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Commodity Price Volatility in the Biofuel Era: An Examination of the Linkage between Energy and Agricultural Markets

In: The Intended and Unintended Effects of U.S. Agricultural and Biotechnology Policies

  • Thomas W. Hertel
  • Jayson Beckman

Agricultural and energy commodity prices have traditionally exhibited relatively low – even negative correlation. However, the recent increases in biofuel production have altered the agriculture-energy relationship in a fundamental way. The amount of corn utilized for ethanol production in the US has increased from 5% in 2001 to over one-third by the end of the decade. This increase has drawn corn previously sold to other uses (exports, food, feed), as well as acreage devoted to other crops (e.g., oilseeds and other grains). In addition, there has been an increase in the demand for production inputs, especially fertilizers, which are heavily energy-intensive. In short, the previous “biofuel decade” has led to significant changes in the US, and indeed the global economy. In the next five years, the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) envisions a further boost of ethanol production to 15 billion gallons per year. This might be expected to further strengthen the linkage between energy prices and agricultural commodity markets. However, unless oil prices rise sharply, it is likely that the RFS will be binding in 2015 – that is, the amount of ethanol consumed will be determined by government mandates rather than by the relative price of oil vs. corn-based ethanol. Under such a scenario, with an even larger share of corn production going to ethanol, and with that source of demand potentially becoming unresponsive to price, there is potential for significant increases in commodity market volatility. Indeed, we estimate that, in the presence of a binding RFS, the inherent volatility in the US coarse grains market will rise by about one-quarter. And the volatility of the US coarse grains price to supply side shocks in that market will rise by nearly one-half. Under a high oil price scenario, we expect that, rather than the RFS binding, the binding constraint is likely to be the “blend wall”, i.e. the legal % content of ethanol in gasoline used by regular automobiles. (This

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This chapter was published in:
  • Joshua S. Graff Zivin & Jeffrey M. Perloff, 2012. "The Intended and Unintended Effects of U.S. Agricultural and Biotechnology Policies," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number perl10-1.
  • This item is provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Chapters with number 12113.
    Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:12113
    Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
    Phone: 617-868-3900
    Web page: http://www.nber.org
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