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January 2011 Archive for Current Marketing Thoughts

RSS By: Kevin Van Trump, AgWeb.com

Kevin Van Trump has over 20 years of experience in the grain and livestock industry.

Funds Aggressively Scooping Up Farm Land

Jan 31, 2011

Hedge Funds, Pension Funds and Investment Bankers seem content on swapping out their Jaguars for John Deeres.  I was talking with a good client of our's the other day who is not only a large producer, but also active in the Agricultural Banking sector about the continued interest from the "funds" in farmland...and you thought you only had to deal with them in the markets.  From what I have been told, the "funds" have been aggressively buying farm land not only globally, but in big chunks right here in the US as they continue to bet on rising food prices.  It is now believed that over 50% of all farmland is owned by individuals who do not farm any ground.  Most investors and fund managers believe it offers them a terrific inflationary hedge and a very stable income. If you believe past performance is an indication of future results then they are definitely on to something.  A look inside the numbers will show you that the returns to direct investments in farmland have exceeded stock and bond returns over the last 5, 10 and 15 years.  Investors are seeing cash returns of  between 3-5% each year.  It’s certainly enough to allow the "big-boys" to sleep easy, especially if you factor in the overall appreciation in the land values.  Land values for years had grown in the mid-single digits, but now the percentages have advanced into the double digits, depending on land quality.  There are a few surveys out there that show Illinois farm land in many parts has grown by more than 10% in just the past six months alone.  On top of that, the consistent returns have been much less volatile than investments in other areas.  The question though is with prices significantly escalating will the volatility continue to remain low.  If you figure the funds are looking for at least a 5% annual return to make the investment work meaning commodity prices are going to need to continue pushing higher.  If the prices set-back and the farmers can no longer afford the high "cash-rents" the funds could be left holding a loosing hand.  How long do the stay in the game before they fold their cards and look for the next bubble?   I personally think we are aways from it, but with so many investment funds buying up the ground it wouldn't take more than a couple of back-to-back years of lower prices to flush them out.  This would put a lot of acres on the market all at once and certainly cause prices to set-back.  As long as global demand continues to surge I think prices will justify the rent's.  If we start to see supplies consistently increasing it won't be long before the "For Sale" signs start going into the ground in record numbers.  I have even spoke with a few investors who feel the risk to reward is starting to swing the wrong direction for some of the prime properties in Iowa and Illinois.  Investors are now looking to "dry-land" ground in areas like Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, the Dakotas, and now even aggressively into Canada.  The Canada play is very intriguing to me, especially in areas of Saskatchewan or in other undervalued areas. I am certain I am not telling you anything you don't already know, but Canada has some very high quality farmland land that is still flying under the radar.  You can find some very productive ground still in the $500-$600 per acre price range, making it some of the least expensive / most productive farmland in the world.  Another reason I like farmland in Canada, over some of the emerging markets in Argentina, Brazil or Russia, is that Canadian farmland is supported by first-class storage, processing, and shipping infrastructure, and to me there just seems like a lot less "political risk".  Though I have not invested in it myself, you could consider Agricapita.  From what I am told they buy land in western Canada, primarily Saskatchewan, to take advantage of the large price differential which has developed between Sask and its neighboring provinces (up to 300% difference) and western Canada and the rest of the world, due to ownership restrictions that have largely been repealed.  If your looking to invest in South American farmland you may want to check out Agrifirma, they supposedly purchase low cost arable, but non-producing land. Then they do the work to bring it in to production then either manage or sell the property for a profit.  As yet there are no "real estate investment trusts" (REIT's) that I am aware of who deal exclusively with farmland, although I have heard a couple are on the way.  Rumors are "Optima Fund Management" has said it wants to build such a REIT over the next three or four years with diverse holdings from Iowa soybeans to California vineyards. There is also some talk circulating that "Gladstone Land Corp." out of Virginia is wanting to start a farmland REIT at some point later this year.  It looks like the funds are not only in our markets, but will soon be our neighbors as well.
 
