Futures & Commodities

A risk to cocoa that's not priced into the market

Sixty percent of the world's cocoa could be cut off if the deadly Ebola epidemic afflicting Liberia and Guinea were to get spread to Ivory Coast—but the price of the commodity indicates that traders aren't worried about supplies.

Employees of a cocoa export company pile up sacks in a packaging factory in the Ivory Coast.
Sia Kambou | AFP | Getty Images

There have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Ghana or Ivory Coast, the world's two leading producers of cocoa, and the countries' governments are taking the public health threat seriously. Ivory Coast shut down its land borders with Liberia and Guinea in August in order to stem the spread of the disease.

First and foremost, Ebola is a serious health threat that endangers lives, not just livelihoods. But the disease is also a potential risk for cocoa production. If the deadly disease were to spread to Ivory Coast, it could easily cross through the relatively porous border into Ghana, and that would effectively cut off the world's two largest cocoa suppliers—at 38 percent and 21 percent of the global market, respectively.

"My fear is if there were an outbreak in a cocoa-producing region, you would have to suspend all purchases," Edward George, head of group research at pan-African bank Ecobank, told CNBC. "It is absolutely conceivable that you could see an utterly dramatic, unprecedented increase in prices—it would be a nightmare scenario."

In a worst-case scenario for the commodity, the cost of cocoa—which has risen steadily since 2011 and now stands at about $3,153 per metric ton, according to FactSet—could more than double, he said.

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Still, the price of cocoa is right around where it should normally be without the threat of Ebola, George said. Traders are currently more focused on reading the data on the new cocoa crop than on any Ebola-related risks on the horizon, he explained.

Plus, "no one wants to talk about it, because they don't want to start a panic," so the worries are not really getting priced into the market, he said.

Jonathan Parkman, head of agriculture at broker Marex Spectron, told CNBC last week that he actually expects cocoa prices to fall somewhat, despite the threat of Ebola.

"In the short term, Ebola could easily create difficulty in the evacuation of cocoa," he admitted, adding that his firm does not expect any trouble despite the "porous" border.

Cocoa price has peaked despite Ebola: Pro
Cocoa price has peaked despite Ebola: Pro

One of the major reasons an Ebola outbreak would be so devastating in the cocoa regions of Ivory Coast and Ghana is because there are no major producers that could institute a lockdown on movement into and out of its operations across the board. Rather, production is spread out across millions of small farms, and the crop is transported by local motorists, who could be "key vectors" for the disease, George explained.

Ivory Coast's decision to close its land borders could have a major economic effect of its own—the country conducts about 40 percent of its trade inter-regionally, so a major segment of its economic activity has been cut off, George said.

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As for Ghana, its 2009-2010 cocoa production alone accounted for about $1.6 billion in foreign exchange, according to the World Bank, which wrote that it has "long played a crucial role in Ghana's economic development." So any actions to seal borders would see major economic impact.

Beyond their proximity to affected regions, the Ivory Coast and Ghana have also previously seen evidence of animal Ebola infections, according to a new study from eLife.

While the virus has only been found once—in a chimpanzee—in the Ivory Coast, Ghana saw several infected bats in 2007 and 2008.

—By CNBC's Everett Rosenfeld