What might happen to world food prices

Posted: December 1, 2008 in environment, society
Tags: , , ,

Meal Ticket

By Chris Mayer in Rude Awakening – 25. November 2008

“In my own case, the Depression brought a strange result,” writes Eddie Cantor in 1931. “Before the crash, I had a million dollars, a house, three cars and four daughters. Now all I’ve got left is five daughters.”

Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) was a comedian, singer, songwriter and actor. “Banjo Eyes,” as he was sometimes called, was also the author of two little books on the Great Depression. “People used to rob banks,” he writes in Yoo-Hoo Prosperity. “Now we’re lucky when it isn’t vice versa.” Cantor jokes about many troubles in the Great Depression, but one recurring theme is the relative lack of food.

A millionaire is “one who eats three square meals a day.” Things were so bad that “the pigeons are now feeding the people.” They were funny lines…sort of. For many of the people living during those times, Cantor’s jokes were not so far from the truth.

We have it comparatively easy in this, the crisis of 2008. We may have to make do with fewer Swatch watches and Coach handbags. We may have to pass on the latest iPod and make do with last year’s winter coat. These hardships are not important, except for people selling those goods. But the credit crisis is also affecting the world’s ability to produce one thing important to everyone: food.

It’s harder for farmers to get credit for next season’s crop, especially farmers overseas. They need fertilizer, seed, fuel and more. And most farmers need to borrow money to obtain these essential items. No credit; no crops.

Therefore, the global credit squeeze might reduce plantings of key grains, even as world inventories of these grains hover near historic lows. In Russia, for example, cash-starved banks have cut off funding for the industry. The head of the Russian Grain Union says, “Many farmers probably won’t be able to borrow money for the spring sowing.” This is important because Russia is no lightweight in the grain division. It produces 9% of the world’s wheat, for instance. No surprise that the United Nations considers Russia a critical component of the global food supply.

Ironically, Russia just had its best harvest ever. And still, global grain inventories remain low. Bloomberg reports that global inventories of corn, wheat and soybeans are the second lowest they’ve ever been since 1974.

A number of countries already fear what might happen next year. The Washington Post Foreign Service in Shanghai reports that China adopted a number of measures to protect itself from the worsening food crisis: “Among the most extreme measures [China] took was to impose new export taxes to keep critical supplies such as grains and fertilizers from leaving the country.”

These taxes are extremely high, on the order of 150%-185%. China worries that richer countries may outbid its own farmers for supplies and weaken China’s own food supply. One Chinese fertilizer company, which produces 150,000 tons per year, already said that the new taxes mean exporting is no longer profitable.
China was the biggest exporter of certain types of fertilizer. No longer. That’s a lot of supply off the market.

Fertilizers are absolutely critical in maintaining (and improving) crop yields. Without them, we’d produce far less per acre. As a result, in parts of Africa where people depend on Chinese fertilizers, the food supply problem is now more acute. China’s export taxes and bans follow those of other grain producers, including the Ukraine, India, Pakistan and Argentina.

bitterharvest

Amazingly, despite these various maneuvers around the world to prevent grain exports, the prices for wheat, corn and soybeans are all half of their mid-summer highs. It seems the market believes a global recession will dampen demand. Maybe so, or maybe the market doesn’t know anything. The severe commodity selloff during the last few weeks might be saying a lot more about the desperation of hedge fund managers to raise cash than about the prospect that grain demand will fall – in which case, we could see another surge in prices next year.

Demand for grains is still very strong. In China, each wage-earner devotes about 40 cents of every dollar earned to buying food. In India, that number is a staggering 70 cents out of every dollar earned. In other words, the food budget in these countries is hardly a discretionary item. It will remain constant, or even rise, no matter what the global economy does.

Meanwhile, the people in these countries who have a couple of extra rupees to toss around are upping their consumption of meats, which increases the per capita demand for grains. As PotashCorp chief William Doyle recently pointed out: “The average daily protein intake in China has increased by 40% over a 20-year period, with the greatest percentage of that increase coming from meat consumption.” You can see it in the size of the people themselves: The average 6-year-old Chinese boy is 12 pounds heavier and 2 inches taller than 30 years ago. These people aren’t going back to the ways thing were. This is a long-term story, and these trends should continue.

grainypic 

Yet even if demand growth for grains slows, it’s not likely that those low global grain inventories will improve. Even if grain demand fell to 2% per year, we’d still need record production to keep grain inventories from falling further.

For all these reasons, I think the future is still bright for agriculture and all that it entails. I think the fertilizer companies look cheap again. We owned Agrium (NYSE: AGU) for nearly three years, and it more than tripled our money. The stock is now a good one-third below what we bought it for initially.
PotashCorp (NYSE: POT) and Mosaic (NYSE: MOS) are other names I’m looking at hard right now – both have been crushed in this troubled market.

Beyond that, irrigation companies have come way down, even after posting outstanding results. Lindsay (NYSE: LNN) and Valmont (NYSE: VMI) are two irrigation equipment makers, for example, both coming off great quarterly results.

In 1931, Eddie Cantor wrote that the biggest thing in years was bread. “Why, they’re giving it away free! Whenever four men get together at a street corner, it used to be a merger,” he writes. “Now it’s a bread line!” It’s funny now. Next year, it might not be, at least to some.

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