Rain and post-recession rebound rev up investor attraction to ag

Ag's own supercycle yields fruits from rain and investor cash splash

Agribusiness
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Farming's fortunes are marching in step with an upbeat, post-recession commodities market drumbeat

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In the heady world of commodities markets, agriculture's soft commodity trade often marches to a different drumbeat, but not this year.

Farmers' fortunes are currently pretty much in step with an upbeat, post-recession market rhythm which looks likely to help keep the global economy stoking food sector demand, prices and investment activity.

Although Australia's pandemic recovery trends have turned sour for the moment, much of the world is rebounding strongly from the worst economic slump since the Second World War.

Big earnings from minerals and energy have collided with a handy mix of cheap interest rates and plenty of cash available for investing.

In Australia that investment activity is increasingly spreading to farmland and farm sector processing and trading enterprises as punters take a fresh look at food commodity prices hitting 10-year highs and seek alternatives to putting their money in low-paying bonds and banks.

Weather wins

Importantly, the minerals and energy supercycle has coincided with a fortuitous seasonal turnaround across much of Australia, while poor weather hitting northern hemisphere croppers has subsequently spiked grain markets.

Post-drought livestock restocking efforts are in top gear and farm services companies have generally avoided any earnings backdraft from the coronavirus pandemic.

Australian farmers are also enjoying the advantages of an export-friendly slide in our currency, down from February's peak near US80 cents to predicted lows around US72c by Christmas.

We are into a phase which will still be above trend and consistent with lower unemployment and economic growth - Sally Auld, JBWere

"We have a very accommodating monetary policy helping us at the moment and it doesn't look like changing greatly," said chief investment officer with investment services firm JBWere, Sally Auld.

Although overseas central banks were hinting at interest rate rises, the Reserve Bank of Australia remained "very dovish".

The RBA was suggesting it may not lift the official unsecured cash rate before 2024, which in turn should keep the dollar in check, exports competitive and maintain our newfound current account surplus.

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"That environment will be very growth-friendly for business and investors," Ms Auld said.

"While I think we've passed the peak of the (hard) commodity growth cycle this year, we are into a phase which will still be above trend and consistent with the lower unemployment and economic growth that's indicative of a mid-cycle environment.

Sally Auld, JBWere

Sally Auld, JBWere

"I'd think we have a couple of years for this cycle to play out, particularly given central banks are only just starting any money policy tightening plans."

Agricultural cycles however, were more tied to the weather's vagaries and not always correlating with economic momentum caused by oil or steel demand, or the current commodities boom's enthusiasm for electric cars and rare metals.

Although, in the longer term, the mood within our region was upbeat about Asia's fast rising wealth and more sophisticated food preferences.

This had helped underpin ag markets and drive investment in agriculture's real assets.

Diversifying into ag

"When there's no point in putting your money in the bank and you need to maintain a diverse investment portfolio which isn't too heavy with toll roads and commercial property it's no surprise people buy cattle stations or put money into diversified agricultural investment funds," Ms Auld said.

"Ten or 20 years ago agriculture would have been regarded as a fairly high risk investment space, but now with increasing attention being paid to food security and more managed funds involved in the sector, there's more diverse exposure emerging."

Capital gain returns from real assets also made farmland a good hedge against inflation.

History tells us weather events have a significant impact on agriculture's results - James Ferrier, Wilsons Advisory

Like the increasingly agriculturally-savvy overseas and local superannuation funds draw to assets and rural asset funds, the share market had a similarly positive sentiment about the industry.

Senior analyst and research head at investment advisory group Wilsons, James Ferrier, said equity investors had been buoyed by profit results from the likes of big agribusiness names such as GrainCorp and Elders benefiting from revived seasonal conditions.

They were also heartened by high levels of confidence farmers had in current productivity prospects and commodity prices.

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Wilsons was notably upbeat about current prospects for real asset owner in the beef, cotton and macadamia space, Rural Funds Management; stock feed producer, Ridley Corporation; almond grower and processor, Select Harvest, and former GrainCorp subsidiary, United Malt.

"However, history tells us weather events have a significant impact on agriculture's results," Mr Ferrier said.

"The equities market also has an audience which can quickly turn away from agribusinesses to get better value."

Considerable variation existed in the way farm sector businesses performed, too.

"As far as the investment community is concerned, there is currently a positive vibe about agribusiness and its prospects, but investors' focus is largely on the strongest performers in ag - or in other sectors," he said.

There were no guaranteed spin-offs for agriculture just because other commodities or investment areas were performing well.

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