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Friday, May 16, 2008

It Is The Bio-Fuel Policy Stupid!

(coutesy of John Mauldin)

There are three food staples in the world today which dwarf all other food ingredients in terms of importance. They are (in alphabetical order) corn, rice and wheat. They have all experienced rapid price appreciation since last summer. What is it that has driven this price explosion and what does it mean to financial markets? As with most things in life, there is no simple explanation; a number of factors have conspired to create a situation which is exceptional but also destabilising and hence dangerous.

The explanation given by most commentators is the bio-fuel policy currently being pursued by the Bush administration in Washington. The policy is driven by a desire to unlock the United States from its rising dependence on imported crude oil. The problem, as Bush and his government have been slow to recognise, is the stupidity of the policy in its current form. Let's back that claim up with some hard facts.

In the United States, corn (better known as maize over there) is the primary ingredient in ethanol production although wheat and soybeans are also used. According to a recent UN report, it takes 232 kg of corn to fill an average 50 litre car tank with ethanol - enough corn to feed a child for an entire year. It is estimated that almost 20% of total US corn production will go towards ethanol this year and the number is set to rise to 45% by 2015.

The problem with corn is that it is low on carbon hydrates, which is where the energy comes from. Instead, American ethanol producers rely heavily on fertilisers with the energy being extracted from the nitrogen in the fertiliser. This is an inefficient and very costly approach - in particular in an environment of rising energy prices because crude oil and/or natural gas are major ingredients in fertiliser production. 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas are required to produce just 1 ton of ammonia!

So what does all this mean? According to estimates from Goldman Sachs, the cost of ethanol from corn is now over $80 per barrel, it is about $145 from wheat and over $230 from soybeans. Other countries recognised this problem a long time ago and use crops with higher carbon hydrate content. In the Philippines they use coconut oil and the Brazilians use sugar cane. Goldman reckons that the cost of one barrel of ethanol based on sugar cane is about $35. So why not import sugar cane from Brazil instead of using corn? One simple answer: Brazilian farmers do not vote at American elections. Idaho farmers do.