The fact that farm incomes have come under increasing pressure over the past couple of years should come as little surprise to our readers (for those who missed our latest update, see: “Midwest Farm Bubble Continues Collapse As Farm Incomes Expected To Crash In 2017“). Unfortunately, at least according to Bank of America’s Global Ag Chemical team led by Steve Byrne, farmers shouldn’t expect a reprieve any time in the near future.
As BAML points out, the grain commodity farmers of the U.S. are locked in a vicious cycle, the result of which is a perpetually oversupplied market. To summarize the key takeaways, farmers continue to plant so long as cash profits are positive (because depreciation isn’t a real cost and who cares about returns on capital anyway…silly finance people) while yield growth continues to outpace demand growth which leaves markets perpetually oversupplied and commodity prices well below what would be required to provide a normalized profit level for farmers. Meanwhile, since farmers seem to be incapable of unilaterally reducing supply, an external supply shock (e.g. a weather-related event) seems to be the only hope of the industry ever normalizing again.
With that, here is a little more detail on the vicious ag cycle per BAML…
Yield growth per acre continues to average 1-2% per annum…
Yields continue to improve with no sign of abatement as seed technology improves and farmers utilize better information technology (precision ag) to gain better understanding of acreage and maximize yield potential. While weather can disrupt yields year-to-year, directionally yields have improved at a 1-2% CAGR for corn, soy and wheat since 2000. In our view, this will continue to place deflationary pressure on crop prices longer-term, particularly given the extent to which global yields trail yields in more developed ag economies.
…which continues to drive new record highs in production despite an already weak pricing environment.
Global corn production is similarly heading for a new record high in 2016/17, up 7% YoY and driven mostly by an almost equally big rise in yields. The US 2016/17 crop that was just harvested looks especially strong. Concerns over whether ear filling was impeded by the hot and dry summer weather are now fading as the harvest is done and the USDA revised up its yield estimate by 1% to 11.01mt/ha in November. Meanwhile, in LatAm farmers are currently planting for the 2016/17 harvest and production looks even stronger, up 26% on presumed yield normalization and exacerbated by a 7% increase in acreage.
Meanwhile, global corn demand is expected to recover somewhat in 2016/2017 but no where near the expected 7% supply increase.
Global corn demand growth slowed to just 2% per annum in the past two years, due to a drop in global pork production. Corn is the staple diet of the word’s more than 1bn pigs. The decline in pork production was mainly caused by an environmental crackdown in the Chinese farming sector, and the country’s pork production fell by 3% in 2015 and another 5% likely in 2016.
Then in March 2016, China ended its domestic corn price floor, giving relief to pig farmers, and corn demand started picking up again. Corn demand from pig production will continue to rise structurally in the years to come on the ramp-up of new modern mega farms in Northern China. Overall global corn demand can recover to 3% growth this market year (2016/17) and hold up at 2-3% growth annually in the years to come, in our view. However, we have started to see signs of slowing feed demand as elevated corn prices have led to substitution to other feeds, in some instances. Global feed demand levels will be key in determining the aggregate corn demand picture.
All of which is expected to keep global grain stocks at all time highs for the foreseeable future…
World carryout corn stocks are likely to finish 2016/17 at a record high, with stock-to-use ratios up marginally from the year prior. There is debate over the level of Chinese stocks, with estimates ranging from China’s corn reserve estimate of 270Mmt vs USDA estimate of ~110mn mt. The USDA expects Chinese corn production to decline by ~3% in 2016/17, and inventory levels to decline by ~8% in 2016/17 after swelling from 81mn mt in 2013/14 to 110mn mt in 2015/16. Recent policy aimed at reducing production out of lower-yielding regions could also help alleviate China’s elevated inventory position. Media reports have also indicated more than 900 companies have applied for import quotas for 2017, which could be supportive of global prices. USDA data suggests soybean inventories in China remain elevated as well and account for over 20% of global stocks (Chinese stocks to use ration remains well over 100%). China accounts for over 60% of global soybean imports, and thus inventory levels in China are a key factor in gauging global demand expectations. A clear indication of a drawdown in Chinese soybean stocks could provide price support, in our view. Nonetheless, China’s inventory levels, trade data and policy direction will remain key components of corn and soybean prices in the coming year.
And, of course, as long as cash margins remain positive then farmers keep planting…which doesn’t do much for that weak pricing environment.
Farm income, planted acres of row crops, and commodity prices all peaked in 2012 following the prior decade long super-cycle. Prior periods of ag credit cycle downturns lasted 5 years (68-72) and 9 years (83-91) while ag business cycle downturns have averaged 2 years since 1960. Inflation adjusted crop prices have been declining for over 100 years as gains in productivity (+1-2%) and acreage expansion (0-1%) outpace gains in demand (1-2%). New technologies such as precision agriculture and gene editing could accelerate productivity gains in the medium term. Cyclical upside could occur from increased demand for protein, reduced supply from marginal acres, or a weather event.
We expect cash margins for corn, soybeans and wheat to collectively be slightly higher than the prior year, but well below the ~2007-2014 profitability boom amidst elevated prices. We expect crop commodity prices for each to remain low amid elevated global stocks. Profitability will also likely remain a challenge and at similar levels to prior year levels exacerbated by elevated leverage, with US farm debt to net cash income at its highest level since 1984.
In our view, cash margins may have room to fall before seeing a rational supply response. Margins are still above breakeven levels that occurred 15 years ago (1999-2003) and not at levels that could drive meaningful changes in farmer behavior, such as walking away from land rent or simply not planting acres in a given year.
But, at least farmers have that whole trade war with Mexico to look forward to…luckily Mexico is just our second largest corn importer…
In our view, the risk of a trade war with key importers of US crops remains a key risk for the US ag economy. Trade with China (14.8%) and Mexico (13.6%) represent top destinations for US ag export demand. Additionally, a potential border adjustment tax could significantly inflate fertilizer prices and together with lower grain prices could further impair farmer margins. Potential reform to the Renewable Fuel Standard is also a downside risk for US growers given 40% of domestic corn demand is derived from ethanol. A stronger USD resulting from proposed policies would also be a headwind for US growers. Washington will remain critical for agriculture with upside risks being the status quo and downside risks being more meaningful.
It’s pretty rough when your only hope of making money in your chosen profession will come only after a devastating weather event that may or may not force you into bankruptcy.