Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Did Hedge Funds Signal the Top in Farm Income?

From the Wall Street Journal:
Glory Days Fade for U.S. Farmers
Plunging Crop Prices and Higher Costs Cloud Horizon for '09 Profits and Land Sales

The Farm Belt, one of the hottest parts of the U.S. economy in recent years, is rapidly cooling.

The Midwest faces plunging crop prices and stubbornly high production costs. Corn prices have dropped from $7.54 a bushel around July Fourth in central Iowa to just $3.81 a bushel on Tuesday. But growers are hearing from suppliers that fertilizer and seed costs could rise by more than 40% each for next spring's plantings.

Some farmers are postponing equipment purchases and considering whether to plant less of such high-cost crops as corn come spring. Stock prices of agricultural companies have plummeted: The shares of Bunge Ltd., which sells fertilizer to farmers and processes soybeans, have dropped 67% since June, while Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., a grain processor and exporter, is 60% off its 52-week high....MUCH MORE


...Most economists see little chance of a farm debt crisis of the sort that battered the Midwest in the 1980s, when the federal government bailed out the largest farmer lender.

Economist David Oppedahl at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago says farmers have unusually strong balance sheets. The debt-to-assets ratio of the farm sector is just 9%, down from its peak in 1985 of 22%. While many urban families heavily leveraged themselves to buy homes in recent years, many farmers were still so debt-adverse that they bought land with cash or made big down payments.

"Agriculture learned its lessons in the 1980s," said Robert B. Engel, CEO of Denver's CoBank, a cooperatively owned lender to agribusiness. "I still think the golden era of agriculture will be with us for another five plus years."

Last April we posted, "Hedge Funds Buying Farmland":

We may have an answer to the age old question: "To Whom?".
For some reason I picture Farmer Jones (with a couple Iowa State Masters Degrees) aw shucking the city folks and I think of Senator Sam Ervin (running intellectual circles around Attorney General John Mitchell, John Dean and the rest of "Richard Nixon's Secret Tapes Club Band"*) and his "I'm just a simple country lawyer" line.
From the Financial Times:

Hedge funds and investment banks are swapping their Gucci for gumboots as they bet on rising food prices by buying farms....

...Earlier Climateer Investing posts:

The hedge fund manager who bought a farm

Crash could follow farm boom; Ethanol Subsidies to be Cut?

Farm visits can ease mental illness

Finally a story from John Kenneth Galbraith:

This tale is said to be told by John Kenneth Galbraith on himself. As a boy he lived on a farm in Canada. On the adjoining farm, lived a girl he was fond of. One day as they sat together on the top rail of the cattle pen they watched a bull servicing a cow. Galbraith turned to the girl, with what he hoped was a suggestive look, saying, "That looks like it would be fun." She replied, "Well.... She’s your cow."