Vulnerability is a word that I have taken to heart a lot in the past few years.
We are vulnerable when we change, or seek change; vulnerable when we are left open to volatile weather or markets; and in agriculture, we are extraordinarily vulnerable when we are without data.
The partial shutdown of the U.S. government, the 10th since 1980, has left data holes throughout agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports were not printed and that left the market in the dark, and all of this at a time when the trade situation is fragile.
The opportunists were waiting in the wings but one can only speculate, unless you have some internal information, what the market volatility and adjustments might look like. This can have a profound effect on Canadian agriculture. StatsCan has warned about the effect on critical Canadian reports.
As many of our commodity markets are tied to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the lack of official data to back up the trade left investors vulnerable, and doubly so for those producing the commodity or using it in a processed food product. Food inspection in the U.S. was also shut down (as was the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) and research was halted.
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From an international perspective, this only weakened the U.S. at the trade table as it come in with outdated data and an ever-weakening economy and dollar. Analysts forecast the shutdown would slow gross domestic product (GDP) growth by US$1 billon per week, even though contracts and the current price (spot price) might trade higher.
The majority of Canadian trade is still with the U.S. and that puts sales at risk in a multitude of ways. When federal employees are not paid, they will cut back on groceries and other essential items. This has a domino effect that is going to have a long recovery time impacting Canadians.
For agriculture, it brings to light the vulnerable place that perishable products reside.
If commodities or products cannot be stored long term, shipped, or processed, it hits hard. There is an artery of food delivery that needs to function at all times. The 2019 projection of the increase of food costs to the average Canadian family will be spurred by real or perceived delivery delays.
More importantly, the scenario reminds us why it is so important to have data as an essential service. Where is the product? Who owns it now? How is it being maintained, sold, or transported? What are investors and traders thinking about that information? How will they process it with/without supporting evidence?
Economically speaking, the U.S. is quickly disintegrating under the folly of its president, and falling from social grace and from its position of world dominance. Canada is a world leader in agricultural product as the fifth-largest global exporter and in world-class food processing (ranking 11th in terms of exports).
This is an opportunity to brush up on our research, data provision, data analytics, and technology applications. We have been seriously weak in this area and have not provided players in the ag sector — producers through to global traders — with the information they need in a detailed enough way to establish essential information such as product identity or even real-time pricing or forward pricing. This strategy also is a benefit to other top trader commodities such as minerals, vehicles, metals, precious stones, chemicals, plastics, wood and all agricultural byproducts.
Private companies are more involved in data services for agriculture than ever, but are still dependent on critical pieces of information such as USDA reports and CME volume and trade.
My question is: Is it our time in history to shift the power from agricultural pricing based on USDA data to Canadian pricing based on Canadian data? And is volume really the key driver or can price be established on attributes and value?
The volatility of markets has always been a handicap and volatility stems from real-time events that are reported and real-time events that are not reported. Canada has value and quality; modestly adapts to technology and data usage; but is woefully short on the application of this knowledge and in self-governing and self-determining that value to external markets.
Data is about putting power back into the hands that feed us. It isn’t enough to know what the price is, but the fundamentals (the why) behind price discovery.
Canadians are great in business, but we do have a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to fully appreciating our position on the world stage, and in particular on the most important stage of all — food.
It’s our turn now to look at enabling legislation, creative data and technology adaptation and a full appreciation of ourselves towards ownership of price structure and volatility and vulnerability in the food space.