If the events in Egypt have shown us anything in the past few weeks, it's that developing economies can turn unstable in the blink of an eye when an economy is stretched and people are hungry.
Arable land is in short supply in Egypt, but oil exports helped keep the economy in balance for years. Apache (NYSE: APA ) does well with its production in Egypt , but in general, Egypt's total oil production is in a steep decline, and its recent inflation in basic foodstuffs added fuel to the economic and political fire in the country.
Prices on the rise
Wheat is just one agricultural commodity that has risen dramatically in price in the past year. Last winter wheat was plentiful and cheap. There were talks of growing stockpiles in China to maintain food security, but even this demand wasn't moving prices up. Wheat producers merely hoped that inventories would normalize, and that the situation might improve in a year or two. Then everything changed. In the spring, flooding hurt Canada's wheat production and prices started to rise, but they really took off when wildfires decimated Russia's crop.
The price increases have kept coming, and rice and corn have made big moves, too. Now, with much of China's wheat crop exposed to drought conditions, the country's stockpiles may soon be consumed. It seems that prices for grains won't be cooling off anytime soon.
Australia has an important role to play
Australia exports 60% of what its farms produce. Globally, it's a top five exporter of wheat, barley, sugar, and cotton. Australia is also the top exporter of wool and a leading exporter of other livestock and dairy products. Clearly, it will play an important role in meeting the emerging world's growing demand for grains and livestock.
From year to year, Australia's production can be volatile because of the notoriously unpredictable weather down under. That includes this year's flooding, which has damaged a good portion of Australia's sugar crop for this year and next. There is a bright side to the recent flooding in Queensland, though: It has replenished aquifers and allowed farmers to refill water storage systems, which should boost production over the next few years.
It might be different this time
Agricultural commodities are cyclical, and that won't change. There will still be boom and bust periods, but population trends and growing emerging-market economies will likely make the booms higher and the busts shallower. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world's population is set to grow by 10% in the next eight years. The bulk of this growth will come in Asia and Africa, and the USDA sees the demand for wheat imports in these regions growing by 20% over the same period.
Historically, farmers take advantage of high prices by planting more of what's in demand and less of what isn't. This is a natural way of correcting imbalances, even if farmers don't ultimately get the windfall they expected; historically, prices quickly fall as production ramps up. Now, however, demand for grains for fuel production and the population forecasts for growing emerging economies will likely change this dynamic.
A diverse investment crop
PotashCorp (NYSE: POT ) , Mosaic (NYSE: MOS ) , and CF Industries (NYSE: CF ) have been great ways to play the agricultural boom as farmers invest more in fertilizer to boost yields. Canada's Agrium (NYSE: AGU ) , through last year's acquisition of AWB, has the additional benefit of offering a direct way to benefit from Australia's growing agricultural sector, and there are more than a dozen other agriculture firms listed on Australia's ASX exchange. Most of them have Pink Sheet listings in the U.S., too.
Finding the right buying opportunities
In order to prepare for this burgeoning global opportunity, the Global Gains research team is traveling to Australia in the next couple weeks to meet with a few of the companies focused on feeding Asia and the world's growing demand for grains, cotton, and sugar. While some of them are attractive values now we plan to vet all of them in advance, enabling us to pounce when a buying opportunity presents itself.
If you'd like to do the same and read all of our dispatches from the field while we're down under, simply enter your email address in the box below.