreme weather is breaking out everywhere.

Regular readers are well aware of my predictions of major global food shortages in the years ahead (click here for ?Is Food the New Distressed Asset??).

The basic problem is that the world is making people faster than the food to feed them. Rising emerging market standards of living are increasing their food consumption at the expense of poorer countries.? If everyone in China eats one extra egg a day, the entire continent of Africa has to starve.

The global population is expected to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion over the next 40 years, and half of that increase will occur in countries that can?t feed themselves today, largely in the Middle East.

Global fresh water supplies are shrinking fast. Throw global warming into the mix, and a crisis will unfold sooner than later. These are all arguments to use a major dips in the food ETF?s, (CORN), (SOYB), (DBA), and (WEAT), to pick up long positions. And we have just witnessed a nine month long sell off in the sector. In addition, my technical trading pro, Jim Parker, The Mad Day Trader, loves the charts. It?s time to go shopping in the cereal section of your local stock exchange.

US Drought Monitor

CORN 5-29-13

CORN a 5-29-13

CN13 5-29-13

Popcorn Time to Go Long Corn

The Corn Crash Continues

Pit traders of the ags are bruised, battered, and broken, in the wake of Thursday?s US Department of Agriculture crop report showing that there is a whole lot more food out there than anyone imagined possible.

Corn was the real shocker. It has long been a nostrum in the ag markets that high prices cure high prices, and that is exactly what is happening now. In the wake of last summer?s spectacular drought induced shortages, which saw corn prices nearly double, farmers rushed to expanding plantings in 2013. The government expects that some 97.3 million acres will be sown this year, the most since the Dust Bowl days of 1936.

The government agency boosted estimates of stockpiles nearly 10%, from 5 to 5.4 billion bushels. Demand from ethanol makers has collapsed as they have priced themselves out of the market, leading to the closure of nearly 10% of the country?s fermenting facilities. Purchases by ranchers as feedstuff for cattle have been weak. These are enormous upward revisions. Prices took a 10%, limit move down on Friday, and are taking another dive today.

Even though the numbers were not as dramatic for the other grains, their prices suffered as well. Some of the new corn is being grown at the expense of soybeans, which saw a small decline in plantings. But prices took a dump anyway. Wheat (WEAT) has amazingly dropped below the summer, 2012 lows. The ag ETF (DBA), which includes the machinery and fertilizer companies, has performed the worst of all, and is threatening a new three year low. Virtually the entire 2012 ag bubble has been given back.

The long term bull case for food could not be more compelling (click here for ?Is Food the New Distressed Asset??). The world is producing people faster than the food to feed them. The global population is expected to rise from 7 to 9 billion by 2050. Half of that increase will happen in countries that are unable to feed themselves, like the Middle East.

Food consumption in the US isn?t dropping anytime soon. According to Yahoo data, ?Plus sized swimsuits? searches were up 530% in March.

There is also a huge emerging market play here. Rising standards of living mean better diets. Better food requires more calories and water to grow. To raise one pound of beef, you need 2,200 gallons of fresh water. It is true that if everyone in China eats one extra egg a day, the entire continent of Africa has to starve.

I have been ignoring the ags since last summer, when, if you didn?t get in during the first week, you missed the entire drought play. Since then I dipped in on the short side in corn, playing the slow unwinding of the price bubble.

With this collapse, the long side is now, at last, back on the table. Let the current selloff shake itself out. Then, take a look at some long plays in case the global warming trade returns this summer. Nine of the ten past years have been the hottest in history. Why should this year be any different? If Texas governor, Rick Perry, says something isn?t happening with the environment, you can pretty much count that it is.

If you have any doubts, take a look at the latest drought monitor map below, which shows long-term arid conditions persisting in most of the Midwest.

CORN 4-1-13

WEAT 4-1-13

DBA 4-1-13

US Drought Monitor

The Great Ethanol Boondoggle

One of my biggest disappointments with the Obama administration so far is his continued support of the ethanol boondoggle. The program was ramped up by the Bush administration to achieve energy independence by subsidizing the production of alcohol from domestically grown corn. Add clean burning moonshine (yes, it’s the same alcohol – C2H5OH), whose combustion products are carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), to gasoline and emissions also go down.

