Wheat's the new top of the crops

While focus has been on surging corn, beef and dairy prices, wheat has quietly scaled to an 11-year high and could break its all-time record.

By Jeff Cox, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Add wheat to the list of food sources whose price could break into stratospheric levels.

But in this case, a straight line can't be drawn from ethanol demand to surging agriculture costs, as has been the case for price surges in corn, milk and beef. Instead, wheat's gain is due primarily to a lack of supply because of global drought.


That situation in turn has driven up demand for U.S. wheat, even though domestic supplies also have been hit by a mild drought in the Midwest.

Wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade closed down more than 15 cents Monday at $6.37 a bushel then dropped another 5 cents Tuesday morning, but that still left the price near a level not seen since a similar surge in 1996.

Analysts see conditions that could easily drive the price of wheat over $7 a bushel and past the record $7.17 set 11 years ago.

"In general it's going to be a very volatile market," said Jerry Gidel, an analyst and broker at Livingston, Texas-based North America Risk Management Services. "I sense there's a shot to see some $7 a bushel prices. Will it be substantially above that? That's hard to pinpoint. That comes from the emotions of the buyers out there."

Wheat's surge comes as ethanol demand has driven the price of corn to record levels. Because it is used as livestock feed, corn's increase has been linked to record prices in milk and near-record beef costs.

But wheat has risen primarily because of other factors, though lower supplies can be partly attributed to reduced acreage due to corn plantings. European drought is playing a much greater factor, while U.S. wheat also has become more attractive to foreign countries due to the weakness of the dollar.

"The U.S. is one place where you can buy wheat and it also seems to be on a discount with our dollar on cheap value," Gidel said. "You put it all together and there's lots of buying [of American wheat] going on."

How higher prices are affecting consumers also is somewhat different than with milk and beef, though farmers certainly stand to gain from the increase.

Economists have been more willing to link higher corn prices to higher meat and dairy costs than they are to link higher wheat costs to higher bread prices.

Prices of white and whole wheat bread, in fact, have been surging, with white bread in June just a penny a loaf off its all-time high and whole wheat four cents a pound above the prior record set in May.

Analysts trace the high bread prices primarily to this summer's rapid run-up in gas prices, which stood Tuesday at $2.87 nationally for a gallon of regular unleaded, according to AAA, making it more expensive to get goods to the marketplace.

"The price of wheat is not the primary driver behind the cost of bread or spaghetti," said Stewart Ramsey, senior economist at Global Insight consulting in Philadelphia. "The high energy costs are really more important."

Still, that doesn't mean that higher wheat costs aren't significant economically, and Gidel expects world markets to adapt and push the price of wheat back down again later this year as other countries plant more wheat.

"We're probably going to have a pretty significant [price] setback," he said. "The world will react to this. They're going to expand plantings this fall."

In the short term, though, investors should be keeping an eye on the correlation between corn and wheat prices, said Darin Newsom, an analyst with Omaha-Neb.-based agriculture consultants DTN. The two commodities are usually closer in price, Newsom said, but corn now trails badly at $3.40 a bushel and could act as a future drag on wheat.

"Wheat, despite all its reasons to rally, looks overvalued from my point of view," he said. "If you're going to put money in, you might want to start betting on corn finding a bottom."

Analysts had been predicting another surge in corn after it hit $4.25 a bushel recently, but an unexpectedly strong harvest pushed prices down, and some forecasts now have it falling to perhaps $2.80 a bushel before rallying. Top of page