 

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The Ethanol Battle Begins

Jan 28, 2011

 

If you haven't heard as of yet there is a "heavy weight" battle set to take place between those for ethanol and those against ethanol.  The debate has been brewing for some time now, but I am predicting the gloves might come off sooner than we may have thought.  In just the past couple of days there have been some major developments.  In the "Green" corner the challenger "Ethanol" is attempting to knock off the current champ, and some of the "old money" is not taking it lightly.  On Jan 25th Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas introduced the "Leave Ethanol Volumes at Existing Levels Act".  Claiming the EPA has hastily approved using additional ethanol, and they want more studies to be done.  Burgess's main concern is that the EPA came to their conclusion too quickly.  I think there may be more to it than that.  In fact from what I have heard both have taken their fair share of money from the "oil & gas industry".  I have heard Inhofe has been banking big bucks from the "Champs" corner since at least 1990.  In fact the Federal Elections Commission shows that he has received more than $1,000,000 in campaign contributions from his oil and gas supporters.  Burgess is believed to to still be in the six figures, but has been supporting the "Champ" since at least 2002.  I will guarantee this, the big oil money in this country is not going to go down with out a massive fight...they have too many years and too many dollars invested.  The problem is guys like Tom Harkin, a Democratic Senator from Iowa are starting to get under their skin, and seem to be content on challenging their reign of control both at the pumps and at the White House.  Harkin, along with some of his constituents have definitely raised the stakes now by introducing their own piece of legislation, called the "Biofuels Market Expansion Act of 2011."  If the bill were to get passed, I am told it would essentially ensure an increasing number of automobiles in the US be flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs).  It would also expand the number of blender pumps and make renewable fuel pipelines eligible for the federal loan guarantee pipeline program.  In easier to understand lingo, they want to build an extensive infrastructure for ethanol by placing alternative fuel pumps at the gas stations, and trying to mandate more alternative fuel vehicles be available in the marketplace.  Their goal is to have 50% of the vehicles offered for sale here in the US be some type of flex-fuel vehicle with ability of some to run off of 85% ethanol...WOW!  I have to believe the Oil folks might have a little something to say about this one.  Look for things to heat up quickly. 
 

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Ethanol & Politics...Why It Might Not Mix

Jan 26, 2011

 With global fuel prices surging US ethanol demand could soon skyrocket.  The US has generally lagged behind South America as far as global ethanol exporting.  The global market generally looked to Brazil for a less expense blend of ethanol made from "sugar".  Now that sugar prices have escalated to an extreme level, US ethanol is much cheaper and is now in much greater demand.  Throw in the fact that here at home that ethanol prices are now below gasoline prices, all of a sudden we have the potential for massive demand.  You almost have to believe that corn prices must push their way higher fairly quickly in order to somehow slowdown and ration the amount of corn being used for ethanol production.  If the demand for ethanol continues to grow, and corn prices stay at the same level, ethanol plants are almost certain to chew through corn at a record pace.  In addition increasing ethanol demand will certainly bring more pressure and take away corn from livestock and poultry production.  Ultimately putting more pressure on meat production and driving livestock prices higher.  What you have to realize is that we are closing in on record low ending stock levels that were established "PRE" ethanol or biodiesel days.  If you subtract all of the usage that the ethanol plants will be using during the next few months we are certain to be well below historical lows.  You mark my word, despite the recent cheerleading for "bio-fules" political pressure will soon start to mount on this entire "ethanol" game.  John McCain is already throwing a fit in DC about farm subsidies and the recent passing of the blenders tax credits.  If the blenders feel more pressure beginning to mount and fear that the government is going to pull the plug, I can almost guarantee you that they significantly ramp up production, trying to squeeze every last penny out of the extra incentives before they dry up and go away.  If this happens "old crop" corn will be in very short supply.  I continue to like selling new crop put premium and using the revenue to purchase old crop calls.  An example would be selling the December $5.00 puts and buying the July $7.50 calls. 

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South American Weather Update

Jan 25, 2011

There is a great piece of information circulating that calculates an index known as the "Normalized Difference Vegetative Index" or "NDVI".  This weather tool uses the chlorophyll response seen in satellites to determine generally crop moisture levels.  Then some math wizards use the information and apply it to historical yield numbers to give a better indication of what we may see coming down the pipe.  As of right now, and from what I could gather the "NDVI" is showing poor readings in many parts of Argentina's main belt.  To be specific there are many sections in Buenos Aires, Cor-doba, and Santa Fe that are very poor.  In Brazil the "NDVI" points out problem areas to be in the western part of Rio Grande do Sul and select southern areas of Mato Grosso do Sul.  If you apply this information to the most recent long term weather forecast for Brazil, I personally don't see many problems ahead.  The forecast are calling for more rain through January particularly in the western and southern areas, and specifically some of the drier areas of Mato Grosso do Sul and Rio Grande do Sul.  You would have to believe these rains would certainly help their overall yields.  In my opinion Argentina has a few more concerns.  Yes, recent rains have certainly helped their situation, but from what I hear there are still some significantly dry areas particularly in South central Santa Fe, and Central and Southern Cordoba. Recently though, forecasters have penciled in a round of rain for these areas as well.  You know how I feel about betting on the weather or should I say the weather forecasters.  If the rains come as anticipated it looks like both Brazil and Argentina could escape this crop year in descent condition (for beans).  For now this is the news and information the trade will have to play off of.  If I were forced to guess, I would have to imagine a monkey-wrench will get thrown into the mix at some point.  We will either see too much rain at harvest (the same thing that happened to Australia), or the rain may simply never come at all.
 

