The bull market in food

With food prices rising, Merryn Somerset Webb reveals the cheap way into one of the few sustainable bull markets around.

Food is cheap. We've heard (and written) a lot about the rising price of soft commodities recently. We've noted the 9.6% rise in UK vegetable prices in the year to May alone. We've pointed out the shortages of peas, potatoes and cauliflowers, the tortilla riots in Mexico and the suffering caused by high onion prices in India. And this week our attention has been caught by the fact that in Italy, the pasta makers' union has just announced that spaghetti prices will rise by a fifth in September. But all these price rises come against a background of 30 years of falling food prices.

Since 1975 the corn price has fallen 75% in real terms, for example, and as a note from Hugh Hendry at Eclectica Asset Management points out this week, milk and beef prices may have risen in the last year, but it's still been a long, long time since we saw "happy faces on the dairy pastures of England". The result has been a total lack of investment no one expands capacity in a 30-year bear market and also a lack of inventories (these aren't needed when markets are oversupplied anyway). However, as is usually the case, the long bear market in food has created the perfect environment for a huge and long-term step-up in prices. Supply is tight and inventories are low, yet demand is growing fast. It's growing partly because of rising and richer populations, but more dramatically as a result of the fast rise in the oil price. The cost of a barrel of oil has risen 42% since January and is clearly going to stay high. The result is that, as Eclectica put it, "food has become so cheap relative to oil that it seems like a good idea to make fuel from it". And it is this that is turning out to be the catalyst for the new bull market: as land is diverted from growing wheat, peas and cauliflowers to producing the feed corn needed for ethanol production, so price inflation will spread across the sector.

The question is how one can make money out of this. One answer is, of course, to buy a farm. But in the UK land is already priced for its City-banker-status value, rather than its food production, while buying land abroad is easier said than done (I'll be looking at this in more detail in one of our August issues). Otherwise, you can invest in ETCs (exchange traded commodities) there are now several that give you exposure to baskets of grains. But the best way, says Hugh Hendry, is to buy farming-related equities, especially those that produce the kind of modern equipment a bull-market farmer might fancy. Tractor enthusiasts, he says, might go for Case New Holland, a European firm owned by the Fiat family and listed in New York. The shares trade on only 0.9 times sales, whereas John Deere (the tractor brand even I have heard of) trades on 2.2 times. That makes it a cheap way to buy into one of the few sustainable bull markets around at the moment.

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Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.