Josh Sosland

It wouldn’t be surprising if the 2016 advance in grain-based foods shares elicited a ho-hum response from industry observers. After all, it was the eighth consecutive year of gains for the Grain-Based Foods Share Index, compiled by Milling & Baking News. At first glance the strength appears consistent with skeptics crediting attractive dividend yields for buoying the sector while interest rates have been artificially maintained at extremely low levels for a protracted period.

A deeper look at the numbers, though, suggests this analysis is superficial. Not only did the G.B.F. index handily beat major market indices in 2016, the 14.2% gain easily outpaced the anemic 2.6% advance of the S.&P.500 consumer staples subsector, also a beneficiary of the low rates. Looking still deeper, the 14.2% jump in grain-based foods shares compared with S.&P.500 staples sub-components of brewers, up 3.6%; soft drinks, down 0.4%; tobacco, up 11.11%; and household products, up 1.8%. And the grain-based foods performance wasn’t skewed by a couple of outliers — many companies in the index gained at least 14% last year. And this record extends far longer than a year — the G.B.F. index has outgained the consumer staples index by 20% since the 2009 low.

This performance suggests Wall Street appreciation for the diligence and success with which industry executives have sought to build value during a tough period. While serious challenges remain, this leading indicator offers cause for optimism about grain-based foods at the start of 2017.