A couple of weeks ago an editorial in the Wall St. Journal called attention to a study by the Congressional Budget Office entitled, "The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse Gas Emissions." I finally found time to read the report and was surprised that, in addition to its main topic, it provides a useful analysis of the economics of ethanol manufacturing. Application of the CBO's rule of thumb correlating ethanol profitability to gasoline and corn prices goes a long way toward explaining the dismal current state of the industry, which has experienced a long string of bankruptcies in the last year--enough to warrant an entire conference devoted to that topic. The underlying dynamic in the ethanol sector turns out to be quite similar to one that has taught the oil refining industry some painful lessons in the last couple of decades. Potential investors in ethanol plants, conventional or even cellulosic, would do well to consider this relationship.
The CBO study's headline findings merit more attention than they have received in the media, considering the intensity of the food vs. fuel controversy this time last year. We truly have the attention spans of ferrets, these days. The CBO examined the effect of rapidly rising ethanol production on the supply and demand for corn in all its uses, along with the relationship between corn prices and broader food prices, and the impact of energy prices on both. They concluded that between April 2007 and April 2008, ethanol accounted for 10-15% of the increase in food prices in that period. Even considering only the resulting increase in the cost of federal food assistance programs, that added an extra $600-900 million to the roughly $4.6 billion in direct ethanol blending subsidies paid out by the federal government last year. The Journal estimated the additional cost to consumers at between $5.5 and $8.8 billion. If you add those figures together and divide by the 9 billion gallons of ethanol produced in US distilleries in 2008, the hidden cost of every gallon of ethanol that comes out of a gasoline dispenser averages around $1.40.
Even more remarkably, despite this sizable "externality" and the truly extraordinary five-year growth run of the industry, ethanol processing appears to be a miserable, wealth-destroying business for its owners. The CBO report explains this in a text box starting on page 4, which concludes that unless the retail price of gasoline exceeds 90% of the price of corn before factoring in ethanol subsidies, or 70% after subsidies, an ethanol plant cannot cover its fixed and variable costs and turn a profit. The box includes a chart showing the precipitous decline of that ratio since 2005, from a high above 1.0 to below 0.6. When I calculated the current ratio based on this week's average retail gasoline price and yesterday's Chicago Board of Trade prompt corn contract, I came up with a figure of 0.65. That's still below breakeven, despite the recent spike in gasoline prices.
While I've never looked at it quite this way before, the CBO's rule of thumb makes perfect sense as an example of how capacity investments tend to destroy the margins that justified those investments. It's much the same as when an oil refiner sees high prices for gasoline and low prices for residual fuel and decides to invest in a new coking unit to convert the latter into the former. When the unit starts up, it increases the supply of gasoline and raises the demand for feedstock, squeezing its own operating margin from both ends--along with the margins of everyone else in the industry. In the case of the dozen or so ethanol companies that have gone into Chapter 11 or de-facto Chapter 7 lately, we must conclude that a lot of their expected profits never materialized, either, for a similar reason. All those new ethanol plants increased the supply of "gasoline" while simultaneously increasing the demand for their feedstock, corn.
US corn ethanol output is still expected to expand by another 50% or so before it bumps into the artificial ceiling the Congress and the EPA set for it in the revised Renewable Fuel Standard. Yet this is an industry that has raised food prices, destroyed billions of dollars in shareholder value, and according to the CBO reduced US greenhouse gas emissions by only about 0.2%, even if we ignore offsetting global land-use changes. The best thing that can be said for it is that it displaces around 420,000 barrels per day of mostly imported petroleum-based gasoline. That's hardly trivial, but I leave it to you to assess whether it has been worth the cost.