Investing in agriculture requires thorough research

Since the price hike of food and other commodities in 2008, agriculture is one of the hot topics in the investment community. This is also fuelled by the perception that the world might face a food crisis. For those looking at investing in the food sector, there are many possibilities, but in this sector as in many other investment types, caution is required. The investment community is a pool of sharks, and the name of the game is to sell at a profit. Beware of the salesperson!

According to Jim Rogers, a famous investor and former partner of George Soros, farmers will be the ones driving Maseratis in the future. He believes firmly that, in the future, those who actually produce the commodities, instead of brokers, will make fortunes. It is a very interesting point of view, although history tends to show that the power in food value chains is in both ends of the chain: genetics and marketing to consumers. Becoming a farmer is not an investment. It is a job, and a busy one. Farmers need to generate cash on a regular basis to provide for their families and keep the farm in business. Land is not liquid. Investing is about reaping the profit when selling at a higher valuation.

For those interested in owning farmland, there are possibilities to buy large acreage in many countries. A recent article published in CNBC presents some strategies.  Large private investors seem interested in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada. Prices of farmland have been firming up in the US. There are people advertising for Brazilian farmland who promise you a yearly guaranteed (not clear how, though) of 12%. In the former communist Eastern European countries, many farms are for sale. Net importing countries such as China, India and Arab countries choose to invest and develop farmland in Africa. For investors with a strong stomach, Africa may be a place of choice. The continent is pretty much for sale. However, the ownership of the land is not always very clear and the rules of engagements may vary. If you only wish to lease land, you might be interested in Ethiopia: the country is offering 100-year leases for $1 per acre. Although some offers may seem irresistible, buying farmland or a farm is a complex endeavour. Many factors weigh and things may not be as they seem. What is the quality of the soils? How is the climate, and in particular are there risks of floods or drought?  Is there proper access to water? What are the local regulations in the country where you are thinking of buying? How much bureaucracy should you expect? Who are the suppliers, and how they deal with their customers? Is there access to quality supplies? What are the banking facilities and what type of credit can you get? How are the infrastructures for storage and logistics? What access to markets do farmers have, and how is the marketing chain organized? Today’s situation may not be a good predictor of the future, and problems may loom ahead, as Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City told in an interview to Agri-pulse.

If farming or owning farmland is not your thing, there is always the possibility to invest in commodities with futures contracts. Instead of buying the hard commodity, which would take quite some space in your garage, you just do the same but on paper only. This is a risky business though and it should be left to the pros. Originally, futures had been introduced to give farmers the possibility to fix in advance the selling price for their crops, instead of waiting for the spot market at harvest time. Futures contracts have been taken over by the Wall Street geniuses who brought us the Great Recession. Also realize that nowadays the future contracts prices reflect the supply and demand situation of paper contracts, not of the actual physical market. The result is that futures markets are all about speculation and most transactions are made with borrowed money. Speculation may be about the weather, planted acreage, expected yields or plant diseases. Any news is cause for rumours and markets may change direction without warning. If agricultural commodities interest you, you may prefer to invest in funds that include these commodities, and therefore offer a lower risk. Another possibility to get money at work in the agriculture and food sectors is by buying shares of companies involved in agricultural value chains. For instance, when commodity prices increase strongly, the logical (?) thinking of stock investors is that the next food crisis is ahead and that the world is about to run short of food, which will stimulate farmers to plant more and therefore require more inputs. Especially shares of fertilizer suppliers always shoot up in such situations, all the more so as there are just a few of them. This gives them a strong bargaining position, and they pass on sharp price increases to the farmers… which is why the margins of farmers usually suffer after a year of high commodity prices. In the agricultural sector, it is important to remember what I said about which links in the chain have the strongest position, as this will affect their bargaining position and their ability to get, or to keep, the added value. Weak links will always underperform, while the stronger ones will outperform compared with the average of the sector, that is for as long as these companies are managed properly. Investing in stocks always require a thorough financial analysis, as well as a good understanding of the quality of the management. How does the future look like for a particular company? Does it have a sustainable competitive advantage? How does the future look like for the sector of activity of this company? What is the track record of performance? Does it depend on world market prices or is it more predictable than that? How is the valuation of the company?

Another type of investment that is gathering momentum in the agri-food business is new technologies start-ups. With worries about the future of oil, and especially oil prices, and the challenge of providing enough water to produce crops, many new technologies try to find their way to market. The sector of new technologies attracts many investors, probably because it seems reminiscent of what happened in the tech sector, therefore giving hopes of high return. I come across such ventures regularly, and every time I hear enthusiastic stories from the owner or from the venture capitalists involved. In many cases, the story is about how this new technology is going to revolutionize the way food is produced, or even it will be the solution to hunger. Returns on investments always sound amazing, making one wonder why this has not been on the market for some time already. For such projects, too, it is essential to do the proper research on the claims that the owners and financiers are making. In many cases, I find difficult to get the proper background to support the financial results that they claim. In even more cases, I do not see any real thorough market research, and instead of explaining in which niche they will operate, the market story is about macroeconomics. The macroeconomics may be true, but except for the unlikely event that the particular technology would indeed take over the world within a few years, they are not a relevant description of the actual market possibilities within the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also projects that have strong cases, but they are a minority.

In all cases, a number of simple rules can save you from a very painful experience.

  • Do not invest in something you do not understand.
  • Do not mind hypes and tips.
  • Take all the necessary time to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
  • When in doubt, do not invest.
  • Ask as many questions as possible. When investing, information is power, and lack of information is weakness.
  • Ask independent third parties, and never ask advice from someone who has a vested interest in your transaction.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is exactly that.
  • Investing is not mandatory, and if you miss an opportunity, there will be other bargains later again.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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