From the Field: The US-China Trade War Rumbles On and China’s Traders Aren’t Panicking

When Meros first visited China in July to discuss the brewing trade war and its potential impact on US agricultural exports, Chinese ag traders were optimistic.

This may blow over in a few months, they assured us. But by September and October when we returned and discussed dairy, grains and soybeans, the mood was decidedly more resigned.

As of this first week in December 2018, where are we?

The trade situation changes weekly and certainly impacts different US agricultural products differently, but there were several common themes among our talks with Chinese ag trade experts.

  • There is both optimism and pessimism about the future of US agriculture trade: When talking to a range of people, from Beijing policy makers to Shanghai importers, it is the policymakers and academics who are far more pessimistic than traders and industry players.  Policymakers see the conflict through the lens of government-to-government conflict and this tension is likely to continue, even as one tariff is replaced by some other barrier.
  • Chinese traders are looking for other suppliers of agricultural and food products and there is no guarantee they will return to US supply even after the trade war abates.  While some Chinese buyers and their US suppliers initially tried to share the tariff burden or freeze prices at pre-tariff levels in the hope that the tariffs would soon be dropped, this is increasingly unsustainable as the war drags on.
  • The chance to diversify suppliers and develop new trade relationships is considered a good opportunity for China.  Both policy makers or traders saw a good chance for China to focus on both its own domestic agriculture industries and supply chain infrastructures. It is also a chance to deepen relationships with new suppliers around the world and support them in strengthening logistics, an area that the US would normally have an advantage.
  • Trade is flexible. If direct routes to the China market are stopped, products tend to find a way to be rerouted, processed or exchanged through third-countries. Reports of US soybeans heading to Argentina for storage until the trade war abates or products routed through Vietnam are already initial indications of global trade doing what it always does – readjusting.
  • It is a chance for Chinese companies to expand into new and growing markets, including Vietnam or Indonesia, where US agricultural commodities and ingredients are more easily available. “See you in Vietnam!” joked one Chinese feed trader, as she described their new operations in Hanoi where they expect to be able to continue their US feed grain imports.

The interest by China central government to strengthen global grain, oil seed and food supply options and build up trade logistics is clear from the effort put into its One Belt One Road initiative, an ambitious policy of trade development from China through central Asia as far as Europe, using a variety of investments and incentives.

While Chinese traders and importers scrambled to adjust their suppliers for many products, there was no sense of impending doom. Overwhelmingly, it was disappointment at how unpredictable agricultural trade with the US has become. Whether this confidence is well placed or overly optimistic will become clearer in the next months.

 

Meros Consulting is a Tokyo-based strategic business advisory. We work with companies and governments globally to advising on trade dynamics and support business development in the food and agriculture industries.

Meros in the Media: The Disappearing US-China Soybean Trade

Meros discusses how China was able to substitute US soybeans so quickly.

Meros’ Lucia Vancura recently chatted with Nathan VanderKlippe of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper about how China was able to so quickly and completely eliminate US soybean imports in the last few months since the 2018 marketing year started in September. Did they find alternative suppliers? Did they substitute for other feed ingredients?  How could US soybean exports to China, which are 25% of US production, really be substituted out so quickly, particularly since US soybeans are still price competitive with Brazil, Argentina and other sources, despite the 25% tariffs?

The Chinese government may not have explicitly forbidden Chinese traders from importing US soybeans, but as VanderKlippe reports from our conversation “in a country where political favour remains a key factor in corporate success, China’s reach extends deep into the private sector, too.” The Chinese government does not need to issue a ban on buying US soybeans. It just has to send a clear message that avoiding US soybeans, despite the favorable price, is the expected approach.

The full article is behind a paywall but available here:  https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-soybean-trade-shows-resolve-of-china-as-it-pushes-back-on-us-demands/

In the short-term, since September, China has used a variety of tools to make up for the elimination of US soybeans. This has included increased soybeans from Brazil and other countries and increased use of soy protein substitutes, including rapeseed or canola meal, pea and domestic Chinese DDGS. The Chinese government also released new guidelines for a lower-protein swine feed ratio that decreases the amount of soy protein needed (the Chinese soy protein ratio in feed has been much higher than, for example, in the US swine feed ratio because the price of soy has been so reasonable but there is not necessarily a nutritional need for so much soy in China’s swine feed) and China’s major feed mills have agreed to these new standards. Other measures have included releasing soybeans from government stockpiles and using more of their domestic soybeans for feed (rather than food).

