Daily Stock Market Reports

Russia-Ukraine War Threatens Wheat Supply, Jolts Prices


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens a big portion of the world’s wheat supply and has sent prices on a dizzying ride to new highs as well as the sharpest weekly drop in years.

Wheat stockpiles were already running low and prices were the highest in years thanks to two years of poor growing weather when Russia’s attack jammed up Black Sea trading and endangered nearly a third of the world’s exports. The invasion prompted fears of food shortages in countries fed with imported grain and pushed prices to new highs.

Milling wheat in Paris and the most-traded U.S. futures contract, for soft red winter wheat delivered to Chicago, notched record prices early in the week. Then they plunged. Chicago futures ended the week 8.5% lower, the worst weekly performance since 2014 when wheat was coming down from a drought-induced spike. French markets, as well as on-the-spot trading in St. Louis and Kansas City, followed similar arcs.

Still, the benchmark U.S. price, at $11.07 a bushel, is 72% higher than a year earlier and analysts expect the war will keep wheat high. Germany’s

Commerzbank AG

on Friday boosted its spring-quarter price forecasts by 19% for Chicago futures and by about 14% in Paris.

Rising wheat points to further inflation of food prices and another force blunting the post-pandemic economic recovery. Global food prices hit an all-time high in February, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. U.S. food prices in February were up 7.9% from a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, taking a big bite out of Americans’ purchasing power

Higher food prices are contributing to strong inflation in the U.S.



Photo:

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Analysts and traders don’t know yet the extent to which global wheat supplies will be dented by the war. What remains of last year’s crop has been kept off market due to the closure of Ukrainian ports and shippers’ hesitancy to enter a war zone to fetch Russian wheat. Meanwhile, it is unclear if growers in the region will be able to harvest winter wheat, which was planted in autumn, or plant spring crops in the coming weeks.

“Russian ports are operating normally but no one is willing to pay extremely high insurance costs to book cargoes from there,” said

Will Osnato,

senior research analyst with Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data firm.

Since wheat is priced in dollars, exporters in Russia, where the currency has plunged about 40% in 2022, could take cues from South American growers who in years past hedged their own currency devaluations by holding on to grains. 

“This is the fog of war,” said

Dave Whitcomb,

head of research at Switzerland’s Peak Trading Research. “We just don’t know.”

The uncertainty inspired a frenzy of speculation that exacerbated the price swings. Investors poured so much cash into the

Teucrium Wheat Fund,


WEAT 3.40%

which holds futures, that it ran out of shares to sell on Monday. The previous trading day, March 4, the exchange-traded fund issued about 16 million new shares, which was more than the 13 million or so that were outstanding before the invasion. U.S. financial regulators granted the fund permission on Wednesday to create and sell additional shares.

The fund’s assets under management ballooned to nearly $500 million, up from $86 million before Russia’s attack, but dropped to about $341 million by the end of the week as wheat futures shed price.

“In six weeks they’ll start planting in Ukraine and Russia,” said

Sal Gilbertie,

president of Teucrium Trading LLC, which manages the wheat fund. “If it’s disrupted that means a future reduction in supplies that the world is counting on.” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday lowered its expectations for Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports during the current marketing year, which began in June, by about 12%. Some of the lost supply will be replaced by exports from Australia, where a record harvest is expected, and India, which has been ramping up shipments abroad amid a string of bumper crops, the Agriculture Department said in its monthly market forecast. 

The Agriculture Department expects U.S. farmers to plant slightly more wheat than last year, when the fewest acres were sown in more than a century. Lower yields are anticipated, due to continuing drought in the West and Northern Plains. 

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While American consumers can expect more sticker shock at the grocery store, the loss of Black Sea exports risks leaving some countries that rely on imports unable to meet their grain needs, analysts and traders say. 

Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, recently canceled a tender after receiving a limited number of pricey offers. Turkey reduced an order size. Tanzania recently said that its wheat import bill jumped 50% for the 12 months through January, before the Russian attack roiled the market.  

“The world’s poorest are going to suffer from this war,” said Mr. Gilbertie. “It’s a crime against humanity.”

While Ukraine endures military assaults by Russian forces, analysts are warning that the world’s wheat supply could be severely threatened. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains. Photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Write to Ryan Dezember at ryan.dezember@wsj.com

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