Category Archives: macroeconomics

Too Much Corn and Too Much Deflation.

Today’s photo, above, is another from my helper, North Dakota photographer, Rick. This photo demonstrates the poor corn yield from a newly converted marginal land out of CRP into corn acres, in North Dakota, in response to high corn prices and a policy which pays for crop failure, and does not pay a competing price to keep acres in CRP. Rick’s accompanying comment for this photo was “New CRP cornfield: no weed control, no fertilizer, nothing.” (I can’t tell you how sad this story makes me, and you as a taxpayer should be outraged, dear reader.)

If you haven’t noticed, you haven’t been paying attention. All the buzz from our quasi expert economists lately is one word: DEFLATION.

In actuality, this condition has been smouldering for more than six years, or so, but QE-ternity and QE-Krugman have stolen the stage psychologically, even trying to scare us with inflation fears from time to time. Nothing combats deflationary forces like promoting fears of inflation, as there is a large psychological component to deflation, along with the inevitable deleveraging that must take place when an economy has over-leveraged itself. There are just no easy answers when an economy gets to that point, but the ride up sure was fun, wasn’t it? Perhaps your choice is to focus on the potential for collapse and doom, and there are plenty focusing on that, judging by the number of websites and zombie-apocalypse stories which have surfaced these past few years. We might be fine, at this moment, if we had smart, ethical leadership, i.e. a working government and a true democracy right now, but we don’t. Neither do we have a healthy press that can be a watch-dog to the process. Our newspapers continue their demise. And deflation isn’t going away because we also still have big banks that are too big; the goal is still to get everyone to sign their lives away to some type of note, whether it be auto, student, house, land, cell phone, or credit card so we can live beyond our means; and, then, in the end, no one’s saved for their retirement in a new era where we are, on average, expected to live to age 86. And speaking of life-expectancy, our health costs continue to spiral out of control even as we experiment with a new governmental health system that lacks that very thing, the reigning in of costs. What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Sorry, I’ve digressed badly.

Back to the purpose of this post. What does deflation mean to agriculture?

It’s pretty much agreed that the developing nations’ economic pictures are no longer so rosy, so previously anticipated demand from them may not come to fruition. Besides,they’re getting pretty good at large-scale ag commodity production themselves. We can no longer take for granted export markets in agriculture, and are relying more upon trade agreements. Some of those quasi expert economists which I referred to earlier are in Japan-speak right now, talking decades-out deflation. With an agricultural system that is built upon a mix of supply and demand forces, and policy-driven forces, each of those will be hurt during deflationary time periods. Demand will go down, both domestically and globally. Policy supports will probably back off as well.

Which brings us to the subject of corn.

We already knew we had too much of it and there are rumblings that there’s way more corn out there than the USDA is currently reporting. My family is telling me that there is the biggest daily-growing pile of corn in their small town in Eastern Nebraska, that they’ve ever seen. Corn is piling up everywhere. Farmers are holding on to it in hopes of better future prices even as the EPA has sanely reduced the previously set RFS limits to react to the blend-wall problem, driving its price down further.

Farmland prices are leveling off, as they should be, and there is no doubt that between QE and ethanol policy, the price of farmland is in a bubble.

As other areas of our economy are hit by deflation, agriculture will be, too. Today’s must-read is by Ed Clark, who wrote “Today’s Debt Level Surprisingly Close to 1979,” in which he states, “Featherstone is not predicting a repeat of the 1980s, yet he says the similarities between 1979 and 2012 are striking. ‘If there is a bust, it most likely would be caused by a drop in revenue than higher interest rates.'”

The corn farmer’s revenue is dropping. Per bushel corn prices are under their cost of production. Demand for corn is down.

And in the Midwest, the region which dictates agricultural policy for the whole U.S., it’s all about corn.

What Did the Average U.S. Household Spend for Food and Transportation in 2012?

The BLS has reported average U.S. expenditure rates (per consumer unit*) for 2012.

