Nothing about foreign trade is easy. Beyond the logistics of getting a commodity such as wheat from the farm to a customer on the other side the globe are countless factors that impact prices.
The current crisis in Ukraine is a case in point. Russia has coaxed Crimea, a region of Ukraine, to ally itself with the Kremlin. The result has been a power struggle involving Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the U.S.
In the middle are U.S. farmers, who stand to benefit — or lose — depending on how the many factors line up. Here’s a look at some of those factors.
As a major exporter of wheat, barley and corn, Ukraine could impact world grain markets in a big way. Though contracted shipments of wheat from Ukraine have continued, the nation did not make a tender on the latest purchase of wheat by Egypt. This has analysts wondering whether Ukraine, whose grain typically adds up to 6 percent of the world export market, will continue to be a major player. If it pulls back, thus tightening world supplies, prices would increase, as they have in recent weeks. That, in turn, could encourage Ukrainian farmers to hold onto more of their grain, reducing the world supply further and putting even more upward pressure on prices.
Another factor is the value of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, which is worth slightly less than 10 cents, a five-year low compared to the U.S. dollar, according to the Financial Times. This could make Ukrainian grain, already a low-cost alternative to U.S. and Canadian wheat, barley and corn, even cheaper on the world market. At the same time, some farmers may hang onto their crop as a hedge against the wobbly currency.
A further impact is that some banks are not lending to farmers for fertilizer and planting expenses, according to the Reuters news service, which predicts this alone could cause Ukraine’s corn crop to shrink by as much as one-third.
Still another factor is Russia’s political and economic morass. Besides precipitating a full-blown international crisis in Crimea, Russia has a problem: the ruble. Its value compared to the U.S. dollar is at an all-time low, about 3 cents. That makes any goods or livestock imported from the U.S. more expensive. Russia has been building its beef herd through imports of cattle from the U.S.
Meanwhile, Russian farmers have been exporting wheat to markets such as Egypt to take advantage of the devalued ruble, according to the Moscow Times.
Yet another wild card involves the European Union and the U.S. and whether they will impose more economic sanctions on Russia. President Barack Obama at first targeted individual Russians with sanctions, freezing their foreign assets, but last week he included a Russian bank and threatened to target “key sectors” of that nation’s economy. If that includes agriculture, all bets are off.
A further concern is how U.S. sanctions against Russia could impact natural gas prices. Russia supplies 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas. If Russia were to stop deliveries in retaliation for sanctions, natural gas prices would spike, driving up the price of fertilizers made from natural gas.
And don’t forget the weather, which no one controls. A dry year in Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. — or anywhere else, for that matter — could have a bigger impact on prices than all of the other political and economic factors combined.