Looking at the longer term, China may import some US soybeans later this year to fill the remaining gaps, but their on-going efforts to find alternative suppliers, substitute products and a big-picture effort by China to invest and expand in agriculture supply channels world-wide are only opening more opportunities and risk diversification for Chinese traders. The longer the trade war goes on, the more chance Chinese traders will more permanently replace US soybeans in their trading portfolio.

 

Meros Consulting is a Tokyo-based strategic business advisory. We work with companies and governments globally to advising on trade dynamics and support business development in food and agriculture industries.

 

Five Key Trends in Global Agricultural Land Investing

The Global AgInvesting Asia 2018 conference was held October 2nd and 3rd at the Tokyo American Club, marking the third time the event has been held in Tokyo since it moved from its previous host city of Singapore. The event aims to help Japanese institutional investors gain a better understanding of overseas agricultural investment opportunities and what makes these opportunities attractive. The event was an interesting chance to hear updates on a wide range of topics, including agricultural land investment as real estate investment, investment into agricultural distribution businesses, opportunities in agritech and developments in agricultural insurance.

Because agricultural land investment is a dynamic investment area, with growing interest from institutional investors, here is a summary of some of the key trends in agricultural investing, based on presentations and discussions at Global AgInvesting Tokyo as well as on our own knowledge.  A pdf version of this discussion can be downloaded at the end of this post.

A Global AgInvesting Panel with Takuma Yoshida (Chief Executive Officer, SEIRYU Asset Management, Ltd.), Masaya Hara Managing Representative, Albourne Partners Japan), Yoshifumi Kida (Manager, Foreign Equity and Alternative Investment Department, Nippon Life Insurance Company), Akitoshi Yamada (Managing Director & Head of Japan, Patheon Ventures (Asia) Limited).  Photo: Meros Consulting

Trend 1: Agricultural land investment greatly increased in the 2010s

Investment in agricultural land by institutional investors such as pension funds had been growing gradually since the 1980s, but had become increasingly controversial in the early 2000s. A 2008 report by the international non-profit GRAIN gained widespread attention for its analysis of increasing global farmland investment and their characterization of this foreign investment in agricultural land as land grabbing. Large-scale investment in agricultural land was hit with heavy criticism, especially as agricultural commodity prices were soaring at that time due to tight supply. Still, according to financial data service Preqin’s database on fund procurement by agricultural land investment funds, agricultural land investments by institutional investors accelerated further in the 2010s after the financial crisis eased.

This acceleration in agriculture and agricultural land investments was driven by institutional investors such as pension funds, government funds, university funds and large family offices. Institutional investors have been looking to expand alternative investments and farmland investment has become an attractive option for balancing risk and return. Agricultural land investment can become a way to hedge risk, since farmland prices are continuing to increase and there is relatively stable revenue from land rent or agricultural product sales. The fact that agricultural investments have a limited relationship with traditional asset investments such as stocks and bonds is also a plus.

Interest from the agriculture side in attracting funding has also increased significantly. South America, particularly Brazil, has abundant unused farmland and Eastern European countries such as the Ukraine still have opportunities for investing in large-scale agricultural development. Even in developed countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, farmers are increasingly borrowing land from investment funds who have purchased farmland, and investment funds themselves are increasingly entering the farm management business. This is because farmer debt is rising in these countries, as farms try to increase scale for greater efficiency, while the capacity of individual farmers to continue to buy new farmland is limited. When farmland is consolidated under an investment fund and put up for sale, it is common for another investment fund to purchase the whole piece of land rather than selling plots separately to individual farmers.

Trend 2: An investment model has been developed for managing agricultural land investments

One reason behind the increase of investment funding for farmland is the development of an investment model to manage agricultural funds, using US-style limited partnerships.

Source: Meros Consulting

Agricultural land management requires highly specialized management capabilities. There are diverse risk factors to cope with including unpredictable weather and changing market prices; operational environments and systems differ greatly from one region to another. However, thanks to the growth of fund management companies with General Partners (GP) who are specialized in managing farmland in specific regions or countries, an investment model has been established where foreign institutional investors such as pension funds who have no background in local agricultural situations can participate as a limited liability partner (LP), without being involved in management and only receive dividends.

