Agriculture is a complex, diverse and dynamic industry.
The potential impacts of economic news on profitability are not always clear, especially at the fast pace the world is evolving. There are so many connections between economic trends and agriculture that it can be hard to identify the most relevant factors to monitor in today’s marketplace. This is why it is always useful to stop and think about those economic drivers that are most likely to affect profitability in Canadian agri-food markets.
What are the top five economic drivers agri-business owners should monitor in 2012?
1. Global economic growth
Global economic growth would certainly come at the top of many lists.
Income growth and the emergence of a more affluent middle class in less advanced countries has had a positive impact on world food demand for the last few years.
Consider the case of China. Chinese officials recently revealed that the growth rate in gross domestic product (GDP) in the last quarter of 2011 was 8.9 per cent, down from the previous period’s growth of 9.1 per cent. While the estimate suggests decelerating income growth in China, it is also reassuring that inflation is falling at the same time.
In the opposite scenario, growth in the neighbourhood of 10 per cent accompanied by high inflation could be unsustainable and could ultimately have a negative impact on agri-food markets.
The European debt crisis continues to represent a significant risk to the global economy.
There are two main channels through which the crisis impacts Canadian agri-food markets: trade and financial spillovers. The impacts on trade are somewhat minimal; but a further fall in the value of the euro against the Canadian dollar would make Canadian products less competitive against goods sold by European businesses.
The impacts of a full-blown crisis triggered by Greece abandoning the euro or other countries threatening to default on their debt payments are harder to predict. The Bank of Canada estimates that the annual costs to the Canadian economy already amount to $10 billion, or 0.6 per cent of our GDP.
2. The changing policy environment
A second important driver of Canadian agri-food markets in 2012 is the policy environment.
We already know that the removal of the Canadian Wheat Board’s exclusive marketing rights will change how producers in Western Canada market their grain. Canada is currently engaged in different trade negotiations and has expressed the desire to expand the scope of countries it's negotiating with. Should a trade agreement with Europe be finalized in 2012, it would open up markets for crop and cattle producers, and perhaps be accompanied by higher dairy imports into Canada.
Trade negotiations with South Korea and within the Trans-Pacific Partnership could also generate new opportunities and challenges.
Discussions about the next American Farm Bill are also worth monitoring because it impacts the relative strength of Canadian producers in the North American marketplace. Budget pressures on the U.S. federal government may force lawmakers to abandon direct payments to producers, a saving of $5 billion per year.
What, if anything, will replace these payments? Introducing a shallow loss program, in which revenue losses of five or 10 per cent may be covered, could be seen as favourable from a budget perspective given strong crop receipt prospects in the short term. This, however, could evolve into significant payments following a downturn in the markets and again confer some sort of advantage to U.S. producers.
The U.S. government may also choose to revise its country of origin labelling policy as part of the next Farm Bill discussions.
Environmental policies, food safety initiatives, labelling regulations, etc. are other policies that could significantly impact profitability in 2012.
3. Production outlooks
The production outlook in major agriculture-producing regions is another important driver.
Drought worries in some parts of South America have caused concerns for corn and soybean crops. Existing wheat inventories are currently at the second-highest level on record, so weather worries offer less support to wheat prices.
Weather conditions also impact the livestock sector. A drought in Texas caused excessive culling of animals and will undoubtedly have a negative impact on cattle numbers for years to come. This will support North American beef prices because it will delay any potential American herd expansion.
4. Canadian dollar
A fourth driver of profitability is the value of the Canadian dollar. Half of Canadian agri-food production is exported and a strong dollar hurts the competitiveness of Canadian businesses.
Given that Canada produces and exports many natural resources and commodities, the value of our dollar tends to be tied to prices of these commodities, especially oil. At current oil prices, the historical relationship between the value of our currency and oil suggests that our dollar should be slightly above parity with the U.S. dollar. But current uncertainty in the global economy slightly pushes down the value of the loonie. Hence, the dollar is expected to fluctuate around parity in the near future.
5. Farm input prices
Finally, farm input prices round out our top five list of economic drivers to watch in 2012.
The farm input price index of Statistics Canada climbed almost 10 per cent in the last year. Given income growth prospects and increased food demand, cost components of agriculture production such as fertilizer, land and energy will remain elevated in 2012.
Fertilizer demand is expected to increase given pressures to increase yield and production globally. High energy prices are supported by economic growth, as well as the result of unpredictable turmoil in the Middle East. Interest rates are expected to remain unchanged for most of 2012. The low interest rate environment coupled with strong crop receipts support elevated farmland prices.
There is a great deal of optimism in Canadian agriculture. Weather or unpredictable economic conditions make it challenging for agribusiness owners to establish definite year-long business plans. Understanding economic drivers is one way to help you plan more strategically in an economic marketplace that is uncertain, but which contains many opportunities. In the coming year, we are committed to checking back in on these issues and monitoring other trends that may impact your bottom line.