Thursday, April 18, 2013

Commodity trading houses under fire

Commodity trading houses are secretive, largely unregulated, pay relatively little tax and, until recently, have made big profits. Not surprisingly, they have come under increasing scrutiny with the Financial Times headlining a major investigation on Monday ahead of its global commodities summit which was marked by an anti-industry protest. NGOs argue that their speculative activities increase volatility, creating more uncertainty for farmers, and force up prices for consumers. They also reinforce asymmetries in north-south relations. For a special issue of Food Ethics on this subject go here: Food Ethics

Leading commodity houses such as Cargill are reacting by saying they need to be more transparent about their activities. But there is a tension there, because it is having an information edge in relation to supply and demand patterns that enables a commodity house to trader profitably. Their defenders would argue that they enable the market to work more efficiently by clearing the market and helping price adjustments. They link regions of surplus and deficit around the world.

Commodity houses cover a number of sectors of the economy including minerals, metal and oil, as well as agriculture. According to the FT, the net income of the largest trading houses since 2003 surpasses that of the combination of mighty Wall Street banks Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, or that of an industrial giant such as General Electric. They made more money than Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford Motor, BMW and Renault put together. However, times are now more difficult, particularly since the recent drop in commodity prices. Aggregate profit growth has stalled.

When I have attended specialist agriculture conferences, someone from Cargill is often there, but they generally keep a low profile. Probably their own data is better than that being presented. William Wallace founded Cargill in 1865 as an Iowa grain elevator, but it now operates in 65 countries, employing 140,000 people. The company is privately held by about 80 of Wallace's descendants, although staff have a 17 per cent stake. It is by far the world's largest trader of agricultural commodities, a turning point being when it bought rival Continental in 1998. It has the biggest market share in key raw materials such as sugar, corn and wheat, putting it in a position to be a price maker rather than a price taker.

Cargill's name is well known, but there are also less known companies in niche markets. For example, the Hamburg-based family-owned Neumann Kaffee Gruppe is behind the beans that go into one in seven cups of coffee worldwide. Swiss-based trading house Ecom Agroindustrial mills more coffee beans than any other company. According to the World Bank, its clients include Starbucks and Nestlé. Company turnover in 2011 was in excess of $4 billion.

The sector is largely unregulated. Switzerland, the main hub of these companies, has admitted that 'Physical commodities traders are, in principle, not subject to any oversight.' The tax burden is low. According to the FT, they pay less tax than oil or mining groups or Wall Street banks.

But the growing level of scrutiny is ringing alarm bells. Cargill has warned that trading houses must embrace ethical and transparent business practices or risk getting into hot water with regulators.

Hoovering up farmland

Sir James Dyson has bought up thousands of acres of Lincolnshire farmland, reports Farmers Weekly. He is believed to have paid some £150m for more than 6,800 ha./17,000 acres through a new company Beeswax Farming (Rainbow) Ltd. He has purchased much of the Norton estate which was destined to be Britain's largest dairy farm until the plan was defeated by animal welfare activists, backed up by objections from the Environment Agency.

There's nothing new about wealthy investors or even institutions buying up farmland, indeed the institutitional involvement has been greater in the past and led to a report. One of the advantages of owning farmland is that it does not incur inheritance tax. Some critics argue that farm land values are bumped up, making it difficult for 'genuine' farmers to expand or enter the market. Average English farmland values reached £22,500/ha (£9,100/acre) in the last three months of 2012. If you borrowed to buy at those sort of prices, you could not fund the lending out of farming.

There has been a fierce debate in Farmers Weekly about whether young farmers should be given a hand up the farming ladder if they are not going to inherit a farm. The general view seems to be against special subsidies, and indeed one would not want to create a new category of subsidy. Many would-be farmers have to settle for being a farm manager.

One argument in favour of some form of subsidy is the ageing farm population, which applies across Europe. However, the figures may be somewhat misleading as the nominal head of the farm may be semi-retired.

