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Have you been living in the 2020's for any amount of time?
You may have heard talk on the internet of various potential financial cataclysms, including high inflation and hyperinflation economies.
You may also wonder how farmland performs as an asset during these scary financial periods.
Today, we’re going to examine the relationship between inflation and farmland performance, and explore its income in dire economic scenarios.
None of what’s written here is financial advice but instead written expressly for educational purposes.
Before we dive in, we’re going to take a second to define some terms.
Let’s talk about inflation!
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Farmland Investing 101
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What Is Inflation?
Inflation is defined by dictionary.com as: “A persistent, substantial rise in the general level of prices related to an increase in the volume of money and resulting in the loss of value of currency.”
In other words, inflation is the decreasing value of a currency’s buying power over time.
While this phenomenon may sound dismal on paper, inflation is very normal and is happening all the time.
How Does Inflation Happen, And How Does It Work?
There’s a handful of reasons why inflation happens that we can clearly identify.
Inflation naturally occurs in an economy when the production costs of various products and services rise. These fluctuations can take place mostly due to basic supply and demand.
If the cost of supplies rises, businesses often have no choice but to pass on their costs to their consumers. This is called cost-push inflation.
If the demand for a product spikes, its supply will then usually become scarce. And its pricing will rise due to its continued demand. This is called demand-pull inflation.
Demand-pull inflation isn’t necessarily a good thing for an economy. However, it is a marker for an economy being in a good place: a strong consumer class with good buying power generally means the market is growing.
Can Inflation Actually Be Good For The Economy?
In theory, yes, but only in moderation. When there is a small, steady rate of inflation, consumers are incentivized to buy their desired items quicker rather than later – growing a sustained demand.
As this demand spikes, demand-pull inflation also rises a bit in turn, making companies produce more, and often hire more workers.
This creates an aggregate building of wealth over time, growing an economy into a forward position. It can create self-correcting scenarios where the companies’ influx of revenue in turn pays the workers more, building overall growth for the economy.
In this context, the general consensus for what we should consider ‘moderate inflation' is around 2-3% annually.
Additionally, demand-pull inflation can have a secondary effect of warding off potential deflation scenarios, which are a marker for ensuing periods of hyperinflation.
Finally, inflationary periods have an effect that favors borrowers by reducing debt. As the value of a single dollar decreases, interest rates on that dollar also cost less overall.
The Transfer of Fortune
In this way, some wealth is transferred to borrowers from lenders. This force can also help governments that owe larger sums of debt to various places. If they stave off getting further into debt, as time goes on, the value of the amount they have to pay back dwindles.
Inflation at moderate levels also helps sellers and business providers – they are often borrowing money for business expenses (at a virtually reduced rate), while also selling products and services that have risen in price. This makes inflation work to provide them with some hefty value.
In the right amount, inflation can be a positive force that course-corrects an economy.
The Reality of Inflation
Especially for average consumers, inflation is usually always bad news.
Fixed costs like rent and monthly bills can't go down, and rising fluctuating costs like gas and food can destroy a family's margin.
Furthermore, in the context of our modern post-covid era, the American government printing large amounts of new USD in the form of various stimulus packages takes this otherwise manageable inflation rate and pours nitro in the tank.
However, there are systems in place by the government to keep inflation under control. Enter: the Federal Reserve…
The Federal Reserve
The Federal Reserve is a central bank that functions as a ‘separate-but-accountable' authority that works in tandem with the US government to keep general prices of goods stable and ensure there are available jobs for the American people.
“The Fed” has several functions to do this, but their main power is setting “monetary policy” by controlling the interest rates different banks can borrow money from each other.
By adjusting these interest rates, the Fed impacts the future pricing of goods and services, which in turn can either cause inflation to rise or fall to moderate levels.
The actual process involved is nowhere nearly as simple as we've explained it here, and it's definitely not a perfect system.
Monetary policy usually takes about a year or more before its changes affect everyday consumers.
