“We know that the current global environment is creating challenges for many of the traditional users of our markets, and we are very concerned,” said David D. Lehman, director of commodity research and product development for the C.B.O.T.’s owner, the CME Group. “But there are a lot of things that are changing and there is no silver bullet, in terms of a solution.”
Many in the farm community blame the faulty futures contract and rising volatility on the tidal wave of investment pouring in from hedge funds, pension funds and index funds. But those institutional investors’ money actually adds liquidity to the market, which in theory should reduce price volatility, Mr. Lehman noted.
In any case, at current levels of volatility, options trading becomes riskier, and therefore more expensive — too expensive for many farmers like Mr. Grieder, who now has to hedge with the less reliable futures contracts.
That exposes him to the risk of having to put up more cash — to maintain his price protection — whenever a weather threat, shipping disruption or a fresh surge of money from Wall Street suddenly pushes up grain prices.
“If you’ve got 50,000 bushels hedged and the market moves up 20 cents, that would be a $10,000 day,” he said. “If you only had $10,000 in your margin account, you’d have to sit down and write a check. You can see $10,000 disappear overnight.”
On an unusual day, he said, he might get four phone calls a day from his broker seeking additional margin. “But usually, the margin calls come in the mail, in a little blue envelope,” he said. “You don’t have to open it to know what it is.”
When it arrives, he sometimes has to rely on his bank to advance him the margin he needs to keep those hedges in place — a worrisome requirement even for a successful farmer in an economy already beset by a credit squeeze.
“The nightmare scenario is when you have to make margin and you’re looking out your back door and seeing, maybe, a crop problem,” he said. “Everybody has a story about a guy they know getting blown out of his hedge” by unmet margin calls.
Farmers used to leave the market-watching to traders who work for big grain elevator companies. But with some of those companies now refusing to buy crops in advance because hedging has become so expensive and uncertain, farmers have to follow and trade in those markets themselves.
“This is something the farmer didn’t have to worry about before,” said Curt Kimmel, a commodity broker at Bates Commodities, the advisory service Mr. Grieder uses. “It’s a cruel and unforgiving market.”
John Fletcher, a grain elevator operator in Marshall, Mo., started pressing the C.B.O.T. to address the futures contract’s flaws almost two years ago — even before his futures hedge on a million bushels of soybeans failed to fully protect him last September, hitting him with a cash loss of $940,000.
Mr. Fletcher does not blame the big institutional investors stampeding into the market. “But they have contributed to the problem by making these markets so much larger — so large that they have outgrown their delivery system,” he said. “And that has detached the futures market from the cash market.”
Frustrated over the flawed futures contract, Mr. Fletcher is voting with his feet. Last year, he entered into a contract with A.I.G. Financial Products, a leading sponsor of commodity index funds, which allows him and the index fund to hedge their risks without using the C.B.O.T.
Instead of using futures or options, A.I.G. simply buys the commodity directly from Mr. Fletcher, who stores it for a fee and buys it back six months later. His storage fee is lower than the one built into the C.B.O.T. contract, so A.I.G. pays less for its stake in the market. And he has a hedge he can rely on.
“I did a deal with them for corn a year ago, and this year I’m doing a deal on soybeans,” he said.
But private deals like these do not provide pricing data to other farmers and to the rest of the food industry that has long relied on the Chicago Board of Trade as the best measure of supply and demand. If such bilateral contracts become more common, it will be harder for everyone in the industry to anticipate costs and potential profits — which could also push prices up.
This growing uncertainty about prices and hedging “just makes the market less efficient. And anything that makes these markets less efficient increases the cost of food,” said Jeffrey Hainline, president of Advance Trading, an agricultural advisory and brokerage service in Bloomington, Ill.
Robert E. Young 2d, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, has held meetings on this topic around the Farm Belt over the last month and has gotten an earful from distressed food producers and elevator owners, he said.
“I tell people, ‘You are not going to market the 2009 crop the way you marketed the 2007 crop,” he said. “You may never market grain that way again.’ ”