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Why The Soybean Basis Is Starting To Slide

Jan 21, 2011

I continue to field calls asking me about the soybean basis, and in particular why it is weakening.  I am sure many there will be many out there who will want to debate my thoughts.  In the simplest form, I believe that most farmers elected to sell their beans and store their corn this past year.  At harvest the corn story was running wild and farmers across the country were coming up extremely short.  Many had made sales earlier in the year and wanted to hold what little they had in order to be able to say they made some sales at the higher prices.  In order to free up cash farmers decided to move the beans, therefore shifting ownership over to the elevators (commercials).  As exports and domestic usage has slowed, the commercials are sitting on descent supplies.  From what I am hearing it could take several weeks or even a couple of months before they will be able to chew through all of the inventory they are currently sitting on.  With this being the case they have simply widened the basis.  I also believe they are banking on the fact that Brazil and Argentine will begin to get a lion's share of the worlds export business.  What will make the basis improve?  Obviously an increase in domestic usage.  Possibly an increase in the crush, greater demand for soybean oil due to the reinstatement of the biodiesel tax incentives.  I think the most pressing reason though will be if the harvest in South America gets pushed back even further or they run into some type of production glitch.  If that were to happen the world will immediately look to the US for supplies.  The commercials could be caught with their pants down and forced to scramble for beans.  Hence the basis would strengthen in a hurry.  I think our bean exports in Feb will be higher than last year and may actually surprise some people.  There are some areas in Southern China that seem to working through their inventory fairly quickly and I have also heard that beans from Brazil are now penciling at a profit for several Chinese crushers!.  
 

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China Changes Their Tune On Corn Imports

Jan 17, 2011

If you remember, last week the word coming out of China was they had "officially" killed all thoughts and talk regarding "corn" imports for 2011.  They had plenty of corn, and at the current price levels had no need or intentions of importing any corn.  How quickly things change.  Over the weekend the Chinese Grain Network now claims that China may actually need to be a net importer of at least 1 million metric tons of corn this year because the government price-control operations have diminished their corn reserves.  The 1 million ton estimate is certainly lower than most in the trade had been projecting, but better than "none".  It is tough to get any accurate data out of the Chinese government or their agencies, so who really knows the truth.  I am continuing to hear reports out of China that they are expecting their corn consumption to increase from 3% to 5% this year.  If the rumors are correct, and the Chinese government only has about 7 million tons of corn left in reserves, things could certainly get tight.  Talks on the inside claim the Chinese government has burned through about 30 million tons of their corn reserves trying to slow prices in 2010 and have yet to replenish.  This essentially leaves them with less than one month of consumption.  I find it highly unlikely that they will be able to keep from importing in 2011.
 

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Argentina Corn Suffering Permanent Damage

Jan 13, 2011


Despite what the numbers may indicate and despite the recent rains, a majority of the damage to the Argentine corn crop has been done already.  Locals are saying that pollination is starting to be very spotty, the ears are extremely short, and the test weights are going to be lighter than normal.  For my-non producers, you have to realize that once corn experiences poor pollination, the affects can not be reversed later in the growing season.  If the weather does happen to improve the benefits will only help the corn planted later in the year.  If the weather improves dramatically I have to believe Argentina still only ends up with a crop of about 20 million tons.  The only thing that will improve is the crop planted later in the year.   If the weather stays hot and dry...yields could fall apart and drift downward to 16 or 17 million tons.  In summary you have to believe the damage has already been done, the question remaining is how bad will it get and how low will yields fall...not "if" yields will fall.  
 

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Why the Livestock Market is Headed Higher

Jan 11, 2011

 

 
I am now hearing reports from very reliable sources that South Korea has now had to destroy close to 1.2 million animals. From what I hear they have now found over 110 cases of the disease in infected livestock. The word is most of the animals killed were pigs and cattle. Traders in the industry are now becoming more concerned than ever before that export demand from South Korea and eventually China will soon spike much higher. The big kicker is South Korea has also suspended imports of German pork over the whole dioxin contamination crisis. This has to make US pork more attractive on a global basis. Don't be surprised if traders continue to add premium to these markets, at least until they know more about the severity of this problem, how far it will spread and how much livestock will have to be killed to keep it from spreading.
 
