Hedge Farm! The Doomsday Food Price Scenario Turning Hedgies into Survivalists
By Foster Kamer
May 17, 2011 | 8:16 p.m
On the rare occasion that New Yorkers talk about farming, it's usually something along the lines of what sort of organic kale to plant in the vanity garden at the second house in the Adirondacks. But on a recent afternoon, The Observer had a conversation of a different sort about agricultural pursuits with a hedge fund manager he'd met at one of the many dark-paneled private clubs in midtown a few weeks prior. "A friend of mine is actually the largest owner of agricultural land in Uruguay," said the hedge fund manager. "He's a year older than I am. We're somewhere [around] the 15th-largest farmers in America right now."
"We," as in, his hedge fund.
It may seem a little odd that in 2011 anyone's thinking of putting money into assets that would have seemed attractive in 1911, but there's something in the air-namely, fear. The hedge fund manager and others like him envision a doomsday scenario catalyzed by a weak dollar, higher-than-you-think inflation and an uncertain political climate here and abroad.
The pattern began to emerge sometime in 2008. "The Hedge Fund Manager Who Bought a Farm," read the headline on one February 2008 Times of London piece detailing a British hedge fund manager's attempt to play off the rising prices of grains in order to usurp local farmland. A Financial Times piece two months later began: "Hedge funds and investment banks are swapping their Gucci for gumboots." It detailed BlackRock's then-relatively new $420 million Agriculture Fund, which had already swept up 2,800 acres of land.
Even Michael Burry, the now-defunct Scion Capital founder and star protagonist of Michael Lewis' The Big Short-who bet against the housing bubble in 2008 with credit default swaps to enormous profit-gave a rare interview on Bloomberg TV last year, explaining that he's thrown his hat into "productive agriculture land with water on site" as it's going to be "very valuable in the future." (Like most of those asked to comment for this story to The Observer, Burry declined to discuss his investments in farmland.)
Three years later, the purchase of farmland both in America and abroad by outside investors has increased-so much so that in February, Thomas Hoenig, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, warned against the violent possibilities of a farmland bubble, telling the Senate Agriculture Committee that "distortions in financial markets" will catch the U.S. by surprise again. He would know, because he's seeing it in his backyard: Kansas and Nebraska reported farmland prices 20 percent above the previous year's levels and are on pace to double values in four years. A study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and released in January estimated the amount of private capital currently committed to farmland and agricultural infrastructure at $14 billion. It also estimated that future investments will "dwarf" what's currently being thrown into land, by two to three times. Further down, the study makes a conservative projection that the amount of capital potentially entering the sector over the next decade will fly past $150 billion.
When asked if this is an end of the world scenario, the hedge-fund manager replied, “It really is. I tell my fiancée this from time to time, and I’ve stopped telling her this, because it’s not the most pleasant thought.’
This is happening in part because investors see their play as a hedge against hyperinflation. While the rest of the world uses the current calculation of the Consumer Price Index as a proxy for the cost of goods, some farmland investors are using a different equation, one from 1980. These investors assert inflation should be calculated the way it was before the Boskin Commission's 1996 reworking of the CPI formula-in which case, it would be much, much higher.
"The CPI supposedly today is something like 1.5 percent," says the hedge fund manager. "We think the actual rate of inflation is something closer to 6 or 7 percent on an annual basis. It's also not about what it's been over the last 10 years; it's about what it's going to be over the next 10 years."
So the logic is that not only is the dollar worth far less than we think it is, but everything is more expensive and will only move further in that direction. Especially food, the value of which may have risen due to population increases, especially in places like China, where a consumer-happy middle class has finally started to emerge.
The rising cost of food can be seen even in New York's yuppiest enclaves, where prices are high to begin with. Bloomberg food critic Ryan Sutton has been running a blog called The Price Hike wherein he measures the shifting costs of food at the plate in Manhattan restaurants. Mario Batali's Del Posto is charging 21 percent more per meal since October. Gordon Ramsay at The London? Sixty-nine percent more since last month. Michelin favorite Bouley? Forty percent. The Breslin, at the Ace Hotel? Thirty-three percent. And so on.
But farmland isn't an option for most investors. Farming is still mostly made up of family-run businesses, in the U.S., at least. Much of the farmland being purchased in America is purchased at estate sales. Pure-play farming isn't a readily available product.
You can invest in John Deere for equipment; you can invest in Monsanto for seeds and agricultural tech. You can even invest in Kraft, which puts the plants on the supermarket shelf. But for now, it's difficult to invest in a one-stop-shop farm. Additionally, there isn't much arable land out there, it's not increasing, and the quality of the land varies from parcel to parcel. And to make money off a farmland investment, you can't just sit on it. You have to know what to do with it. "If you farm it like we do, you can generate a yield," says the hedge fund manager. "We think the farmland will be worth 5 to 10 percent more every year, and on top of that, you get the commodities yield." In other words, hedge funds are growing, picking and selling corn.
Asked if the American public would eventually see a chance to invest in Old McHedgeFund's farm one day, the manager replied in the affirmative: "Yes. Without a doubt." He estimated it would be only a few years before this happened. Just two weeks ago, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that El Tejar SA, the world's largest grain producer, is planning on selling $300 million of bonds this year before a planned IPO. The plans for the IPO will be fast-tracked pending the sale of the bonds. If farming IPOs begin to emerge en masse, then farming-already often a dicey proposition simply on the basis of its being difficult to do correctly, the volatility of the weather and the possibility of entire crops going bad-may be vulnerable to a bubble.
There is, of course, a slightly more sinister reason to develop a sudden interest in agriculture. Last year, Marc Faber recommended to anyone: "Stock up on a farm in northern Norway and learn to drive a tractor." He sees a "dirty war" on the horizon, playing on fears of a biological attack poisoning food supplies. Those sort of fears drive capital into everything from gold (recently at an all-time high and a long-time safe haven for investors with currency concerns) to survivalist accoutrements. In this particular case, one might buy the farm in order to avoid buying the farm.
That may seem extreme, but even the lesser scenarios are frightening to some. When asked if this is an end-of-the-world situation, the hedge fund manager replied: "It really is. I tell my fiancée this from time to time, and I've stopped telling her this, because it's not the most pleasant thought." He pauses for a moment. "We just can't keep living the way we're living. It'll end within our lifetime. We're just going to run out of certain things. We'll just have to learn how to adjust."