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Column: Ukraine and turbulent commodities

Breitinger

After the rapid overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last weekend, tensions have been rising as Ukraine struggles to carve out new political leadership.

As a former Soviet Republic, Ukraine had been closely tied with Russia, but is considering closer economic alignment with the European Union. This has resulted in internal and international conflict as different groups vie for dominance.

For commodities traders, Ukraine is important because it is known as the “breadbasket of Europe” and is one of the world’s largest corn and wheat exporters.

Short-term, conflict in Ukraine could diminish farmer’s ability to grow and transport grains, creating short supplies of corn and wheat.

Furthermore, if the conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the West should escalate, other commodities markets could be drawn into the turmoil.

Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of both crude oil and natural gas, and has used its control of these vital energy sources as a diplomatic weapon in the past. As a result, energy traders are closely watching events in Kiev and Moscow.

Despite these looming threats, neither wheat nor crude oil made major moves this week. Wheat had a moderate 15-cent decline, to $5.97 per bushel, while crude had a minor 30-cent rally, to $102.50 per barrel.

Oats in a jam

The oats market continued exploding this week, reaching an all-time high of $5.33 per bushel on Wednesday.

Prices have been climbing as a result of a shortage of the grain in the U.S.

Although Canadian grain farmers broke records last year, they haven’t been able to transport their oats to the United States, which consumes 95 percent of Canadian oats exports in products such as breakfast cereals.

Most grain shipments travel by train, which is significantly cheaper than trucking.

Although weather this winter contributed to rail backlogs, some oats farmers in Canada are complaining that railroads are prioritizing crude oil transportation over grains.

Many Americans are familiar with the “food versus fuel” debate involving the use of corn to make ethanol fuel. The Canadian version is “oats versus oil” and may soon be attracting the eye of politicians as well, with some threatening to investigate railroads’ policies.

Longer-term, it appears that oats prices may subside as Canadian oats flow to the U.S. The futures market is predicting sharply lower prices for the July contract, which is trading at a 20 percent discount, near $4 per bushel on Friday.

Walt Breitinger is a commodity futures broker in Valparaiso. He can be reached at (800) 411-3888 or www.indianafutures.com. This is not a solicitation of any order to buy or sell any market.

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