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Ukraine crisis could mean higher meat prices in the US

Corn and wheat futures have surged in the past week, as a confluence of factors, including the crisis in Ukraine, have led traders to bid up the contracts.

The bad news for U.S. consumers is that food prices could soon surge alongside them. And since meat prices are especially sensitive to price changes in grains, that could be where companies and consumers feel the impact most sharply.

Corn futures for May delivery hit a six-month high on Wednesday before retreating. Similarly, wheat futures slipped on Wednesday but stayed near three-month highs. So while prices have calmed alongside the situation in Ukraine, the Russian presence in Crimea has appeared to keep a bid under the prices for these two Ukrainian exports.

The strength is "a combination of the Ukraine situation, which is worrisome, and the massive amounts of fund money looking for the home of highest net return," said Jim Bower, the president of commodity trading company Bower Trading.

"Funds are making a big push into commodities here, especially wheat. Funds were heavily short, and they decided, 'Maybe we don't need that position anymore.' That forced them to short cover. And now they may start to go long."

(Read more: Dennis Gartman: If you buy one thing, buy this)

Ukraine is the world's sixth-largest wheat exporter, and fourth-largest corn exporter. So far, shipments have not been disrupted. But the concern is that if the situation deteriorates, they will be.

"Ukraine is a major exporter, and Russia-Ukraine is one of just four or three exporting regions in the world," said Jonathan Feeney, food and beverage analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott. "When any of those regions feels political tension, and perhaps an inability to complete foreign trade, the market's going to feel it."

If the recent rise is sustained, Feeney expects to see it reflected in food costs in about six months' time.

"Between hedging and the time it takes to source, six months is a good estimate," Feeney said. "Of course, you have to see what the weighted average is going to be over the next to two to three months. I don't think [food companies] yet have the cover to say, 'OK, let's take the price increase to retail. So we'll wait and see.' "

(Read more: Ukraine turmoil: Is this the worst-hit commodity?)

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Feeney says food products that are essentially commodities (in other words, easily substituted by products from other companies) will feel the impact most sharply.

"You should expect to see it in fresh items and meats," Feeney said. "But meat prices are relatively high already. So it will be up to the consumer and how they react. Food processors, or even retailers, could wind up absorbing the cost of this."

Rich Ilczyszyn says that when demand rises, meat prices could move much higher due to all the cost and supply issues.

"The weather has already hampered livestock, and led to an early slaughter," said Ilczyszyn, senior commodities broker at iiTrader. "The higher that goes, the more animals are going to cost, and that cost is directly passed on to you, the consumer. You'll see it when you set up the barbecue in the summer."

Still, it could be easy to overstate the impact of Ukraine on food prices. While Chip Flory, the editor and publisher of Pro Farmer Newsletter, says that the Ukraine situation "got the ball rolling" on the move up in grain futures, he adds that "we need to keep it in perspective."

"We use more corn in Iowa than Ukraine ships," Flory pointed out.


—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg. Follow him on Twitter: @CNBCAlex.

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