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Tools to Manage Cattle Market Risks

By Jason Bradley
Agricultural Economics Consultant

Posted Sep. 1, 2017

To hedge or not to hedge, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to maybe just go ahead and use forward contracting? But what about using options? You always hear about that being a great tool. Then, you start hearing about all the ways you could combine all of these. Your mouth goes dry, hands begin to sweat and the room starts to spin. You can see how this can get very complicated, very fast. Without a firm understanding of what these strategies and tools are, it's almost impossible to understand what benefits they potentially hold for you.

Types of Risk in Cattle Production

If we step all the way back and look at cattle production, we see there are two types of risks. We call these risks because they are things you can't control. The first is production risk. This deals with factors influencing desirable reproduction levels (such as conception and birthing percentages) and keeping your cattle healthy, which ensures calves reach their desired levels of gain. The second is market risk, which is the focus of this article.

Market Risk

As a producer, you are a price taker. The price you receive for your goods is set by the consumers buying your product. Retail markets are price setters in that the consumers buying their goods pay the price set by the retailers. A cow-calf producer's consumer is usually a stocker producer or feedyard operation. So, how do these buyers determine the price they are willing to pay for your cattle? They've done the math and figured out their breakeven. This breakeven is the maximum price they are willing to pay based on what they are expecting to receive for the cattle, less the costs expected to incur during their production phase. What does this mean for you as a producer? You also need to know your breakeven price, not as a maximum price you're willing to pay but as the minimum price you can receive without taking a loss. This is where having a history of income and expense statements comes in handy. By looking back at your statement history, you can determine your production cost and the minimum amount you can receive for your calves.

Cattle market risks

What's Your Willingness to Accept Risk?

Everyone has a different level of risk that they are willing to accept. We're going to talk about three levels of risk: high, medium and low.

High Risk: Cash Market

The method with the highest market risk level is strictly using the cash market. With all the discussion about the volatility of today's cattle markets, someone who is willing to take their chances and sell cattle on the cash market without any risk management plan in place would be considered a risk-seeker or risk-taker. If this is you, it is perfectly fine.

The reason this is considered the most risky method is that you are at the mercy of the market. If the market goes up, you picked the best method. You didn't have any extra costs from broker fees or margin calls. On the flip side, if the markets go down, you stand to take the biggest losses, making this the worst method.

Low Risk: Forward Contracting

For those who don't want to leave anything to chance, there's forward contracting. With your breakeven price in mind, you find a buyer who is willing to pay you an agreed price above your breakeven price on a set date that the cattle will be delivered. Just remember, while a handshake is good, it's better to get it in writing. So, how does this work out? If the market price were to drop after your deal, you've made the best choice. No broker fees and no lost profit. But, if the market price were to go up, you've given up the chance to capture that extra profit. Let's imagine this is your preferred level of risk. You want to lock in a price now, but you don't have a buyer lined up to buy your cattle. This is where we turn to the futures markets.

Low Risk: Futures

The futures markets are just that: market price projections for future dates. People from all over the world gather to buy and sell contracts for different commodities based on these projected prices. Each contract is different depending on the commodity. Since we're talking about cattle, we're going to use the feeder cattle futures. In 1971, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (now the CME Group) added feeder cattle futures to the list of livestock commodities offered. Based on the peak cash market months, contracts were offered for the months of January, March, April, May, August, September, October and November. Because of the price variation between different sizes of cattle, the quoted prices are for Medium and Large #1, and Medium and Large #1-2 feeder steers weighing 700 to 899 pounds. The total volume for one of these contracts is 50,000 pounds. This means one feeder cattle contract will cover about 62 feeder steers weighing 800 pounds. As the contract date gets closer, the futures price and cash price start to converge. When the contract closes, the difference between those prices is the basis (Basis = Cash Value – Futures Value). Basis accounts for the form, location and time aspect of the commodity. The cattle's weight or gender can affect the basis in the way of form, while the distance the sale is happening accounts for the location.

How Does the Futures Market Work?

How do people from all over the world get together and project a price for cattle for a date that falls between the end of the month (or the next month a contract is available, known as the nearby contract) all the way out to almost a full year away? The futures market is a free market working as it should. As information is made publicly available, traders use this information as they see fit to predict where the new price should be. If the information they have indicates the price is going to drop, they will sell a contract to someone who believes the market is going to go up. This is called taking a short position. If the market follows their expectations and goes down, they will offset their position by buying back that contract at a lower price, hence the phrase "buy low, sell high." If the market actually goes up, they will lose money, while the person who took the other position makes money. People who take part in this without producing the commodity or without the intention of buying it are called speculators. For those who are producers or buyers, this practice is called hedging.

