24 Mar

Who’s really the best investment bet in ag?

AGRICULTURE delivers great long-term returns compared to many other investment alternatives – but first you have to see past the snake oil salesmen, dodgy farm profit calculations and false assumptions about global food shortages.

Nor should investors assume big-budget corporate farms are more capable of making money than family farmers says Victorian rural sector financial consultant David Cornish.

Better access to plenty of capital can help build bigger farming enterprises and can buy economies of scale and helpful positions in processing or marketing ventures, but “size isn’t everything”.

Describing it as the curse of the Y chromosome in agribusiness, Mr Cornish said “for some reason men all want to be the next Sir Sidney Kidman”.

While there were economies of scale in big farms, all operations had a tipping point where profitability declined, particularly when corporate models became hamstrung by too much land or livestock to manage effectively, big administration costs and big hourly rates.

“Contrary to recent reports in the media, I believe the death of the family farm is grossly exaggerated,” Mr Cornish, from Ballarat, told this month’s Outlook 2016 conference.

“The difference between a farm enterprise making a top 25 per cent return and an average return can simply be a matter of days.

“Precision, speed and flexibility can often get lost as operations get too big.”

In his experience, when it came to delivering results for an investor, no structure worked better than a family operation, particularly if the choice was between putting money into a corporate farming enterprise or a joint venture where family workers had “skin in the game”.
Family-based enterprises generally had far fewer human resources complexities to deal with, showing more incentive to be multi-skilled and flexible to manage seasonal and market variations.

Wheat-sheep farming zone operations proved the most flexible in their ability to respond swiftly to changing economic signals.

Mr Cornish said business systems requiring high labour and energy inputs would always be disadvantaged in Australian agriculture where low cost ventures made profits, but high cost operations lost money in the longer term.

His experiences as an agribusiness banker turned farm adviser are supported by Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) research which points to larger family farm operating rates of return outperforming big corporate farms in the past five years.

Although corporates did beat family farms in the beef sector, averaging 2.5pc compared to about 2.25pc, family cropping enterprises averaged about 5.5pc return against 3.5pc for corporates.

“The most likely explanation is family farms are operated by people who own them who have strong incentives to maximise returns while managing exposure to risk and they do this with a relatively long-term view,” said ABARES senior economist, Peter Gooday.

ABARES also noted agricultural investment by the genuine corporate sector was actually less than 20pc in the past 20 years, with corporates tending not to buy and develop family farms, but rather trade big operations between themselves.

Mr Cornish argued “a large dose of scepticism” should apply to claims family farms could not keep up with the capital requirements or technological advances they required to stay profitable and thus corporate agriculture had a better funding base and the best expertise money could buy.

Promises of big opportunities arising from looming global food shortages should also be treated with considerable due diligence, he said.

United Nations and World Bank estimates showed 216 million fewer people now chronically undernourished than 25 years ago and population growth slowing to less than 0.5pc by 2050 – growth levels last seen in the 1700s.

Real farmgate prices for wheat, lamb and cattle in Australia in the past decade had kept pace with inflation, “but there’s no new paradigm when it comes to commodity prices”.

Yet if investors went into agriculture alert to the potential pitfalls and unrealistic spin, returns could easily outpace those from a typical superannuation fund portfolio, achieving after-tax rates of about 9pc over 10 years.

Between 2006 and 2015 Australian shares (after fees and tax) returned 5.53pc; international shares returned 4.8pc; property – 5.4pc, and bank deposits – 5.06pc (fixed interest) or 3.82pc (cash).

“I include about 4pc capital gain for farmland over 10 years, even though that may have been near zero for the past six years and up to 20pc in the six years before that,” he said.

“Investing in agriculture makes sense, but in Australia the homework needs to be done on how you make that investment and, with whom.

“That is far more important than what commodity you invest in.”

Source: Andrew Marshall, Stock & Land http://www.stockandland.com.au/story/3793240/whos-really-the-best-investment-bet-in-ag/?cs=4583