Repeat of 1980s for agriculture unlikely, economists say

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A farm economy that’s swung from unparalleled optimism to uncertainty in just a matter of months might appear to be a repeat of two decades ago, but there’s more to the story than meets the eye, said two Purdue University agricultural economists.

Although commodity prices are cascading in response to the global financial crisis, farmers should not expect a return to the tough times of the 1980s, said Mike Boehlje and Chris Hurt.

The economists said agriculture is in a much stronger financial position today. Present economic fundamentals also are more favourable, indicating farmers are likely to withstand the economic downturn.

“Agriculture is not immune to the financial slowdown,” Boehlje said. “Grain prices declined by almost 50 per cent from June to October 2008. The

almost $4 decline in corn prices during a four-month period of time is unprecedented in both speed and magnitude. Farmers and agribusiness managers are clearly unnerved by this rapid deterioration.”

Like today, agriculture enjoyed a prosperous period in the 1970s before the bottom fell out in the 1980s, Hurt said. Economic data and history point to a much more severe period 20 years ago, however.

“We’re in a much different situation in agriculture today than we were in the 1970s boom and then massive bust in the 1980s,” Hurt said. “One difference is interest rates are much lower this time. In the ’70s we had moderate interest rates but then we saw them move up in the ’80s, with the prime rate above 20 per cent as we started to fight inflation.

“So we ended up in the ’70s with a lot of debt. In fact, as we look back at the amount of debt, for every $100 of assets that farmers had then they had $22 of debt. Today, for every $100 of assets farmers have only $9 of debt.”

Recession quickly set in during the ’80s, Hurt said, “because too many farmers had too much debt. We saw those high interest rates cause enormous debt servicing. It was very costly with falling prices of corn, soybeans and wheat.”

To pay their debts, farmers began selling land – a lot of it.

“When you force more supply onto the market it causes the price to drop more sharply than it probably should,” Hurt said. “We don’t see that happening this time.”

Farm incomes also have been higher in recent years than in the years leading up to the ’80s recession, Boehlje said.

In 2000 dollars, U.

farm income averaged $51.8 billion per year between 1976 and 1979, Boehlje said. “In contrast, real net farm income has averaged about $63 billion a year for the past five years,” he said. “These recent strong incomes were earned primarily by grain and crop farmers, while livestock producers had much lower incomes and even significant losses during much of 2007 and the first half of 2008.”

Another difference between the late ’70s to early ’80s and today is the way land was purchased.

“In the previous period we looked at, a number of farmland purchases were 100 per cent debt financed, because the lender was willing to take a collateral security interest in property currently owned by the farmer – property that had significantly appreciated in value over the previous three to five years,” Boehlje said. “When income and debt servicing problems surfaced, lenders demanded payment or foreclosed on the property because of borrower defaults, and the dramatic downturn in asset values began.”

Conversely, land values have risen sharply in recent years but “there has not been the years of inflation investing that helped build the speculative bubble in land values in the late ’70s and very early ’80s,” Boehlje said.

“Farmers are financing mostly with their own equity capital,” Hurt said.

The months to come could be bumpy for agriculture and farmers will need to be financially flexible, the economists said.

“If these much lower grain prices that we now experience continue, then we’re going to have to see cost of production also adjust on the downside,” Hurt said.

The full study is available at asp.

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