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By Tony D’Altorio

The two-speed global recovery underway in developed and emerging economies is playing out in the oft-ignored meat market. Global meat prices have hit a 20-year high. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s meat price index rose to its highest level since 1990 in August, up 16% over the past year.

Individually, lamb prices hit a 37-year high and beef climbed to a 2-year high. Meanwhile, both pork and poultry prices don’t show any signs of stopping either. Similarly, live cattle futures last month hit $1 a pound, near their 2008 record. And futures for pork bellies – used in bacon – hit a record price of nearly $1.50 a pound.

In Australia, lamb prices have risen over A$5.50 a kilo, something they haven’t done since 1974. That nation, the U.S. and other such exporters factor in heavily to such hikes.

Meat production has stagnated in top exporting countries over the past decade. Australia and Latin America have experienced severe droughts, while a combination of low prices in the early 2000s and record-high feeding hit livestock farmers everywhere. In the U.S., ranchers and pig breeders have ruthlessly thinned herds to cope with drought, high grain prices and the recession. And sheep have suffered much the same in Australia, where flocks have fallen by more than half over the past decade.

Worst yet, livestock farmers may not rebuild herds rapidly in the years ahead due to high feed prices.

Yet at the same time, meat demand in emerging markets like China and Brazil just keeps growing.

Meat Exports

Despite the rough past decade, U.S. meat exporters are smiling. Eddie Troutman, a vice-president at the giant agribusiness Cargill, is “very bullish on beef exports over the next several years.” And U.S. government estimates just happen to agree. They show domestic beef exports rising 13% this year with a hefty 9.1% jump for pork as well.

Not surprisingly, it can thank emerging markets for that boost. Brazil, second only to the U.S. in beef production, expects to export far less in 2010. Its own consumption is quickly nearing record highs. Analysts expect pork demand to spike there too, as well as in Russia, Vietnam, Mexico and South Korea. And Brazil, India and Russia are also consuming far more poultry.

In the Middle East – one of the largest meat importers – demand for lamb and mutton is “strong and only growing,” according to Gwendolen Rees of the Australian government resources agency ABARE. “There just aren’t as many sheep around to send.”

Admittedly, those trends aren’t always obvious due to politics involved in the meat business.

China, for one, doesn’t have the same sway on the global meat market as with other commodities. Yet it still bans U.S. beef imports due to “concerns” over mad-cow disease. Russia did the same with U.S. chicken earlier this year on chlorine rinse “concerns.” And the U.S. bans fresh beef from Brazil because of “concerns” over foot-and-mouth disease.

Beefy Investments

Despite political interference, though, get ready to enjoy a strong bullish run in meat prices. They might experience dips here and there, but emerging market cravings are running the show these days with unstoppable force.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, by 2050, developing country meat consumption should rise by 65%. And it expects it to climb 16% in the developed world.

Wesley Medonca Batista heads up the U.S. branch of Brazilian JBS ADR (OTCQX:JBSAY), the world’s largest beef producer. While he sees cattle prices falling in the coming months, he also predicts a rebound next year and beyond.

Investors can take a bite out of JBS, but another Brazilian company, BRF Brasil Foods ADR (NYSE: BRFS), looks tasty as well. One of the world’s largest food processing companies, it sells food items such as poultry, pork and beef cuts in over 140 countries.

Also on the menu are two ETNs:

iPath Dow Jones-UBS Livestock Subindex Total Return ETN (NYSE: COW), for one, reflects the returns on live cattle futures (63%) and lean hogs futures (37%). And UBS E-TRACS CMCI Livestock Total Return ETN (NYSE: UBC) does the same, except it dedicates 55% and 45% respectively.

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Source: Global Meat Prices Can Fatten Your Portfolio