Instating a “correct” monetary policy requires considering a vast amount of variables of future markets and weighing more urgent short-term fiscal goals-against longer-term fiscal goals.
Furthermore, historically, there is a cost to implementing corrective monetary policy. In the '80s, interest rates were raised by a whopping 15% to fight off inflation they saw – and this almost caused hyperinflation to take place. Turns out that raising interest rates is a great way to kill an economy's growth.
Throw in a fair amount of patented American bureaucracy into all this, and you can see how things that sound good at first can become a bit opaque.
What Is Hyperinflation?
Hyperinflation is a rapid rise of inflation in short periods of time.
However, hyperinflation isn’t just a scenario when inflation becomes very high.
Hyperinflation is defined in financial parlance as a cumulative period of inflation where the inflation rate has increased 100% over a three-year period, or 3 years of an annual inflation rate of ~26%.
Regular inflation rarely contributes to hyperinflation but is the result of a country’s government facing different forms of loss that they can’t afford to pay off with their current resources.
The two major causes of hyperinflation are extreme demand-pull inflation, and the addition of newly printed money into an economy.
During periods of hyperinflation, a vicious cycle of inflation occurs.
Historically, this is how things usually play out:
- A government accrues a large host of debt and decides to print new money to pay it off.
- This new money spreads into the economy, creating an imbalance between cost and money supply.
- Demand goes up for a small bit while the influx of new funds is used, creating a quick demand-pull inflation scenario.
- The prices of regular goods begin to double, while accepted wages and businesses' profits remain the same.
- A government may be caught in a trap where they must print more money to aid their economic crisis in the short term.
- As the general populous sees the inflation continue, they decide to buy as much as they can now, to prevent needing to spend more on the same goods in the future.
- This combination of new money and continued desperate demand continues to spiral prices upwards.
One interesting point about hyperinflation is that it's not always purely mathematic in nature. It's also heavily influenced by social interaction.
In hyper scenarios, different factors surrounding the perception of a currency causes people to lose confidence in the money they have. Eventually, people's confidence gets so low that business owners will stop accepting the currency to pay for goods and services.
Historically, the end result of hyperinflation causes the currency itself to become functionally worthless.
While hyperinflation has certainly led to some tragic times in human history, hyperinflation isn't always “the end of the world”.
Usually, periods of hyperinflation last around 2-3 years, and can end in further dire scenarios, but recently in countries like Zimbabwe and Argentina, hyperinflation has been remedied by currency reforms, including implementing new currency systems to replace the hyperinflated currency.
The Relation Between Inflation and Farmland
Farmland's patterns with inflation are interesting:
As inflation rises, the value of farmland also rises.
Much like inflation itself, this is largely due to the forces of supply and demand.
Let's take a look at farmland's supply:
- Farmland is a finite resource that's hard to devalue
- The rough amount of arable land that's available to farm is known; we're not able to “print more farmland.”
- In fact, the aggregate amount of farmland in the world is dwindling due to deforestation and wildfires. Prime arable land sources are often great prospects for urbanization. This is because farmland is usually a spread of flat land that has access to good water sources.
Because of all this, farmland is a hard asset whose value is tough to undermine – over time, centuries or more, farmland will become extremely valuable, potentially one of the most sought-after asset classes.
On the demand side of things is where the more overt relationship with inflation lies.
Inside of inflation economy scenarios, farmland that produces commodity crops like wheat, corn, animal feed, and food products will have a higher urgency in demand.
As everything gets more expensive, and buying power of the working class dwindles, the products of farmland become more important.
This same social urgency also insulates against farmland's biggest drawback: periods of time without production.
Keep It Up…
While farmland has a plethora of great selling points, including outperforming stock market returns, being a great hedge asset versus inflation, and bearing lower risk than most other alternative asset classes, farmland's return is always dependent on the farm being able to consistently grow and sell crops.
If the land you're invested in doesn't have an active working tenant, or experiences periods of drought, flooding, or other natural disasters, all of that profitability is turned off for some time until those problems can be solved.
