Apr 28, 2021 - Economy

Pop in corn prices could signal more cost spikes ahead

Illustration of an ear of corn with hundred dollar bills as the husk.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The price of corn is surging at a record pace. Prices have risen by 16% so far this month, the largest monthly gain since May 2019, and have risen every month since July, unleashing a 43.7% gain so far this year, per FactSet.

Why it matters: As commodities like lumber and copper see prices sky higher and global food prices continue to soar, the price of corn is especially important because it is a major input for everything from gasoline to meat to industrial products like wallboard and insulation used in houses.

What's happening: While economists aren't yet ready to declare an "agricultural supercycle," (akin to the commodities supercycle seen in the early 2000s) the huge gains in ag products are largely a result of unprecedented demand from China where pig herds have been decimated by an outbreak of swine fever.

  • Major corn and soy producers like Brazil and Argentina have been experiencing labor shortages as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and unseasonably bad weather has hurt crop yields, resulting in a shortage of supply at precisely the same time as the spike in demand.

The big picture: If American crops aren't able to fill the void, prices could well jump further out of control, Shelby Myers, an economist at the American Farm Bureau, tells Axios.

  • U.S. farmers are in a prime position to benefit from the situation but cold weather in the Midwest that has been followed by drought conditions is making planting an uncertain proposition.

Yes, but: "Right now what we’re seeing is just a market reaction," Myers says.

  • "Farms are at the beginning of the cycle, so the further down you get through the food supply chain other parties will have to adjust... [Price increases are] not necessarily something that will be seen immediately."

Yes, but, but: The market is clearly reacting and so are consumers. Ten-year inflation expectations rose above 2.4% Tuesday, the highest since April 2013.

  • Treasury yields also rose across the curve, with the benchmark 10-year rate climbing to 1.63%, reversing a trend of consolidation seen in recent weeks.

Further, the list of companies that are raising prices as a result of higher commodity costs continues to grow.

  • Both Hasbro and Mattel warned Tuesday that they may raise prices for toys and games as a result of higher costs for resin packaging material plus increased ocean freight costs amid the global shipping bottleneck, as Axios' Kate Marino reported.

The bottom line: "In short," Myers says "there’s just a lot of uncertainty and it’s only April."

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

What to watch: Things also could improve for farmers despite the bad weather so far this year. As of this week, Myers says that only about 17% of this year's corn crop has been planted, 12% of the cotton crop, 8% of soybeans and 28% of spring wheat.

  • "The neat thing about our economic food system is we can shift and stabilize to prevent giant spikes in food prices," she says.
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