Introduction to the Grain Complex

Temperature, precipitation, and the changing needs of customers all contribute to the supply and demand for commodities like wheat, corn, or soybeans. All these changes greatly affect the price of commodities, and the grain markets are essential to managing these price swings and providing global benchmark prices.

Anyone looking to invest in futures should know that the risk of loss is substantial. This type of investment is not suitable for everyone. An investor could lose more than originally invested. Only risk capital should be used. Risk capital is the amount of money that an individual can afford to invest, which, if lost would not affect their lifestyle.

What are grain futures contracts?

A grain futures contract is a legally binding agreement for delivery of grain in the future at an agreed upon price. The contracts are standardized by a futures exchange as to quantity, quality, time, and place of delivery. Only the price is variable.

There are two main market participants in the futures markets: hedgers and speculators:
Hedgers use the futures markets for the purpose of risk management. Hedgers have some risks associated with the price or availability of the actual underlying commodity. Futures transactions and positions have the express purpose of mitigating those risks. Speculators generally have no use for the commodities in which they trade. Speculators willingly accept the risk in return for the prospect of dramatic gains.

Advantages of Futures Contracts

Since they trade at the Chicago Board of Trade, futures contracts offer more financial leverage, flexibility, and financial integrity than trading the commodities themselves.

Financial leverage is the ability to trade and manage a high market value product with a fraction of the total value. Trading futures contracts is done with performance margin. It requires considerably less capital than the physical market. Leverage provides speculators a higher risk/higher return investment.

For example, one futures contract for soybeans represents 5000 bushels of soybeans. Therefore, the dollar value of this contract is 5000 times the price per bushel. If the market is trading at $5.70/bushel, the value of the contract is $28,500 ($5.70 x 5000 bushels.). Based on current exchange margin rules, the margin required for one contract of soybeans is only $1013. So for $1013, one can leverage $28,500 worth of soybeans.

Advantages of Grain Contracts
There are numerous unique qualities inherent to the grain since it is a tangible commodity. First, when compared to other complexes like the energies, grains have a lower margin making it easy for speculators to participate. Also, in general grains are not one of your bigger contracts in terms of total dollar amount, hence the lower margins.

The fundamentals in the grains are fairly straightforward. Like most tangible commodities, supply and demand will determine the price as well as weather factors.

With the new side by side (pit and electronic) trading, entries into the market are coming down rapidly.

Contract Specifications
There are seven different grain products traded at the Chicago Board of Trade: Corn, Oats, Wheat, Soybeans, Rice, Soybean Meal, and Soybean Oil.

There are similar grain products that trade around the world: Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Hong Kong, Brazil and India to name a few.

Corn
Corn is used not only for human consumption, but also for feed for livestock such as cattle and pigs. Also, higher energy prices have made people look at utilizing corn for ethanol production.

The corn contract is for 5,000 bushels or roughly 127 metric tons. For example, when corn is trading at $2.50/bushel, the contract has a value of $12,500 (5000 bushels x $2.50 = $12,500). A trader that is long $2.50 and sells at $2.60 will have made a profit of $500 (2.60 – 2.50 = $0.10, $0.10 x 5000 = $500). Conversely, a trader who is long at 2.50 and sells at 2.40 will have lost $500. So every penny difference equals a move up or down of $50.
The pricing unit of corn is dollars and cents with the minimum tick size of $0.0025, (quarter of a cent), which equals $12.50 per contract. Although the market may not trade in smaller units, it most certainly can trade in full cents during ‘fast’ markets.

The most active months for corn delivery are March, May, July, September, and December.
Position limits are set by the exchange to ensure orderly markets. A position limit is the maximum number of contract a single participant can hold. Hedgers and speculators have different limits. Corn has a maximum daily price movement of 20 cents, up or down.

Corn traditionally will have more volume than any other grain market. Also, corn will be less volatile than beans and wheat.

Oats
Oats are not only used to feed livestock and humans, but are also used in the production of many industrial products like solvents, and plastics.

An oats contract, like corn, wheat, and soybeans is for delivery of 5000 bushels. It moves in the same $50/penny increments as corn. For example, if a trader was long oats at $1.40 and sold at $1.45, they would have made 5 cents per bushel or $250 per contract (1.45 – 1.40 = 5 cents, $0.05 x 5000 = $250).
Oats also trades in quarter cent increments.

Oats for delivery are traded March, May, July, September, and December like corn. And like corn, oats also has position limits. The maximum price movement of oats is 20 cents.

Oats is a difficult market to trade because it has less daily volume than any other market in the grain complex. Also it daily range is fairly small.

Wheat
Not only is wheat used for animal feed, but also in the production of flour for breads, pastas, etc..

A wheat contract is for delivery of 5000 bushels of wheat. Wheat is traded in dollars and cents and has a tick size of a quarter cent, like much of the other products traded at the CBOT.

The most active months for delivery of wheat according to volume and open interest are March, May, July, September, and December. Position limits also apply to wheat. The daily price limit for Wheat is 30 cents.

Next to soybeans, wheat is a fairly volatile market with big daily ranges. Since it is so widely used, there can huge daily swings. When I was working on the floor in the grain, it was not uncommon to have one piece of news move this market limit up or down in a hurry.

