Commodities in general see many boom and bust cycles in one’s lifetime. It seems like every 5-7 years or every 7-10 years agriculture goes through these cycles. Usually the cycle is spurred by high commodity prices that in turn lead to higher production. A few years of high production then lead to surpluses and thus lower prices. This time, for cotton at least, it seems to be different. It seems like the further we get to hitting the bottom, the harder we get kicked in that direction.
Never before have some many issues and concerns popped up in the cotton industry all at one time. For the sake of not turning this blog into a novel, we will try to briefly summarize all of the issues facing the US cotton industry.
- The drop in the demand for cotton in the last decade has been dramatic. Per capita consumption of cotton in the US peaked around 2005/6 at 35 lbs/person. Now we are down to about 25 lbs/person. This is a long way from the bottom where the industry was in 1975 at 15 lbs/person, but it still hurts. This is one of the factors causing the low price for raw cotton.
- The rapid decline in prices and Chinese reserves. Much has been written about these topics so we will not revisit that again, but the data clearly shows that each time the Chinese government made a move or announcement in the last 2 years regarding their reserves program, prices have dropped. The recent uptick in the market seems to indicate that the current sale of the Chinese reserves stocks was already priced into the market (and probably has been for about 2 years).
- Sideways trading on the futures market leaves little room for insurance. Crop insurance is a great tool for the farmer to have but only works when either the weather or the market is volatile. For 2015, or at least the early harvested 2015 crop in Georgia, the majority of the crop seemed to be of good quality (mid and later harvested cotton had major quality issues) and yields were decent as well, yet given the 2015 insurance price and the 2015 harvested price, growers still lost money. As one grower mentioned during a meeting; “Why insure at 63 cent? You’re still losing money at 63.”
- USDA denial of cottonseed PLC/ARC program. Most of you are familiar with this situation, but for those who haven’t heard the USDA denied the industry’s request to declare cottonseed an ‘other oilseed’ under the language of the 2014 Farm Bill. This would have allowed cotton to participate in the Title 1 programs of the 2014 Farm Bill, thus creating a safety net similar to other row crops (cotton wasn’t allowed in Title 1 of the Farm Bill to satisfy the requirements of the WTO Brazil case).
- USDA transportation differential changes for MLG/LDP. Hopefully you’ve heard about this as well. About three weeks ago USDA adjusted the transportation differential in the Marketing Loan Program, thus raising the adjusted world price of cotton and squeezing the MLG/LDP smaller. This is done every year and sometimes twice a year but usually most within the industry are aware before the differential is changed. This time it seemed as if the whole industry was caught off guard and anyone who had cotton sitting in a warehouse essentially lost 2 cent/pound on that cotton. That’s roughly $10/bale that was forever lost on stored cotton (unless the market recaptures that) by USDA simply changing the differential. This was really a “kick me when I’m down” moment.
- The new import tax on US cotton going into Turkey. Most cotton industry folks have been following the Turkish anti-dumping case closely. Turkey claimed that the US was dumping cotton into the Turkish market and harming their domestic industry. Most believe that this claim and the subsequent investigation were spurred by the US investigating the dumping of Turkish steel in the the US. It appeared that there was no evidence of any US cotton being illegally dumped into the Turkish market, yet two weeks ago Turkey implemented a new 3% tax on all raw US cotton imported into their country.
Several years ago many ag economist were writing about the “Second Golden Age of Agriculture,” the first being the 1910-14 years that are always referenced in the Farm Bill (to establish parity prices). Many said that these new price levels had reached a plateau and we’d never see prolonged declines again. Maybe US agriculture did experience a brief second golden age, but it is evident now that we are suffering long declines. It’s not just cotton that is suffering, but it is now very clear that that party is over and it feels like the cotton industry got stuck with the bill.