Thus, in extreme economic environments where the demand for food is urgent to the general public, social incentives to maximize farmland output would limit your exposure to the land not being worked.
Another layer of this equation is that farmland is just one among many appreciating asset classes.
During inflation periods, the buying power of the dollar reduces, but the value of farmland doesn't diminish, causing the price of the same plot of land to increase, like all appreciating assets.
While all this talk makes farmland look really good, we don't need to just theorize.
Farmland has historically had a positive correlation with inflation markers like the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and the Producer Price Index (PPI), with a 70% and 79.84% correlation, respectively.
Because farmland is among the oldest of asset types, we can see exactly how it performed during past periods of inflation and economic crisis.
Farmland’s Historical Performance Through Dire Economies
We're going to take a stroll all the way back to the industrial revolution through the COVID-19 pandemic, and see exactly how farmland has performed when the “going got tough”.
A big disclaimer before we dive in:
The history of farmland performance isn't what you might expect!
Data about farmland as an asset class isn't as clear-cut as a more mainstream asset, like the S&P 500.
This is in part due to how farmland hasn't been an easy buy.
Up until really 2014 or so, the only ways to invest in farmland were through big institutional funds or direct ownership – both paths required thousands and thousands in up front capital.
Only recently in the early 2010s, options for investing in farmland REITs began, as well as online crowdfunding platforms offering fractional shares and other lower barrier-to-entry options.
Because of this, most of the hard data available online only goes back around 30 years or more.
Also, farmland is such a sought-after asset by those in the know that it doesn't turn over like more liquid assets like stocks, options, and crypto.
Those who buy farmland intend to keep it and hold it long-term – they want that annual income and long-term appreciation.
The sum of all these factors causes the history of farmland performance by-the-numbers hard to parse, with a low amount of publically available data.
Even now, ~60% of American farmland is owned by the operators themselves.
So, we're taking a more mosaic approach, so we can understand everything from multiple angles!
We're going to focus on American history during this segment, but land has been a powerful resource since the beginning of time. Before the advent of mercantilism, land ownership was the most valued and controlled asset. If you owned the land, you owned it all.
Farmland and the Great Depression
The Great Depression was the worst economic event in the Western world to date.
Unemployment was up to 25%, the stock market lost 90% of its value, thousands of banks failed, and the life savings of many workers and investors were wiped out to nothing.
As far as agriculture goes, you may vaguely remember a term from your high-school history class; “The Dust Bowl”.
Though the Great Depression itself was horrific, a lot of the impact this era had on farmland performance was due to different factors that happened in the decade before the stock market actually crashed.
During the job market prior to the Great Depression, most farmland owners were family farmers themselves. Most investors of the time were into factories, oil, stocks, and bonds.
In the decades before the Dust Bowl took place, the midwest wasn't fully inhabited or developed. There was a wide swath of arable frontier that was ready to be used.
As demand grew, many families moved to that region and began a family farm business for profit, often going into debt to purchase state-of-the-art farming equipment and supplies.
In this time period, the ideas of the industrial movement were very new and seemingly without conscience. This mindset even impacted how farms approached their production.
Damaging Farming Practices
Many farmers had an unfounded trust that rain would be favorable for them. Thus, they used unsound farming techniques damaging the soil beds they sewed in, draining the land of its nutrients quickly.
Then, after many of these farmers were cemented inside this booming lifestyle, the stock market crashed.
When the stock market crashed, the supply of produce outweighed the limited purchasing power of the market, crushing the profits farmers needed to pay their debts.
And then, after this first misfortune, the droughts and storms came.
Because popular farming techniques weakened the soil of the land, much of the topsoil became dry and weak.
Storms then ripped it into the air, creating the dust bowl itself. The farming class had their fortune literally dissolve in front of their eyes.
At the end of this calamity, the federal government passed a law limiting the number of crops farmers could produce in a year. They concluded the surplus of food actually created a problem for the supply chain, as it drove down the price of food disrupting the market.
