Heavy flooding in the Midwest has sent corn prices soaring to record highs -- that much is clear. But what the effects will be in grocery stores and on dinner tables is far from obvious.
The torrential rains have left plantings down and projected U.S. production is set to fall 10% this growing season vs. last year, according to the most recent data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on June 10. As a result, prices for September-dated corn contracts have zoomed to $7.22 a bushel recently, up from around $6 at the end of June.
That may be as far as it goes.
Don Roose, president of West Des Moines, Iowa-based U.S. Commodities, says he doesn't see the price going a whole lot higher.
"I think something sub-$8 a bushel" will be the top, he says.
So, how does the price not continue its upward trajectory when U.S. consumption of the grain for ethanol has been expected to balloon?
Roose sees the high prices actually doing what they are supposed to do: restricting demand.
"That's the job of the market; to go high enough so that someone starts to slow down," he says.
Although he can't say for sure, Roose thinks it's probable that ethanol production won't grow as much as previously predicted, consumption of the grain by domestic livestock such as cattle and chickens will be more subdued and exports probably won't be as aggressive as they have been in prior years.
On top of that, the projected shortfall is likely to be somewhat offset by higher harvests abroad such as in Russia and Europe, explains Jerry Norton, grains economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Still, corn prices are higher than they were a few weeks ago, and that means ordinary Americans are likely to feel greater pressure than they already do from food-price inflation.
The effect on consumers depends where in the product chain the food is, says Georges Yared, chief investment strategist of Yared Investment Research. Relatively unprocessed food items could see hefty hikes in addition to those seen recently.
Yared recounts a recent trip to Costco Wholesale (COST) where he found the price of dry dog food, which contains lots of grains, had jumped 50% in the space of a year. He says there had been no change in markup by the retailer -- the entire price increase was propelled by rising food costs.
For more-processed food and beverage items, he says the increases won't be so dramatic.
The grain ingredients for cornbread, for instance, are a tiny part of the overall cost. Much of what goes into making bread -- corn or wheat flour bread -- is labor and energy for distribution and baking, as well as the cost of packaging and marketing.
Likewise, soft-drink makers such as Pepsi (PEP), Coke (KO) and Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) might feel a small pinch from the rising price of corn syrup -- but that doesn't necessarily mean a direct or one-for-one increase in prices of sodas on the store shelf.
And then, there's red meat.
Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research, says the impact on beef prices could be substantial -- but again, its impact won't necessarily be uniform. Corn is fed to beef cattle, and the increasing costs will certainly filter through to the final cost.
At the top end, that may not matter much.
The big question, he says, is how much business at any particular steakhouse comes from corporate buyers, who are typically price insensitive, vs. regular people looking for a decent meal. The latter may be looking to cut back a little, says Roberts.
Depending on the reaction of steak lovers to price increases, some restaurants may start to offer consumers smaller steaks.
One huge factor in how price increases show up will be how willing retailers are to defend their margins.
And at this point, it's basically "pure speculation" to try to figure that out, says Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at Merk Investments in Palo Alto.