Crispin Odey on Agricultural Commodities & Farming ~ market folly

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Crispin Odey on Agricultural Commodities & Farming

The founder of UK based hedge fund firm Odey Asset Management, Crispin Odey, is out with his latest market commentary and investment outlook. Penned on the 28th of February, Odey writes on the slightly tangential, yet increasingly talked about topic of farming and agricultural commodities.

We've detailed how legendary investor Jim Rogers is bullish on agriculture and has also bought farmland. Also, the now famous subprime short-seller Michael Burry also bought farmland. While these well-known investors focus on arable land, Odey's recent commentary expresses concern regarding agricultural commodities and supply/demand imbalances.

Here's Crispin Odey's outlook:

"This is always the time of year when my farming friends ring me up every day to ask 'should they be selling forward their harvest?' The truth is that at this time of year they have little to do other than worry about it, and because they worry they are always early sellers. Like everyone, they are risk averse. By now with the harvest less than six months away, they are probably 65% pre-sold and yet they watch the price rising and falling and of course on weak days they kick themselves for not selling more.

In my hedge fund we are also forced to get involved. We are shareholders in a station in Australia which this year has grown over 23,000 acres of cotton, and plans to grow 25,000 acres next year. Cotton has nearly tripled in price in eighteen months and it is no surprise to find that we sold this year's harvest, which is just about to start, at half the current prices. Why? Because we had sold 2/3 of our crop forward by November of last year. We were the lucky ones because our neighbours further down the Darling River lost most of their crop, thanks to the flooding, and the rise in the price from $100 to $220 per bushel was nothing more than them covering that shortfall. Like many people, they hated taking a loss and the same conservatism that had led them to sell forward, led them to sit and hope that the price would come down before delivery in April. Many of these farmers face bankruptcy, in the best year for cotton in 30 years. This year the farm will make a 30% return on our investment made nearly four years ago. If prices hold into next year we would almost earn what we paid for the farm, in one year. In other words prices are very unlikely to hold!

However, if you look generally at where we are globally, soft commodities are suffering from the same kind of demand/supply imbalance that has driven steel production worldwide to go from 580 million tons to over 1350 million tons in less than a decade. Taking grain production last year globally, the world produced 2.179 billion cubic tons, down 2.4% from the previous year, but up from 1.87 billion cubic tons, produced in 2000. However, consumption was 2.235 billion cubic tons and inventories in thenorthern hemisphere are now 27% below where they were in 2000 and down 15% in a year to 425m tons. The importance of China can't be overstated. The USA increased exports of corn, soy beans, wheat and cotton by 18% last year, but China's share of exports rose by 34%.

Over ten years China's urban incomes have risen threefold; their agricultural incomes have doubled. If you believe like I do that China's growth will not falter until their current account deficit goes negative, my farming friends may have to devise an alternative pastime after the shooting season ends in January, to selling their harvest early.

The corollary of all of this is of course that the cost of living is rising for the developing world at an alarming rate. Most of these countries exacerbate their problems by subsidising food prices. Investors must expect that revolutions, sparked by bread riots, will be part of their diet, for as long as China's demand continues to grow."

More insight from this manager can be found in Odey's previous commentary.

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