One challenge has been the reducing number of county council farms available for rent. For many farmers these relatively small farms served as the first, but sometimes the last, step on the road. Like many farms, they survived by the farmer's partner working. However, many county councils have been selling off these farms to realise the capital.

Farming is hard work and demands a wide range of skills. The returns are often little better, or even worse, than the minimum wage per hour worked (although not on arable farms in Lincolnshire). Of my two nephews from a Welsh hill farm, one has moved to Manchester where he pursues an urban lifestyle. The other works the farm with his father and evidently enjoys his way of life.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Life imitating art

The battle over the future of Bridge Farm in The Archers has been won by the hard headed business case over the more sentimental 'way of life' arguments associated with Pat Archer's affection for her cows. I thought that possibly the script writers were a bit behind the curve as in today's economic climate farms have to be run as a business. But I am also aware that farmers work very long hours in arduous conditions for returns that are often little better than the minimum wage, particularly on livestock farms.

It was therefore interesting to see a 'way of life' argument from a farmer who said that if money were the driving force he would be better cashing in and living off the interest (I don't think he would get much of a return at today's rates unless he moved into risky products). He took exception to remarks made by agricultural economist Sean Rickard who said that the weather was not to blame for small producers not being able to cope. The farmer argued that the weather affected everyone. That is true (subject to regional variations), but I infer that what Sean Rickard was arguing was that larger farms have a better capacity to cope with such events, e.g., they have more access to finance and better economies of scale.

Consumers are attracted by visions of the traditional family farm, but one also has to be hard headed about the financial dimension if the business is to survive and prosper.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Farmers face early SFP hit

Farmers are likely to face an immediate hit in their 2013 subisdy payments. 'If farmers budget the same as for 2012, they may be in for a nasty surprise,' warned Richard King, head of research at the Andersons Centre.

The proposed EU budget includes a 9 per cent in CAP funding. But one of the oddities of the system is that this year's single farm payment (SFP) will be based on the new CAP budget, but under the current SFP regime. The result could be a cut of about 10 per cent in the single farm payment. This comes at a time when many farmers have been hit by the unseasonable weather. This particularly applies to livestock farmers in higher areas who tend to operate on small margins.

The 10 per cent figure may be a little high, although Richard King insists that it contains a margin for safety. The Commission envisages a cut in single farm payments of marginally under 5 per cent (4.98 per cent) in 2013, equivalent to an overall cut of €1.47bn from the Pillar 1 budget of €44.1bn. This figure will have to be approved by the European Parliament. The cut is the first time that the 'financial discipline' included in the 2003 Fischler reforms has been triggered.

The difficulty is that farmers have become very dependent on subsidies to make a profit. This is the problem with subsidy dependency. Faced with cash flow problems, farmers have been borrowing more. Bank of England agricultural lending figures show farmer borrowing increased to almost £13.5bn for January 2013. This compares to £12.2bn in January 2012 and £11.7bn in February 2011 (albeit there is an inflation component in those figures).

One recommendation is that farmers should consider hedging at least part of their single farm payment to protect against exchange rate fluctuations. This could make thousands of pounds difference, but it is only an option for larger scale farmers.

Other farmers need to consider whether they want to stay in low margin businesses like dairying. There is a risk that if farmers sell their cows and machinery they may then be tempted to live on the assets while the capital value of the farm (if owned) deteriorates. They need an alternative business plan in place.

Fans of The Archers will note the controversy caused by Tom Archer's argument that Bridge Farm should stop milking its own cows and buy in the milk it needs on the market. Although the scriptwriters had the character put it tactlessly, he is right: milking cows is time intensive and the real money is to be made adding value to milk by making niche products such as organic ice cream and yoghurt.

The real difficulty for farmers is that they do not face a level playing field given the buying power of supermarkets. That is not going to change any time soon. But farmers need to recognise that subsidies are going to fall more in real terms than they have in the past.