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Urea, Natural Gas, and Corn Price Correlations

By Aaron Smith and Chris Boyer

Fertilizer prices have come down from the peak in April 2022 (Figure 1), however fertilizer prices remain elevated compared to 2017 through 2020. In 2021 and 2022, high fertilizer prices coincided with high corn prices, resulting in positive profit margins for many producers, especially those that were not affected by adverse weather. Since August 2022, Henry Hub Natural Gas Prices have declined sharply. Natural gas is a key input in the production of nitrogen fertilizer accounting for 70-90% of variable production costs (Outlaw et al. 2022). Two important questions for many producers are how related are these prices and how does this relationship potentially impact profitability in 2023? To examine this, we look at the historical relationship between corn, urea, and natural gas prices.

Figure 1. Weekly Urea, Natural Gas, and Nearby Corn Futures Price, January 2, 2017, to March 27, 2023


Nitrogen, natural gas, and corn prices are positively correlated (correlation describes the strength of an association between two variables, positive correlation indicates that prices move in the same direction, negative correlation indicates prices move in opposite directions; correlation coefficients have values between -1 and 1). Examining weekly price data from January 2017 to March 2023, natural gas and urea prices were positively correlated (0.738), natural gas and corn prices were positively correlated (0.668), and urea and nearby corn futures prices were positively correlated (0.906).  All three variables are strongly positively correlated. However, there are event-based anomalies in the data that create temporary deviations in the relationship between prices. For example, natural gas prices briefly spiked in February 2021 during a winter storm that strained natural gas and electricity markets in Texas and Oklahoma (USEIA, 2022). It is also important to note that correlation does not indicate causation. In other words, a higher natural gas or urea price does not necessarily cause higher corn prices, and vice versa.  However, the takeaway from this figure and correlations for natural gas, corn, and urea prices are they tend to move in the same direction. 

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