The farms that agreed to limit their production were given subsidies. Additionally, as WW2 began to stir, the American agriculture sector began to flourish again.
Though farmland didn't win out during the Dust Bowl, it's good to remember that this period of history was really the first great stress test of our modern industrial society.
Since then, we've bounced back and created legislation to prevent wild backlashes like this from happening again.
What can we learn from the Great Depression?
- Farmers often have to go into debt in order to start a farm; it has always required a lot of capital to buy or lease farming equipment, land, and seed.
- Produce surplus preceding times of crisis can eat away the profit farmers stand to gain, and can render them bankrupt.
- The subsidy programs to help farmers are more robust and expanded than they were in the 1920's. The government has learned from this and other experiences, and highly values keeping farms active, especially during crisis periods.
Farmland during the 1980's Farm Crisis
Many people remember the recession America faced in the '80s.
The global economy was in a downturn, as many countries imported oil from Iran.
The US had just come off of the late '70s, where inflation was steadily rising after a period of post-WW2 era of general abundance and technological advancement.
Due to a trade deal made with Russia in 1972, the agriculture sector was actually doing pretty great for a while. Because of the exports, the demand for produce was incredibly high. This demand caused the price of most food products to double in the US.
This inflation lined the pockets of the farmer class. They were able to produce a surplus of food in order to feed both world powers.
However, in 1979, monetary policy tightened very quickly. Meanwhile, inflation was out of control. The lending rate increased from 6.8% to over 20% over the course of 2 years.
While this did aid the general public, this was the first falling domino of the Farming Crisis.
Additionally, for political reasons, the US slammed Russia with a trade embargo in 1980 – right at the height of their fortune, farmers saw their produce prices reduce by half, while sitting on an egregious surplus of food.
This wasn't the end of the crisis, either.
To top it all off, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed the Food Security Act, which regulated produce pricing, cut government aid to farms, and reduced overall farmland used for conservation.
The Wounding Of The Farmer Class
The impact the Farming Crisis had on farmers wasn't like the Great Depression, where they took their loss, moved on, seasons changed, and started over again.
Because the monetary barrier to entry towards starting a farming business was so high, many young farmers went into considerable debt to start their farms. This was true in the Depression, but was even more real in the '80s.
With all of the new farming technology and state-of-the-art equipment, farmers set themselves up with efficient machines to make their business the best it could be. When the Farming Crisis slammed everyone, their debt was incredible, because they chose to invest in their business.
Often, those with the highest amount of debt were the first to go bankrupt when the crisis hit.
However, the failing farm fronts of the midwest weren't the true blow to the agriculture sector:
Since the Farming Crisis, both the populations of farmers and rural areas have faced a serious decline.
This is of course due to several factors, but for the farming class, new interest in starting a farm business hasn't been as popular as it was before this crisis. Additionally, the overall amount of farmers in America has dwindled ever since.
What can we learn from the 1980s Farm Crisis?
- Nothing is 100% safe when global supply chains face disruption – everything ripples.
- When the Fed actually raises interest rates to solve inflation, it can also have potentially disastrous effects on the economy.
- Government regulations and international relations can severely impact produce.
- The Farming Crisis and the inflation preceding it reflect the fact farmland's value positively correlates with inflation.
- If a farmer tenant defaults and goes out of business, the investor still owns their portion of the land. Investors can still appreciate their asset over time.
A Quick Note About Then & Now…
In both the Great Depression and the 80's Farming Crisis, the farming class got skewered alive and lost out big time.
Part of this was due to the reactive nature of government regulations and subsidy programs being so new during these perplexing periods. Additionally, farmer operators taking on debt to start their businesses also contributed heavily to this issue.
In modern times, with the advent of farmland investing vehicles and modern regulations, a lot is different.
At a base level, the farmer tenant still holds most of the upfront risk involved in operating the business and keeping it profitable.