DON'T FORGET...The USDA report is scheduled to be released tomorrow morning at 7:30 CST. This is certain to be a barn-burner and could push the market in either direction for several days.
 
 
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Argentine Soy & Corn Crops Could Be Overestimated

Jan 10, 2011

 

Despite the USDA's current Argentine soybean crop estimates of around 52 million metric tons, I continue to hear reports from those on the ground and close to the source that the Argentine crop might not make much over 40 million tons.  If that number proves to be anywhere close to correct, it would be a huge shock to the trade and certainly send prices higher.  In addition I continue to hear lower numbers regarding Argentine's corn crop.  I don't know if we will see confirmation from the USDA anytime soon, but I am going to stick with my sources and anticipate the crop will come in below 20 million metric tons.  I think Argentina could be worse than many people are reporting.  I am going to continue to stay long, and willing to bet we see the numbers start to drop during the next several weeks. 

   

 

What Happened to the Grain Markets and Why?

Jan 07, 2011

 

I fielded a ton of calls the past few days from farmers who have been worried about the recent set-back in the grain prices.  If you are getting our daily report, then you were privy to our timely "Cash Sales" that we made late last Friday and early Monday morning. These were small sales, but none the less very timely.  
 
I followed that up with a small story on Tuesday that you can see below:
 
Farm Direction Daily Report (small section of the report)
Tuesday, Jan 4th 2011
 
I will call it a "Self Fulfilling Prophecy". A situation that evokes a particular behaviour that makes the original conception come true. That is what is happening right now in the commodity markets. This entire fund "reallocating" or "rebalancing" act has all of the new "bulls" spooked and scared to get in the water, while the "weak-kneed" longs are scrabbling to get to the sideline.  You could argue that the weather in Argentina has improved dramatically or that increased farmer selling has pressured the markets lower, but you would only be kidding yourself. The facts are the Argentine weather story is still in tact (yes, some rains and cooler temps, but heat and more dry conditions on the way), farmers are still not moving much grain, the USDA could announce record highs in demand and record lows in supply in just five trading days, massive acreage battle, etc, etc, etc... I told you on Monday when I recommended the cash sales on the open that you needed to be leery of the trade. Not for the long-term, but rather to look for a short-term setback this week "prior" to the highly touted fund rebalancing. The "bulls" may get ready to run once we get past this bearish facade, until then I have to believe the "smart money" continues to sit and patiently wait to buy the breaks rather than chasing the rallies. The "outsides" are certainly not going to help stop the bleeding.    
 
I then commented on the Informa data after it's release:
 
Farm Direction Daily (small section of the morning report) 
Friday Morning, Jan 7th 2011
 
Our friends over at "Informa" continue to be the "Grinch" of the grains.  It certainly has left the "bulls" scratching their head and a little rattled by their latest estimates.  For those of you who didn't see the numbers yesterday, Informa basically released the following estimates: 
    • They raised their corn crop estimate for China by about 4.5 million metric tons.  Essentially making their numbers very similar to the numbers China's government has been putting out (172.5 million metric tons).
    • They estimated the Argentine soybean crop to be at 52.8 million metric tons...  This is higher than the current USDA estimate of 52.  The market had been looking at numbers well below these levels as of late. 
    • They estimated the Argentine corn crop at 23.75 million metric tons.  While the Buenos Ares Grain Exchange recently estimated the crop at just 20.3 million metric tons
    • They estimated the Brazilian corn crop at 53.2 million metric tons. 
    • They estimated the Brazilian soybean crop to be 69.3 million metric tons...  This is close to 2 million metric tons higher than the USDA's estimate.  The trade is seriously starting to worry that a larger Brazilian crop will offset any types of losses from the Argentine crop. 
    • They estimated Australian wheat production at 26 million metric tons....this is also higher than the current USDA estimate of 25.5.  They do expect about 10 million metric tons to be downgraded to feed quality wheat. 
    • They raised their Argentine wheat forecast to 15 million metric tons...  Once again a much higher number than the current USDA estimate of 13.5 million metric tons. As you can see from the numbers above this certainly was not what the market had in mind.  Considering the massive wave of bearish news and tone of the market the past few days, I personally think we have hung in their fairly well.  The Informa information certainly throws up a "red flag", especially if you consider their credentials. 
There is also fear now that the massive global supply of "feed wheat" is really starting to weigh on corn exports.  I am hearing that several countries are upping the imports of "feed wheat" rather than ponying up for the higher priced corn. 