When dealing with futures, a margin account is set up and an initial balance is deposited in that account. You must maintain your margin balance in order to keep your position. These initial margin requirements and maintenance levels can differ by brokers. In the example earlier, a trader speculated the market was going to go down and took a short position. Fortunately, they guessed the market's movement right; as the market falls, they get money deposited into their margin account. However, if they speculated wrong and the market went up, for every $1 per hundredweight the contract goes up, $500 is taken out of their margin account. At the end of every day, our account is marked to market, meaning the CME will adjust our margin account based on what we made or lost that day. If the balance in that margin account gets too low, a margin call is made telling you a deposit needs to be made. This can become an issue for hedgers if they don't understand what's really happening.

An Example of A Short Hedge to Minimize Market Risk

Imagine we want to lock in a price like forward contracting would do, but we don't have a buyer. We let the futures market become our buyer. Let's assume the basis is going to stay constant, we don't have brokerage fees, and it is the beginning of May. We plan to sell 62 feeder steers weighing 800 pounds, or one contract worth of feeder cattle. We know we want to sell these steers at the first of August. We've calculated our breakeven to be $134 per hundredweight. Therefore, we are watching the August feeder contracts go above our breakeven. It just so happens the cash price for an 800-pound steer at our local sale barn on that day is $145 per hundredweight, but the August futures price is above our breakeven by $20 per hundredweight, so we decide to hedge and sell one August feeder cattle contract for $154 per hundredweight. We deposit our initial balance into our account, say it's $4,000, into our margin account. Our maintenance margin is $3,000, so we'll have to keep the balance at that amount or above. Looking at Figure 1, we can see the market moved up to $160 per hundredweight within a few days of selling that contract.

Figure 1: Feeder Cattle Futures

By the end of the first week, we've already had to pay an extra $2,000 into our margin account just to keep at the maintenance level. This may feel like a bad decision, but when we look at what's happened on the cash market, the price of our cattle has gone up as well. So that $2,000 we paid into the margin account is going to come back to us when we sell the steers on the cash market. As time moved forward, we can see from the figure that the market fell to $150 per hundredweight shortly after. As the market moved down, our margin account was credited the $3,000 we lost in the first run up, as well as an additional $2,000 as the market dropped below the price at which we sold. That's more like what we're wanting, right? Not really. On the cash market, the value of your cattle has dropped as well.

As we fast forward to the beginning of August, the market moved back up then down again, finally settling around $148 per hundredweight. No extra margin calls were needed, and we sell the steers for $139 per hundredweight ($148 per hundredweight from the futures - $9 per hundredweight from the basis = $139 per hundredweight on the cash market).

As soon as we sell the cattle, we need to offset our hedging position. If we hold onto the position longer than we have the cattle, we become speculators. We get back the losses we took in the cash market from the gains we made in the futures market, but we also get back the balance in our margin account. Reviewing what we have done, our initial cash market value was $145 per hundredweight. On May 1, we sold an August feeder cattle contract for $154 per hundredweight. On Aug. 1, we sold the cattle on the cash market for $139 per hundredweight. Last, we offset our futures position by buying back an August feeder contract for $148 per hundredweight. The total value we get back is $145 per hundredweight ($154 + $139 - $148 = $145).

One thing that makes hedging a challenge is when you have to make multiple margin calls. This cuts into your available capital. Make sure you understand you will get the capital back in the end through the cash market price.

Brokerage fees are a cost we did not include in this example. These fees end up adding a cost of 10 to 20 cents per hundredweight to a feeder contract. We also assumed a constant basis. While this would be nice, the final basis is an uncertainty but not as volatile as the cash market. Therefore, while we limited ourselves to any potential losses in a down market by hedging, we also limited ourselves to any potential gains in an up market. Is there an option that gives us the opportunity to prevent any losses but not prevent any extra gains? Yes, it's called just that: an option.

Medium Risk: Put Option

Options give you the choice but not the obligation of buying or selling the underlying contract. A "put" gives you the option to sell a contract. A "call" gives you the option to buy a contract. You can also buy or sell a put, and buy or sell a call. Each of these has a purpose, but for now we will focus strictly on buying a put option for feeder cattle. A put is the best way to set a minimum expected price without limiting the potential income from the market going up.