However, the investor/tenant dynamic around modern farmland investing has actually created a safer dynamic for both parties:
- Actively managed farmland firms obviously want returns on their investment. They don't want defaults on payments or tenant vacancies.
- This leads them to hire only the most vetted, talented farm professionals they can find.
- In modern farmland tenant leases, the contracts are often for a 10-20 year period, where instead of going into massive debt to pay for the land outright, the farmer tenant either pays annual rent or gives a percentage of their profits back to the investors.
- This reduces the farmer's overall debt risk and provides stability, freedom, and land resources that they otherwise wouldn't have access to.
- The sum of these factors makes farmland a “no vacancy” real estate sector – there will always be a farmer tenant who will want to enter this contract.
- The vested interest by the farmland firm will often cause them to develop farmland they own if it needs it – often reinforcing sound irrigation to the land.
Farmers still receive subsidies from the US government.
With farmland investing, the name of the game is a long-term hold.
Farmland during the 2000 Tech Crash
2000 was a wild year, seemingly right in the middle of two separate worlds.
Google was young, humanity drank Tang by the gallon, Y2K was a real fear in the minds of rational people, and tech stock bubble was about to burst.
The tech bubble was an interesting collision of market hype and technological improvements.
Netscape was the first company to release its internet browsing software for free, and it became popular immediately.
Due to its explosive popularity, many investors wanted in on what looked like a soon-to-be giant.
Netscape released its IPO in August 1995, and raised over $2.8 billion in market shares. Soon after Netscape's success, many other tech companies had similar IPO success stories.
However, the hype surrounding many of these new companies actually strangled them – many of these ‘dot coms' weren't profitable yet, and became locked in a mad dash to spend whatever revenue they had on marketing to stimulate growth.
In the end, the tech bubble lived and died by the impulse of investors.
On March 13th, 2000, Japan announced they were entering a recession. In turn, this gave great panic to many investors, who sold off much of their stock, causing the crash.
During the recession of the tech bubble, farmland values didn't dip, but rather only continued appreciating at their expected rate, as if nothing happened.
During this time, the Fed also began to raise interest rates again, which only bolstered their returns.
Stocks lost around 40% of their value, gold was spiking up and down due to Y2K frenzies, but farmland remained steady, on an upswing alongside real estate values.
This was one of the first big events where farmland showed itself as not correlating with the other major assets of the age.
Farmland During The 2008 Housing Crash
The housing bubble of 2008 was a wild debacle of shady business activities, dubious credit ratings, moral hazard, and widespread tragedy for the working class.
While the entire story of the housing crash involves a wide range of factors, the core problem (other than predatory & irresponsible cash grabs) was a finance product called a mortgage-backed security.
Mortgage-backed securities sold the debt of thousands of mortgages bundled together to investors, who bought them as a low-risk asset that had consistently higher returns than average bonds.
These securities started out solid on paper, and the demand for them began to outpace the supply of good, low-risk mortgages already involved.
Many of these securities sold with a AAA credit rating, but as demand grew, “sub-prime” mortgages with riskier credit started getting added in with a fake AAA rating.
Because of how everything was structured, countless bad mortgage assets were tied into these aggressive bets. This web of liability strung it all together.
Eventually, the sketchy mortgages started to default, which had a domino effect on the securities they were woven into.
Kinda like Christmas lights – if one goes out, they all go out.
Not exactly, but you get the simile.
The bottom line is nobody could conceive of the housing market failing. Because they cut corners and made risky bets on that “fact”, both suave investors and the economy at large lost hard.
When the crash hit, countless mortgages defaulted, and the pricing of residential real estate dropped by 33%.
The housing bubble also indirectly ruined the stock market.
With all the fear surrounding the housing crash, many investors panicked and placed their stock and bond positions into US treasury bonds to try and reduce their exposure to the potential effects of the real estate collapse.
This knee-jerk reaction by the market caused the very thing it sought to prevent, and the Dow Jones lost ~33%, starting the Great Recession.
How Did This Affect Farmland?