Despite the recent reports and bearish news I continue to remain extremely bullish long-term on thoughts that the Argentine corn crop may come in much lower than the USDA or Informa has estimated, and that record ethanol production and record demand will push the ending stocks to use ratio to record lows.  I could go on and on listing my bullish convictions, but I think most of you have already heard them.  Right now I would continue to use the breaks in the market to get yourself in position for the upcoming acreage battle and extremely tight ending stocks.     
 

I hope this helps all of my friends and followers get a better feel for how the market sentiment quickly changed this week.  Next week is certainly going to be one for the books.  Almost every trader I know is predicting either "Limit-Up" or "Limit-Down" action off the news. 

 

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Getting "Bullish" The Livestock Market

Jan 05, 2011

 

I am moving from "Neutral" to a bullish rating of "1" in both the cattle and hog market. I will be looking to be a buyer on the pullbacks or a seller of puts on a heavy break to the downside. I have felt these markets may be due for a significant pull-back but I just don't see it happening any time soon. There are just too many bullish variables in the air and the market seems content on trading higher. Don't get me wrong there will certainly be some set-backs, I just don't think many sustained breaks to the downside will last very long. The higher grain prices are almost certain to keep the herds from expanding, and export demand looks poised to push even higher. The latest talk of "Foot-and-Mouth" disease, and that South Korea may need to import more meat ASAP could fuel the markets even higher. Not only are reports circulating that it is the worst outbreak of foot and mouth disease in over a decade, but now there are talks of bird flu outbreaks. On Sunday there were rumors floating around in South Korea that several new cases of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, along with a couple of first bird flu outbreak had been spotted. The Ag Ministry has since come out and confirmed that there were actually seven new cases of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle and pig farms found this past weekend, and they also confirmed their first two cases of bird flu (not seen in more than two years). The part you may not have known, is that this brings the total number of cases of foot and mouth disease to 85 in just the past 33 days. I can not be certain to how this will play out, but back in 2002 a similar type outbreak spread rapidly and resulted in an 160,000 animals needing to be killed. I have heard the government has hit the panic button, and in just the past two weeks have vaccinated more than 450,000 head cattle in hopes of preventing the spread of the disease. They have also slaughtered 100,000 birds to try and stop the bird flu outbreak. Any way you slice it this is bullish the market longer-term. If these diseases starts to spread traders will get very nervous with China just around the corner. If the herd is trimmed to eliminate the spread then South Korea may be forced to increase imports. Regardless, any country that has to use vaccinations to regain disease-free status from the World Organization for Animal Health are subject to extensive testing, resulting in massive delays in exports. 
 
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Fertilizer Prices to Push Higher

Jan 03, 2011

 

There is no debating the fact that fall weather was quite accommodating to getting fertilizer spread for the 2011 crop. For those who's cropping plans have changed and you need to buy fertilizer in the spring, the financial pain could certainly shock you. With many in the industry projecting double-digit percentage increases next year in the variable cost of producing corn, wheat and soybeans, fertilizer cost have to be one of the main driving forces behind the escalating cost. I doubt I am telling any of you something that you don't already know, but from the data I have seen, central corn belt fertilizer prices for ammonia (a leading source of nitrogen), have risen by almost 50% in just the past six months. During this same period, market prices for phosphate have risen close to 40%, and potash has climbed by more than 10%. Of the three, I am hearing that potash could be the most volatile, with prices in the Midwest around $520 a ton and more than likely rising to prices in excess of $740 a ton by the spring. Just like everything else in the Ag industry, fertilizer is more and more a world market. I hope you followed my lead months ago, when I told you that China, one of the leading producers and users of fertilizer was kicking around the idea of imposing 110% export tariffs on urea and phosphate fertilizers, and that it would drive our domestic prices here at home higher...Well guess what? It has happened, and it only looks like it will continue to get worse in the coming months. If you look inside the numbers you will see that farmers here in the US spent around $44 billion raising their crops in 2010, and more than 40% has gone to fertilizer. Right now the USDA estimates average per-acre fertilizer expenses for 2010 at $124.26 for corn, $57.32 for wheat and $22.46 for soybeans. As we move towards spring these numbers are certain to rise. Make sure you have yourself covered. I know several followed my initial lead last time, because several of them have sent me personal "Thank-You" cards on how much I helped them save. Don't miss it this time around...fertilizer prices are going higher!
 
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