When we buy a put, we pay a premium for a desired strike price. The strike price is the value at which we could be selling a contract should we exercise the option. To calculate the minimum expected price, you take the strike price less the basis and the price paid for the premium per hundredweight. In our hedge example, we had a breakeven price of $134 per hundredweight. At the beginning of May, the futures market was at $154 per hundredweight. At this price, the premium for a $134 per hundredweight option was very low, due in part to the market being on the rise. For a put, as the market rises, its value will move closer to $0. Since we only wanted to protect our breakeven, and maybe a little profit since the market is moving up, we are going to buy an August feeder cattle put option at a strike price of $150 per hundredweight. The higher the strike price goes, the more expensive it will become. However, because our breakeven is $20 per hundredweight lower than where the underlying futures contract is, or at the money, we can buy a put that's a little above our breakeven. At this strike price, our premium is about $600, or $1.20 per hundredweight ($600 ÷ 500 hundredweights = $1.20 per hundredweight). If it were at the money strike price, the premium would be closer to $1,500. The minimum expected value we should receive in this example is $139.80 per hundredweight ($150 - $1.20 - $9 = $139.80).

Within that first week of owning our option, the markets continued to climb. This led to our option losing value, but we haven't had to make any margin calls because we haven't taken a position in the market. As time moved on, the market went up as high as $161 per hundredweight, down to as low as $141 per hundredweight and everywhere in between. When Aug. 1 finally comes, the futures market is at $148 per hundredweight. We sell the steers on the cash market for $139 per hundredweight (remember our -$9 per hundredweight basis).

Now, we have a couple of choices. Our put option has a value of almost $1,650. We could sell it back for that value and recover our $600 premium cost plus $1,050 extra. This adds a value of about $2 per hundredweight to our cattle ($1,050 / 500 hundredweights = $2.10 per hundredweight). This works out because we sold the cattle on the cash market for $139 per hundredweight. We paid $1.20 per hundredweight for the premium on our put but were able to sell it back for $2.10 per hundredweight giving us a total value for this strategy of $139.90 per hundredweight ($139 - $1.20 + $2.10 = $139.90). The other choice is to exercise the option and sell a futures contract at $150 per hundredweight. If we do this, we would immediately buy the contract back at the current price of $148 per hundredweight. This $2 per hundredweight change allows us to make an additional $1,000. The $2 per hundredweight loss we took on the cash market was made back through exercising our put option. The total value for this strategy would end up being $139.80 per hundredweight. This is because we sold the cattle for $139 per hundredweight, paid a premium of $1.20 per hundredweight and made $2 per hundredweight from exercising our option ($139 - $1.20 + $2 = $139.80). If the futures price on Aug. 1 had been $5 per hundredweight higher than our strike price ($155 per hundredweight), the value of our put option would have been around $200. Because we're closer to the end of the contract, there is less risk that it will move below our strike price. We have a couple choices in this scenario. We can sell the put option back and recover some of our costs, about 40 cents per hundredweight. We could sell the cattle at $146 per hundredweight ($155 futures - $9 basis = $146 cash), less the premium of $1.20 per hundredweight plus the 40 cents per hundredweight for selling the option back, giving us a total value of $145.20 per hundredweight. Our other choice is to simply not use the option and let it expire. This would return us a value of $144.80 per hundredweight ($146 - $1.20 = $144.80). If the futures price was even higher, the option would have been worth even less but our cattle would be worth that much more, which would have allowed us to capitalize on a higher market price without chancing a loss.

Consider the Tradeoffs

While the option may sound like the best choice, each choice has a tradeoff compared to another. A hedge is the best choice if the market goes down but the worst choice if the market goes up. The cash market is the best choice if the market goes up but the worst if the market goes down. A put option is second best if the market goes down because of the premium cost but also the second best if the market goes up, again because of the premium cost.

Depending on your level of willingness to accept risk, one of these risk management tools could be useful to you. While these examples provide the general concepts of how they work, the way each affects your bottom line could be different depending on your situation. So, before you call up a commodities broker and dive into the futures markets, sharpen your pencil or open a spreadsheet, and speak with everyone involved, the owner, the manager, your spouse and your banker, to make sure everyone understands the plan and how it moves.

If you'd like to learn more about using market risk management tools in your operation, contact one of the agricultural economists at the Noble Research Institute. We'd be happy to sit down with you and discuss them.

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