The irony is that if you include all the upstream and downstream inputs, the process consumes far more energy than it produces. It also demands massive quantities of fresh water, which someday will become more valuable than the oil the ethanol is supposed to replace, turning it into toxic waste.

Few consumers are aware of how big the ethanol industry has grown in such a short period. Ethanol consumption of corn has soared from 1.6 billion bushels in 2006 to an anticipated 4.3 billion bushels this year. Ethanol’s share of our total corn crop has skyrocketed from 14% to nearly 40% during the same period. Corn grown for ethanol now occupies 10% of the total arable land in the US.

Ethanol’s impact on food prices has been huge. It is the sole reason why corn is trading at the $7 handle, instead of $3. You also have to add in the inflationary effects on downstream grain consumers, like the food manufacturers and the cattle industry. While spendthrift, obese Americans burn food so they can drive chrome wheeled black Hummers to Wal-Mart, much of Africa and Asia starve. A global food crisis is not that far off.

This ignores the reality that Brazil, the world’s largest ethanol producer, can ferment all the ethanol it wants at one third our cost because they make it from much more efficient sugarcane, which has five times the caloric content of corn. They also have ideal weather. However, protective import quotas and tariffs prevent meaningful quantities of foreign ethanol imports.

Bush financed all of this wasteful pork, because Iowa has an early primary, giving it an outsized influence in selecting presidential candidates, and has two crucial Senate seats as well. Well, it turns out that Obama needs Iowa even more than Bush, where the Democrats are ahead 3-2 in the House, and have a tie in the Senate (1-1), so the ethanol program not only lives on, it is prospering.

Ethanol has become such of big industry that it now commands a fairly large footprint in Washington, fielding armies of lobbyists to keep the subsidies and tax breaks flowing from the appropriate agricultural committees. The problem for the rest of this is that once these lobbies become entrenched they are almost impossible to get rid of. Think of an advanced case of scabies. Remember the tobacco lobby?

Better to drink ethanol than burn it, I say.

CORN 3-1-13

Ethanol Formula

CORN2-1

Corn Crop-Ethanol Production

 

 

The ?Population Bomb? Echoes

Pack your portfolios with agricultural plays like Potash (POT), Mosaic (MOS), and Agrium (AGU) if Dr. Paul Ehrlich is just partially right about the impending collapse of the world’s food supply. You might even throw in long positions in wheat (WEAT), corn (CORN), soybeans (SOYB), and rice.

The never dull, and often controversial Stanford biology professor told me he expects that global warming is leading to significant changes in world weather patterns that will cause droughts in some of the largest food producing areas, causing massive famines. Food prices will skyrocket, and billions could die.

At greatest risk are the big rice producing areas in South Asia, which depend on glacial run off from the Himalayas. If the glaciers melt, this crucial supply of fresh water will disappear. California faces a similar problem if the Sierra snowpack fails to show up in sufficient quantities, as it did last year.

Rising sea levels displacing 500 million people in low-lying coastal areas is another big problem. One of the 80-year-old professor’s early books The Population Bomb was required reading for me in college in the 1960?s, and I used to drive up from Los Angeles to Palo Alto just to hear his lectures (followed by the obligatory side trip to the Haight-Ashbury).

Other big risks to the economy are the threat of a third world nuclear war caused by population pressures, and global insect plagues facilitated by a widespread growth of intercontinental transportation and globalization. And I won’t get into the threat of a giant solar flare frying our electrical grid.

?Super consumption? in the US needs to be reined in where the population is growing the fastest. If the world adopts an American standard of living, we need four more Earths to supply the needed natural resources. We must raise the price of all forms of carbon, preferably through taxes, but cap and trade will work too. Population control is the answer to all of these problems, which is best achieved by giving women educations, jobs, and rights, and has already worked well in Europe and Japan.

All sobering food for thought. I think I?ll skip that Big Mac for lunch.

RJA 2-21-13

POT 2-21-13

CORN 2-21-13

Paul Erlich