Major agricultural land fund management companies include TIAA Asset Management under the umbrella of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), which possess about 770,000 ha of grains, oil seeds, sugar cane and wine grape production in Australia, Brazil, the US, Eastern Europe and other regions through multiple funds; Hancock Agricultural Investment Group under a major life insurance company Manulife, which holds about 140,000 ha of fruit trees, nuts, grains and other farm produce production mainly in the US, Canada, Australia; and Proterra Investment Partners, an investment team formerly part of Cargill which invests in agricultural land and businesses in Australia, the US and Asia.

Trend 3:  Investments have been slightly slowing recently due to lower returns

On the other hand, some funds are withdrawing from agricultural land investments. For example, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, a public pension investment organization which purchased about 97,000 ha of farmland in Canada and the US after 2012, revised its plan to expand agricultural land investments in 2017 and has decided to focus more on down-stream agricultural industries such as distribution. This is due to the fact that almost half of their farmland was located in Saskatchewan, Canada where regulations on agricultural land investments were tightened, and also because land investments did not proceed as expected in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. [1]

In addition, global market prices for agricultural products have recently been decreasing, and the situation is becoming even more uncertain due to the US-China trade war. The price of agricultural land has soared due to inflow of investment funds, and so the return on agricultural investment (total of income and capital gains) is decreasing. As such, agricultural investment is slowing compared to the past, even though agricultural investment by institutional investors is continuing to increase.

Trend 4: There is a growing perception that agricultural land investment can have positively impact sustainable development and environmental goals

Despite the recent slow-down, investment in agriculture is still considered to have promising prospects in the mid to long term, given the increasing global population and the need to grow food supply.  Compared to 2008, when concerns about land grabbing created intense controversy, agricultural land investment has gained a more positive image over the last 10 years and institutional investors have increasingly been able to use their agricultural land investments as evidence of their commitment to responsible ESG (Environment, Society and Governance) investing or their support of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

As a response to concerns that foreign agricultural investments were simply land grabs, the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly formulated the “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI)” in 2010. This reflected the UN’s “Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)” enacted in 2006, which laid out guidelines for institutional investors to incorporate consideration of ESG issues into their decision-making process. ESG investments are expanding and the number of institutions that have signed PRI exceeded 2,000 in 2018.

At the same time, the concept of “impact investing”, initially advocated in 2007 by the Rockefeller Foundation, has also steadily gained mainstream acceptance, as seen, for example, by the establishment of the G8 Social Impact Investment Task Force at the 2013 G8 Summit. As a result, the idea that investment, if done carefully, can have positive social impact became increasingly widespread.

The SDGs adopted at the 2015 UN Summit further strengthened this trend. Unlike past global development goals, the SDGs target not only developing countries but also developed countries and encourage the active involvement of private enterprises to contribute to reaching the SDGs. In particular, agricultural land investment has been seen as potential tool for achieving Goal 2, “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

In other words, there is growing discussion about how responsible agricultural investments can contribute to solving global food challenges through environmentally friendly and sustainable farmland management, as well as by optimizing limited land and water resources.

Trend 5: Japanese institutional investors are beginning to show interest in overseas agricultural investment 

Japanese institutional investor Nippon Life Insurance Company (Nissay) announced a JPY 10 billion investment (around USD 90 million) in an Australian farmland investment fund from the Hancock Natural Resource Group under Manulife, in April 2018. It is the first farmland investment by a large Japanese life insurance company. Also, SEIRYU Asset Management, a fund operator of the Japanese Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), has also started working with a forestry investment fund abroad and, according to our discussions at Global AgInvesting, expects to continue exploring farmland investment opportunities.

Japanese companies do have strong interest in foreign investment. However, there are few successful cases of agricultural investments. In 2018, Mitsui closed its Brazilian subsidiary Multigrain, its grain production and distribution unit, and other Japanese companies have hesitated to enter the agricultural land investment market. Still, with the entry of Nissay into the market this year, there may begin to be more interest by other Japanese companies, who carefully watch the first movers.

[1] Reuters, 2017.4.27, “Exclusive: Canada’s CPPIB pension fund plans farmland retreat – sources”

Five Trends in Agricultural Land Investment 2018 (Meros Consulting)