From the report, as compared to 2011:
• Average before-tax incomes went up 3.0 percent to $65,596
• Average annual expenditures went up 3.5 percent to $51,442
• Total food costs went up 2.2 percent to $6,599
• Transportation expenditures went up 8.5 percent to $8,998

In the pie graph below, I have taken the BLS data on food and transportation expenditures from the report and divided them by the average annual total expenditures (for the average consumer spending unit*) to come up with 12.8 percent spent for food, 17.5 percent spent for transportation, and 30.3 percent spent for the two categories combined.

The changes in per consumer unit* expenditures over two years reveal that the food category expenditure went up 5.4 percent in 2011, followed by 2.2 percent in 2012, whereas the transportation expenditures went up 8.0 percent in 2011, followed by 8.5 percent in 2012.

This year, the BLS also reported expenditure averages according to race. For example, Hispanics are spending 15.5 percent on food, and 19.7 percent of their total expenditures on transportation, according to the BLS.

It’s worth noting that the USDA also reports these statistics, and with a different set of numbers. The USDA reports that Americans spent 15.0 percent on food and 20.5 percent on transportation in 2012. Each year, the USDA’s expenditure numbers vary from this annual BLS expenditure report, and the reason why is unknown to me, but I’d venture to guess that they are using a lower income scale subset of data. The USDA also states that the food share of consumer expenditures is down from 17 percent in 1984, as consumers “spend a greater share of income on housing, health care, and entertainment.”

Another unanswered question for me, is how food benefit programs such a food stamps and free school breakfast and lunch programs enter into the consumer food expenditure data. I’d expect that these programs lower the BLS’s food expenditure percentage numbers from what they would otherwise be, since that portion of food cost is not an expenditure for the respective consumer spending unit, something important to consider when glancing at the data.

* A consumer unit, as defined by the BLS, averages 2.5 persons, 1.3 earners, with 1.9 vehicles, 64 percent of which are homeowners.


3 Picks: Gluten-Free Wheat, Plant Microbiology, Economic Optimism

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Washington State University Researcher ‘very close’ on celiac-safe wheat, herbicide-tolerant barley: By Matthew Weaver. “Von Wettstein is working to develop nutritionally improved, celiac-safe wheat cultivars and breeding barley cultivars for the Pacific Northwest that would be resistant to the herbicide imidazolinone, commonly used by farmers. Von Wettstein said he has wheat lines where he’s obtained a 76.4 percent reduction in the accumulation of the key gluten proteins. The next step is silencing the remaining percentage.” [Sorry about the dead link, but Cap.Press website is under construction today. It should be available later.] UPDATE: Article still not available. I also found this, “Taking the Glower out of gluten.”

2) Report Proposes Microbiology’s Grand Challenge to Help Feed the World: “A greater focus on the role of microbiology in agriculture combined with new technologies can help mitigate potential food shortages associated with world population increases according to a new report from the American Academy of Microbiology. “Microbes are essential partners in all aspects of plant physiology, but human efforts to improve plant productivity have focused solely on the plant,” says Ian Sanders of University of Lausanne, chair of the colloquium that produced the report. ‘Optimizing the microbial communities that live in, on and around plants, can substantially reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.'” Improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions has the potential to increase crop productivity by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%, within 20 years, because all plants rely on microbial partners to secure nutrients, deter pathogens and resist environmental stress.

3) Calculated Risk is Bullish on the Economy: by Bill McBride. Some of you may know that McBride has almost never been wrong in his outlooks, so everyone pays attention when he provides one. He is more optimistic about the economy right now, than previously, he says. “It still appears economic growth will pickup over the next few years. With a combination of growth in the key housing sector, a significant amount of household deleveraging behind us, the end of the drag from state and local government layoffs (four years of austerity mostly over), some loosening of household credit, and the Fed staying accommodative (even if the Fed starts to taper, the Fed will remain accommodative).”

BONUS: This link provides state and regional farms that allow pick-your-own produce. Since it is harvest time, this is a great way to support these farms and find a healthy source of local food, too.

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.