Yeah, sounds serious.
The last time we had one of those was in 1997-1998. Forecasters suggest the probability of an El Niño is now above 70%, which I hear is an unusually high probability estimate considering the time of year, hence the “super” talk. Of course, high probability does not mean certainty and especially this early in the year; it could be a repeat of 2012 where in the 11th hour El Nino never materialized.
While we anxiously await the latest Pacific Ocean temperature readings, history tells us that El Nino years can significantly influence commodity prices across the globe. The Wall Street Journal recently came out with a useful infographic on key commodities that often experience price spikes including coffee, wheat, corn and cocoa as well as metals such as copper and nickel. Apparently El Nino usually leads to excessive rains in Chile that can flood copper mines.
Of the list, wheat is the most intriguing. The Chicago wheat contract bottomed out around $6 per bushel in March thanks to healthy worldwide stocks. However, those numbers are being slashed as I type thanks to a combination of winterkill, dry weather and now excessive heat in the main winter wheat growing areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
On top of that, the crisis in Ukraine continues unabated, adding even more risk premium to a market that fears unrest will curtail exports and possibly reduce yields. Throw in a dry growing season in Australia, a common occurrence in an El Nino year, and we have another fundamental bullish bit of news to keep the market climbing.
As of this writing, the front-month Chicago wheat contract sits around $7.35 as it continues its bullish price trend off the March lows. It’s still early to start talking about breaking the contract high of $13 per bushel, but the game pieces are in place for that potential.