President Carter's decision to curb grain shipments to the Soviet Union may have a silver lining for American consumers. Although the nation's grain farmers may suffer from a grain surplus and depressed prices, consumers could see lower food prices, economists and food industry executives say.
Rober J. Wager, president of the American Bakers Association, is cautiously optimistic that the cutoff of shipments of grain to the Soviets will mean "some dip in prices" for consumers in bread, cake, and other grain- based foods.
And Jason Benderly, an economist with the highly respected Washington Analysis Corporation, a subsidiary of the brokerage firm of Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Inc., forecasts that the "downward impact" on food prices could last up to 18 months. However, he notes, such a deflationary trend will be bucking normal inflationary pressures on food prices, such as the higher cost of energy and labor.
Meanwhile, American farmers have elicited a chorus of protest over President carter's halt of the grain shipments, worth an estimated $2.6 billion.
Jeffrey Shapiro, an economist with the Washington Analysis Corporation, notes that one retaliatory step farmers may take is "to hold a lot of grain off the market." Even so, he says, the decision to halt grain shipments "will certainly have some impact" holding down the lid on upward spiraling food prices.
Dr. James M. Howell, chief economist of the First National Bank of Boston, also predicts that the cutoff will mean "a net deflationary effect on food chain products." At the same time he believes that the effect on American grain farmers could be particularly harmful, not only because of this year's bumper crop but because many farmers are up to their ears in debt. "The 1975-78 period was one of the sharperst expansions of farmers' equipment and operations debt in the post-World War II period," he says.
The Carter administration announced earlier this week that the Commodity Credit Corporation, the financing arm of the US Department of Agriculture, will assume contracts for approximately 13 million metric tons of grain once ticketed for shipment to the Soviet Union.
But US grain futures trading on Jan. 9 -- halted Jan. 7 and 8 after the President's announcement -- saw the prices of wheat, corn, soybeans, and oats all immediately fall the maximum amount allowed at the Chicago Board of Trade, the nation's largest grain exchange.
And grain prices slumped again Jan. 10 as markets remained heavily influenced by the President's decision. Traders who had bought futures contracts in anticipation of higher prices because of big sales to the Soviet Union scrambled to unload their holdings on the Chicago Board of Trade, the world's largest grain market.
But, like Jan. 9, there wer no takers at the opening bell and prices immediately sank by their daily trading limits of 10 cents a bushel for corn and 20 cents for wheat.
Only soybeans, which joined the collapse yesterday, showed signs of revival because Soviet purchases of this product have been comparatively modest and worldwide demand remained strong.
Most traders in Chicago predicted that the slide in wheat and corn prices would continue and were skeptical of projections by the Agriculture Department Jan. 9 that other countries, such as China and Egypt, would buy some of the surplus grain.
Top Agriculture Department sources had said earlier in the week that despite government grain buying there would be some "initial chaos" in the commodity markets. More important, they said, many commodity traders would likely view grain held by the federal agency as a superabundance of the commodity, with a resulting depressing effect on prices.