This Commodity is Poised to Outshine Gold

Gold has been grabbing all the headlines lately as the price for the precious metal has hit record highs.

In the weeks and months to come, however, you’re going to be hearing about a far more pedestrian commodity: Rice.

The price of rice has started to climb based on reports that both India and the Philippines are looking to import record quantities. India lost 18% of its rice crop to drought this year. For the first time in more than 20 years, it may have to become a net importer of rice.

While drought plagued India, the Philippines had the opposite problem: Too much rain. The country lost an estimated 1.3 million metric tons of rice — at least 8% of the domestic supply for this rice-importing nation — in a series of strong typhoons that hit the region during the past three months.

Along with most commodities, rice hit record prices last year, with the futures markets hitting a peak of $25.07 per 100 pounds in April. And, also like most commodities, the price of rice tumbled as the global recession unfolded. But even though the price of almost every other commodity has been rebounding, boosted by a weaker U.S. dollar, the price of rice has been flat-lining at $13.50.

Until recently.

In the past few weeks, India and the Philippines started to buy rice in the world market. Rice futures have started to climb as a result, up roughly +15% in the past three weeks.

Some analysts have argued that the price of rice could double from here. Others argue that this year’s healthier crops produced stockpiles in Thailand and Vietnam that could help mitigate at least part of any price increase. But one of the biggest unknowns going into a period of potentially higher rice prices…

. . . is panic.

Last year’s record rice prices started a wave of civil unrest. Rice prices also started panic-driven hoarding. Bulk retailers like Wal-Mart’s (NYSE: WMT) Sam’s Club and Costco (Nasdaq: COST) began rationing rice in an attempt to keep it on their shelves. If the market starts to catch even a whiff of panic in the air, the price of rice could skyrocket.

Unless you dabble in the futures market, there’s no real pure rice play for American investors. When rice hit record prices last year, investors wondered why there was no rice-based exchange-traded fund (ETF) More than a year later, they are still wondering why one of the world’s largest crops still lacks an investment vehicle of its own.

Some investors are using general agriculture ETFs like PowerShares DB Agriculture (NYSE: DBA) and iPath DJ-AIG Agriculture Sub-Index (NYSE: JJA) as proxies for rice. But neither of these funds has an interest in rice. Elements/Rogers International Commodity Agriculture (NYSE: RJA) is one of the only funds that does have rice as a holding, but only a meager 1.43% of the portfolio. Still, it’s more rice than you’ll find in any other exchange-traded product.

But I find myself thinking back to when crude oil prices were coming off their lows.

Instead of consumers hoarding oil, we had cases of institutional hoarding. Speculators and investment houses started buying up oil on the cheap and storing it, hoping to sell it for a higher price in the future. If this starts to happen with rice, a company with grain storage capacity, like Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM) may be the beneficiary.

ADM has rebounded +44.2% in the last year, although it’s still -33% off its April 2008 high. And with a forward P/E of roughly 11.5 and a PEG ratio less than 1.2, ADM may be a better value bet on rising rice prices than any of the alternatives.