Published on 03/06/08

Speculators drive cotton prices high

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Cotton farmers have gotten what they wanted: The price for their commodity has skyrocketed. But there’s a catch. Nobody will buy their crop at such a high price, says a University of Georgia agricultural economist.

The price of a pound of cotton lint is around 95 cents right now, almost 20 cents more per pound than a month ago, said Don Shurley, a cotton economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“I have never seen this kind of jump in prices,” said Shurley, who has followed the cotton industry for two decades.

The reason for the surge is unclear, he said, but it’s likely driven by speculative investors looking to grab a good buy and quick buck.

Speculative investors buy in the futures market and are important for a healthy market. But they aren’t long-term players in the game. They buy something when the price for it is climbing in hopes of cashing out when the price peaks. They aren’t buying actual cotton. They’re just betting that the price for it will go up, at least for now.

The current price offer is for cotton that will be picked and delivered this fall. That cotton hasn’t even been planted yet in the United States. Georgia farmers won’t start planting it until late April.

“Farmers had been hoping for the market to move and go higher,” Shurley said. “But not like this. There are no fundamental economic forces of supply and demand driving this market.”

The last time prices were this high was 13 years ago. Prices then were driven by basic supply and demand factors, though, he said.

Cotton lint is sold in a bale weighing 480 pounds. The world demands almost 130 million bales annually. World cotton farmers supply 120 million bales annually, he said. Cotton prices in this real-life scenario should be between 75 cents per pound and 80 cents per pound.

One factor that could be inciting investors to pick cotton is its relative value compared to other major commodities like corn, soybeans and wheat. These crops are trading at record or near record prices, he said. An investor who doesn’t want to gamble those high prices sees cotton as a viable, and potentially lucrative, alternative.

Farmers aren’t cashing in right now because they can’t find anyone to contract to buy their cotton at such high prices. Most cotton merchants, the people who buy the actual cotton from farmers, have temporarily left the market.

“The merchants know that they can’t risk purchasing cotton at 90 cents because they know they can’t find anyone to buy it from them at 90 cents later,” he said. “This market has become pretty volatile.”

Merchants sell the cotton they buy to textile mills around the world, which need cotton to make T-shirts, blue jeans, socks, underwear and other products.

Things will settle down, he said. The merchants will return to the market to buy cotton. But it won’t be at the current high prices. Once the speculators begin to cash out, prices will drop back to levels that reflect actual supply and demand.

“But right now, when that will happen is not clear,” he said.

Georgia farmers planted 1 million acres of cotton last year, second only to Texas farmers in total acreage.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.