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'Inflationary expectations' are not so well-contained with U.S. agriculture

Section: Daily Dispatches

Fields of Gold

From The Economist, London
Saturday, February 23, 2013

On the basis of headlines alone, you might be forgiven for thinking that last year's record-breaking drought had devastated American agriculture. Across the Midwest (and farther afield) more than a thousand counties in 26 states were declared natural-disaster areas -- the largest such ruling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has ever made. Yet despite withered crops, sun-baked soil, and damage from wildfires, some think that farming is in the midst of another golden age, thanks to booming commodity markets and record prices for farmland.

In recent years strong global demand for food and biofuels has been pushing crop prices higher. The drought has helped, not hindered, profits. For farmers able to produce corn (maize), it raised prices dramatically. The average price of corn was about 20 percent higher last year than in 2010, and reached $8.49 a bushel (25kg) in August. For everyone else crop-insurance payments have stepped in, reaching a record $14.2 billion in payments in mid-February, a figure that is expected to go on growing a bit as insurers finalise the claims. This year, according to a report from the USDA on February 11th, farm profits may rise by 14% to $128 billion, the highest in real terms since 1973.

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As crops are bringing in higher prices, and with interest rates at historic lows, farmland has become increasingly valuable to investors. Prices have been rising surprisingly fast. According to a new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, prices in the Midwest leapt by 16 percent last year. Moreover, 2012 was the third consecutive year of big jumps in agricultural land values, and the increase was the third-largest since the late 1970s. Between 2010 and 2012 values rose by a cumulative 52 percent, matching the gains of 40 years ago.

Land values in Iowa, the biggest corn and soyabean producer, jumped 20 percent, the most among the five big agricultural Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin are the others). The Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, which covers a different area, also reports a 20-25 percent increase in farmland prices from a year ago.

Such frothy numbers are drawing many comparisons with the farmland boom of the 1970s, which was followed by a bust in which land prices fell by 40 percent from their peak. In July last year Brent Gloy of Purdue University in Indiana told a symposium on farmland prices that increases were on a par with the most dramatic seen in the past 50 years. The rapid growth has already worried regulators, and as early as 2010 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which insures bank deposits and monitors the industry's finances, sent a letter to lenders warning them to not let high farmland values lull them into lax lending practices.

Many observers are now wondering whether a repeat of boom and bust is on the horizon. Some hopeful people, as well as the USDA, argue that farm debt has not soared as it did in previous farm booms. Others point out that the picture is more patchy. Allen Featherstone, a professor at Kansas State University, has studied farms within the Kansas Farm Management Association. He found that in 2010 the average debt-to-asset ratio was higher than it was in 1979, and that there was a higher percentage of farms with ratios of more than 40 percent debt to assets, and more with 70 percent or more. If commodity prices take a dive downwards, the future for some farmers will be far less golden.

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