The Market's Fine Print

A Good Monster is Hard to Keep Down

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst
An appropriate name for Dr. Frankenstein's awakening monster might be "beef cut-outs," a new force now being energized that could significantly mend feedlot equity through the late spring or early summer. (Frankenstein by D'mooN, CC BY-SA 2.0)

"It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

So reads Mary Shelley's 1818 account of Dr. Frankenstein's famous tinkering in the scrap heap of life. On one hand take a hand, on the other hand take a recycled foot, throw in the family recipe for corn mash laced with amino acids and vitamins. Before you can say mad scientist, viola: HE LIVES!

So where's the fateful thunderstorm? I always thought the monster owed that spring in his shambling step to multiple jolts of lightning. Turns out there's nothing like that in the original story. Movie adaptations ranging from the 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff to the zaniness of Mel Brooks some 40 years later made dramatic use of Mother Nature's light show. But as far as Shelley was concerned, her eponymous hero was nothing more than a creative chemist who liked to hang out at the graveyard after dark.

In fact, there's a long list of differences between the novel and cultural assumptions regarding the same. While the monster of the book hardly sounds like a "looker," as a blind date he might be described as funny and a good dancer. Shelley's creature is presented as sensitive, articulate, and schooled enough to discuss Paradise Lost and Plutarch's Lives. A son any mother could be proud of.

Yet, over the last two centuries, this guy's public persona has been managed worse than Charles Manson's. Today he's impossible to imagine without a massive bunker brow and an industrial bolt running through the back of his neck. Frankenstein's monster is commonly regarded as violent, bestial and unpredictably dangerous.

Curiously, this unflattering, latter-day image has bestowed upon the monster something Mary Shelley (presumably by design) refused to grant: a name. While many of us have been conditioned to erroneously call the monster "Frankenstein" (actually the name of his scientific master), Shelley left the misbegotten creature nameless. I'm guessing there are some old English majors in the room who will want to see some method in her madness.

The unnamed monster who awkwardly moves from death to life becomes a large symbol inviting us to fill in the blank. Depending on your background and a variety of important questions at hand, we could all tell the story in different ways. Given my orientation toward cattle markets and seasonal trends, I'm eager to name the awakening monster "beef cut-outs," a new force now being energized that could significantly mend feedlot equity through the late-spring or early-summer period.

For most of the late-winter period, the wholesale beef trade has fought a rear-guard action, surrendering more than 50% of the $44 rally (i.e., basis the choice cut-out) scored between mid-December and early January. More times than not, February is a poor time to sell beef. 2016 seemed to be no exception.

Yet, for the first time in nearly 45 days, the boxed beef trade has caught fire this week, surging more than $6 in just three days. No, that's not a very big window. But if you plumb it against longer-term charts (e.g., the national comprehensive cut-out, and the middle meat primals), this small explosion strikes me as very promising, a yellow eye showing real signs of life.

Between mid-February and late March, the 2013-2015 average of the national cut-out rallied nearly $16. As you might expect, the major workhorses in this seasonal drive are the rib and loin primals. Between late February and mid-May, the three-year averages for these two markets increased 20% and 26%, respectively.

Of course, this is nothing more than a statistical confirmation of seasonal common sense, time-honored logic tied to warming weather, increasing outdoor activity, and the long-sanctified marriage between beef cuts and grilling. But sure knowledge of historically tight fed supplies at least through the late-spring period, as well as relatively low feedlot breakevens, should make the underscoring of cattle price and profit potential more than conventional.

Most cattle feeding companies continue to lose money as we move toward the tail end of the first quarter. Yet, breakevens are set to drop precipitously over the next 60 days, from near $140 this week to the low $120s by the end of May. The happy combination of rising fed prices and falling breakevens over the next several months should represent the best market news producers have enjoyed since late 2014.

I keep thinking of that scene in "Young Frankenstein" when Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) and the monster (Peter Boyle) are dressed in top hats and tails, performing "Puttin' On The Ritz." Sometimes you just have to dance with the monster that shows up.

John Harrington can be reached at

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John Harrington