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0309 PD: Strategic feed buying creates business opportunity

Scott Stewart Published on 06 February 2009

The economic silver lining for many businesses has been lower commodity prices. Unless, of course, you locked in commodity inputs at a high price without protections against a price drop.

Then you are left wondering if there is a better way to buy commodities in this new era of price volatility.

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Businesses whose success is highly dependent upon the price of inputs benefit greatly from a strategic and disciplined approach to purchasing and pricing inputs. Take, for example, the airline industry.

Southwest Airlines has been widely praised for locking in a very low average per gallon fuel price. Fuel prices were going up, and many people thought they would never come down. The bet Southwest won in 2007 and early 2008 allowed them to keep fuel costs low while rivals saw their costs go way up.

Southwest had the opportunity to plow the fuel savings into other business investments, and pass along savings to its customers to gain market share.

We in the dairy industry are in a period of opportunity, as long as we maintain our perspective about commodity prices. We have seen commodity prices go from record-high levels to establishing new records for maximum price declines in the shortest amount of time. High levels of volatility are likely to continue. Despite the global economic downturn, demand for commodities is ever-present. Any major shortfall in the production of corn or soybeans will lead to a substantial push back toward the record highs we experienced this past year. Just remember, when meal was in the $400s and corn was over $8, everyone acted as if it would go up forever. Now those same people are thinking it’s going to go down forever. Maintain perspective. Crop prices are well below the cost of production for the majority of producers. That does not mean that prices cannot go lower, but it does mean they won’t go lower very far or for very long from these levels.

Buy what you can stomach
Feed prices in the next year or two could be relatively low or even flat. That’s good news for dairy producers. You need to take advantage of these low prices and start locking in significant future feed needs. There is more upward price risk for feed cost increases than there is downward potential to save money by waiting. This is what risk management is all about: weighing downward price potential and opportunity against upward price risk.

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How far out to buy? Probably the easiest answer is to price as much as you can stomach, because odds are you won’t be sorry for doing it. If you want to be a bit conservative, do six to eight months. If you want to be a bit more aggressive, push toward a year’s needs. If you can cash flow it and emotionally handle it, doing upwards of 18 months or more of your feed is probably very good management at or near current price levels.

Forward purchases of cash commodity are advisable, especially if you can delay payment. Even if you have to take physical delivery and pay interest on the money, more than likely the upward potential the market has is more than enough to offset your storage and inventory costs.

Another approach is to “scale-in,” buying five, ten or upward of 20 percent on various increments over time. A variation of that approach is, as prices are selling off, to scale-down buy to increasingly improve your average purchase price. With each of these approaches, we suggest that you put a trigger point above the market that would get you forward priced before the market rallies too far and establishes too significant of an uptrend. We call this a stop point. It is a point where you put an order in to either make cash purchases, go long futures, or buy call options. It is a price point that triggers you to action. It stops your upward price risk by locking in your pricing.

Hedging tools further manage risk
Hedging is the act of protecting yourself against price risk. Airlines – and dairy producers – that forward purchased or locked in high prices for inputs without protecting against a price drop are feeling the pain as they fulfill these purchase obligations at levels above the current market price. Wise dairy producers can learn from this and manage price risk for their feed purchases with the various hedging tools available, such as buying puts on that inventory.

When price levels are much higher and you are forward buying feed, I might recommend buying some puts to manage the inventory value of that high-priced feed. That was wise to do the last half of 2008. At the much lower current price levels, however, the need to insure the value of any inventory you forward price is pretty minimal. We need to insure ourselves against the more likely risk that prices will go up.

At the current lower price levels, almost any tool you use to hedge your feed purchases is a good tool. The important thing is that you understand how each tool works, and the risks and rewards each strategy offers. Because the more advanced feed hedging strategies require a lengthy and detailed explanation, I’ve posted a step-by-step approach for these strategies at www.stewart-peterson.com

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Get it done
If all of the work and decision-making with any one strategy overwhelms you to the point that you don’t make a decision, it’s not a good strategy for you. It is far more important that you buy something and get it done (even if you just hedge your entire purchase needs with one option strike price and month) than to overcomplicate your feed purchasing process and ultimately discourage yourself from making decisions and getting things done. Over the years, we have found that a disciplined, structured, strategic approach to marketing is far more important than anything else in determining success.

Keep in mind that not too many months ago, crop prices were rallying, milk prices lagged and you initially felt a severe pinch in your profitability. Nearly every dairy producer was far more worried about how to price feed than how to price milk. Milk prices were at historically high levels.

Now both have dropped dramatically, and most producers are thinking about how they could have (or should have) priced milk. Feed pricing is on the back burner again. But it should be on the front burner. When prices bottom and the commodity trends head back higher, feed prices will lead the way, milk prices will lag, and you will see your profits pinched.

We are in a time of opportunity. Use this opportunity of relatively low-priced feed to lock in your future needs. For the progressive business person in any industry, it’s all about strategically managing both input costs and output price for a desirable profit margin. PD

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Feed prices in the next year or two could be relatively low or even flat – good news for dairy producers as consumers of these commodities. However, what’s more important is to realize that prices are not likely to go a lot lower. That means that the risk of forward pricing at these levels is pretty minimal.

You cannot be very wrong if you forward buy. If you don’t forward buy, you could really look like you’ve passed up a significant opportunity. There is more upward price risk for feed cost increases than there is downward potential to save money by waiting.

Hedging strategies:
• Forward purchases of cash commodity, especially if you can delay payment, are advisable.
• If you want to take a less risky approach, buying out-of-the-money distant call options can also work.
• For those of you who have a deeper understanding of options, you could consider using ratio spreads, bull call spreads or fence strategies to hedge.
• Lastly, at these historically low price levels after such dramatic declines, even long futures positions start to look attractive.

We have found over the years that a disciplined, structured, strategic approach to marketing is far more important than anything else in determining marketing success. Be sure to match whatever strategy you use to your comfort level and your decision-making time and ability so that you work within your parameters for solid, professional decisions.

Scott Stewart
President and CEO of Stewart-Peterson

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