Soybeans
Soybeans are the most popular oilseed product with an almost limitless range of uses from food to industrial products.
The soybean contract is also traded in the 5000-bushel contract size. It trades in dollar and cents, like corn and wheat, but usually is the most volatile of all the contracts. The tick size is one-quarter cent (or $12.50) like the other contracts.

The most active months for soybeans are January, March, May, July, August, September, and November.
Position limits apply here as well. The maximum price limit for beans is 50 cents.

Beans have the widest range of any the markets in the grain room. Also, generally it will be two to three dollars more per bushel than wheat or corn.

Soybean Oil
Besides being the most widely used edible oil in the US, soybean oil has uses in the bio-diesel industry that are becoming increasingly important.

The bean oil contract is for 60,000 lbs., which is different than the rest of the grain contracts. Bean oil also trades in cents per pound. For example, let’s say bean oil is trading at $0.25 per pound. That gives a total value for the contract of $15,000 (0.25 x 60000 = $15,000). And let’s say you go long at $0.2500 and sell at $0.2650; you have made $900 ($0.2650 – $0.25 = $0.015 profit, $0.015 x 60000 = $900). If the market had gone down $0.015 to .2350, you would lose $900.

The minimum price fluctuation for bean oil is $0.0001, or one one-hundredth of a cent, which equals $6 per contract.
The most active months for delivery are January, March, May, July, August, September, October, and December.
Position limits are enforced for this market as well. 2 cents is the price limit for bean oil.

Soymeal
There are numerous uses for soymeal that such as baby food, beer, and noodles. Soymeal is the dominant protein in animal feed.

The meal contract is for 100 short tons or 91 metric tons. Soymeal is traded in dollars and cents. For example, the dollar value of one contract of Soymeal, when trading at $165 per ton, is $16,500 ($165 x 100 tons = $16,500).
The tick size for soymeal is $0.10 cents or $10 per tick. For example, if the current market price is $165.60, and the market moves to $166, that would equal a move of $400 per contract ($166 – $165.60 = $0.40, $0.40 x 100 = $400).

Soymeal is delivered on January, March, May, July, August, September, October, and December.
There are position limits on this contract as well. The daily price limit for Soymeal is $2.

Rice
Not only is rice used in foods, but also in fuels, fertilizers, packing material, and snacks.

The rice contract is 2,000 hundred weight (cwt) or hundred pounds. Rice is also traded in dollars and cents. For example, if rice is trading at $10/cwt, the total dollar value of the contract would be $20,000 ($10 x 2000 = $20000).
The minimum tick size for rice is $0.005 (one half of a cent) per hundred weight, or $10 per contract. For example, if the market was trading at $10.05/cwt and it moved to $9.95/cwt, that is a change of $200 (10.05 – 9.95 = $0.10, $0.10 x 2,000 cwt = $200).

Rice is delivered in January, March, May, July, September, and November.
Position limits apply in rice as well.

The daily price limit for rice is 50 cents.

Hedgers and Speculators
The primary function of any commodity futures market is to provide a centralized marketplace for those who have an interest in buying/selling physical commodities at some time in the future. There are a lot of hedgers in the grains markets due to the many different producers and consumers of these products. These include but are not limited to soybean crushers, food processors, grain and oil seed producers, livestock producers, grain elevators, and merchandisers.

Using Futures and Basis to Hedge
The main premise upon which hedgers rely is that although the movement in cash prices and futures market prices may not be exactly identical, it can be close enough that hedgers can lessen their risk by taking an opposite position in the futures markets. By taking an opposite position, gains in one market can offset losses in another. This way, hedgers are able to set price levels for cash market transactions that will take place several months down the line.

For example, let’s consider a soybean farmer. While their soybean crop is in the ground in the spring, the farmer is looking to sell his crop in October after harvest. In market lingo, they are long a cash market position. The fear for the farmer is that prices will go down before they can sell their crop. In order to offset losses from a possible decline in prices, the farmer will sell a corresponding number of bushels in the futures market now and will buy them back later when it is time to sell the crop in the cash market. Any losses resulting from a decline in the cash market price can be partially offset by a gain from the short in the futures market. This is known as a short hedge.

Food processors, grain importers, and other buyers of grain products would initiate a long hedge to protect themselves from rising grain prices. Since they will be buying the product, they are short a cash market position. They would buy futures contracts in order to protect themselves from rising cash prices.

Usually there will be a slight difference between the cash prices to the futures prices. This is due to variables such as freight, handling, storage, transport, and quality of the product as well as local supply and demand factors. This price difference between cash and futures prices is known as basis. The main consideration for hedgers concerning basis is whether it will strengthen or weaken. The final outcome of a hedge can depend on basis. Most hedgers will take historical basis data in consideration as well as current market expectations.

In general, hedging with futures can help the future buyer or seller of a commodity because it can help protect them from adverse price movements. Hedging with futures can help to determine an approximate price range months in advance of the actual physical purchase/sale. This is possible because cash and futures markets tend to move in tandem, and gains in one market tend to offset losses in another.