As the dust of the housing bubble settled, farmland values stagnated for a very short period, but on average, didn't lose any value.
And then right after, farmland's appreciation began to skyrocket, for about 5 years, gaining ~30% while everything else collapsed.
In fact, until the housing bubble hit, farmland as an asset class was not as popular as it is today.
It was only until the Great Recession that farmland got noticed for the unique commodity that it is, and since then, the asset has become highly competitive among actively managed funds.
Even though the residential real estate market crashed, and the stock market crashed, farmland not only stood firm but gained some hefty value.
(RE: The Big Short – Interestingly enough, it was partly the housing crash that turned Michael Burry on to investing in water, which he primarily does through farmland as a vehicle to do so ethically!)
Farmland During The 2020 Pandemic
Ah, 2020. I remember it as if it were yesterday…
The pandemic created a very interesting economic scenario in which we are still feeling many of the ongoing effects of.
Perhaps the most unique facet of the 2020 recession was that we faced a steep market crash, but then quickly rebounded after only one month.
While nothing seems “normal”, many businesses and the markets largely regained the value lost during March 2020.
The global supply chain has been disrupted, the labor force has transformed entirely, and there are many uncertainties in this new economy. This has led to a large amount of asset volatility and speculative investing.
This unpredictable economic era has emphasized more return based on income and revenue, instead of actual growth of an asset's value, due to volatile market swings.
Because of this, farmland has performed exceedingly well in comparison to most asset classes.
With farmland's annual cash flow to investors, they were able to insulate their income through the rough patches.
Likewise, though certain food products lost out due to supply chain disruption, the demand for produce and agriculture didn't dip overall.
Through 2020, there were some stagnant or negative farmland returns, but in 2021, farmland saw a record high in value, growing 8% since the prior year.
Now, the farmland machine is back on its slow and steady course to appreciation.
Farmland Performance In Summary
Historically, we have seen that as inflation rises, the value of farmland also rises.
While farmland's performance has vastly improved over the past 100 years, no investment is 100% perfect.
We have also seen that during ‘whimsical' periods of overabundance, mistakes in governmental regulation and an overabundance of supply can lead to short periods of unprofitability.
However, in those periods, farmland has always bounced back within around a 5-year timeframe. The modern farmer-tenant and farmland investor relationships have strengthened the resiliency of both parties.
In times of recession and crisis, farmland has proven itself to be a solid hedge asset.
Would Farmland Be A Good Hedge Against Hyperinflation?
Because farmland is both a real asset and a finite long-term investment, it could be a strong store of value during hyperinflation.
In historical hyperinflation scenarios, the most painless solution has been the adoption of a new currency to override the old system.
If hyperinflation were to happen to the US dollar, it would create massive implications for the global community. Many countries are reliant on trade with the US, as well as using the dollar as the world reserve currency.
Historically, we have seen hyperinflation periods last around 1-2 years, often with a lasting crippling effect.
Innovation is often the answer in those times, but farmland will always be needed for humanity to prosper, and as we've stated, you can't print more farmland.
Regardless of the Current Economy, Prudence is Best
Understanding finances and gaining financial literacy is the first lesson of personal finance.
Farmland is great, and we're here to teach newcomer investors about what it can offer as an asset class. However, when talking about fiscal safety, we are but one voice out of many, who often have conflicting views on the topic.
Being diversified in trustworthy assets and companies is the bedrock of responsible investing.
While we think farmland is the literal & metaphorical bees' knees, we would never advise anyone to divest their whole portfolio and put it all into one specific asset class on a whim.
Farmland performs great in inflation scenarios, but there are many other strategies to prepare yourself. If you don't know about the topics below, consider searching them online, and diversify your CYA toolbelt:
- Cockroach portfolio
- Return on Equity Stock Investing
- Tried and True Dividend King Stocks
- Bitcoin, Ethereum, & Cardano
- Gold & Silver
- Learning High Value Skills
- Learning Basic Survival Skills