Agriculture is caught in the web of uncertainty being created by the financial crisis of 2008, says a Purdue University expert, and the cattle industry is no exception as both domestic and foreign demand is related to consumer incomes.

“The direction that cattle prices go depends on where the U.S. and world economies go,” says Chris Hurt, Purdue Extension ag economist. “As a consequence, beef supply fundamentals seem less important to prices, at least for now.”

The stock market, as measured by the S&P 500 index, was down 23% from Sept. 26 to Oct. 17. Hurt says the impact on the cattle market was robust as well, with December live cattle futures falling 10% and the price of finished cattle falling $8.50/live cwt.

The cattle industry’s recent financial losses were particularly large for feedlots that didn’t have finished cattle forward sold, especially those that purchased high-priced calves and feed this past summer. The most likely group in this category is small farmer feedlots, as many large commercial feedlots have a greater tendency to have cattle forward sold.

“The negative financial impact on cow-calf producers has been somewhat less in recent weeks as November feeder cattle futures fell only 7%,” Hurt says. “Looking forward, the current decline in feed prices has been a huge advantage in reducing costs of finishing cattle and helped to keep the declines in calf prices more moderate.”

Feed prices have fallen by a much larger percentage than cattle futures. During the last three weeks, December corn futures fell by 25%, with December soybean meal futures down 20%.

Beef demand and cattle prices are directly impacted by consumer incomes.

“The current financial crisis may reduce those incomes and therefore cattle prices,” Hurt says. “The magnitude of the decline in incomes will influence the magnitude of decline in cattle prices.”

The last two recessions in the U.S. were very mild and Hurt believes this recession may be more severe, more like the recessions of 1974 and 1975 and again in 1981 and 1982, when real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped near 3%.

“A drop of that magnitude this time could have a $4.50 to $5/cwt. negative impact on live cattle prices, not as much as prices have already dropped,” he says. “This would suggest that the live cattle futures decline of $10.25/cwt. over the past three weeks is too much, which is probably true if real GDP drops only 3% or less in a coming downturn.

But Hurt points out that many experts have stated, “this is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” These statements suggest the possibility that the downturn will be much greater, he says.

The leading indicator for the cattle sector right now is probably the stock indexes, Hurt says.

“If there’s a general improvement in global financial concerns, those will be quickly reflected in stock prices,” he explains. “Indicators today say that the credit crisis is easing somewhat and money flow between banks is beginning to improve somewhat.”

The odds of a financial collapse are now somewhat lower as the governments of the world’s major economies have pledged to make sure the collapse will not occur, Hurt says.

What should people in the cattle industry do now? First, don’t panic.

“Odds favor a recession and not a depression,” Hurt says. “Markets often anticipate the worst, and if the worst does not occur, there is some recovery, which may well be the direction for the cattle markets as well.”

Hurt says if this is true, it would enable cattle prices to recover several dollars per cwt., but feed prices would be expected to rise as well. Buying feed at this time is a consideration with both harvest and a financial crisis weighing on grain prices, he says. But that has to be done with a view to the risk bearing ability of the individual firm, he added.

“In these uncertain times, locking in feed costs without pricing output leaves one in a vulnerable position if the recession is worse than anticipated,” Hurt says. “Taking positive margins by establishing both input and output prices is always the more comfortable strategy in uncertain times.”

For cow-calf operations, a similar no-panic attitude is probably the best path, Hurt says. The feed price highs are probably behind the industry, at least for now, Hurt speculates, and the world economic crisis may not come to fruition.

The world’s governments have administered a huge amount of stimulation to economic activity both by infusions of capital and in monetary policy. That large stimulation will probably have the result of moderating recessionary pressure now, but also in stimulating more inflation in commodity prices over coming years, he says.

“Recovery in finished cattle prices to the low-to-mid $90s would seem to be the most likely possibility in coming months,” Hurt says. “A recovery of $5 to $7/cwt. might be appropriate to expect for feeder cattle and calf prices as well.”
-- Purdue University release