The past month and a half has been interesting for North American agriculture. Numerous positive signals have been showing up in various ag segments almost since the beginning of the year. Their duration hasn’t been long enough to classify them as trends or to build solid confidence in the longer term. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little optimism.
Grain prices have begun to show a little life lately. Last week, corn and wheat prices rose to their highest level since last summer. They’re talking $4 corn and $4-$5 wheat. Soybeans have been showing some strength for a few months.
Last week, the Purdue/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer marked the third month in a row that the index increased. Based on the monthly survey of 400 ag producers throughout the U.S., the January reading hit 153, its highest level since they began collecting data in October 2015. It was 21 points above December’s and 61 points higher than in October.
Closer to home, the January Ag Equipment Intelligence’s Dealer Sentiments & Business Conditions Update report indicated that farm equipment dealers may be gaining a little confidence. According to the most recent survey results, based on the responses of 160 ag machinery retailers, a net 9% of dealers reported they are “less optimistic” about overall business conditions (17% more optimistic, 58% same, 26% less optimistic), which was in line with the 10% in November. In October, 21% of dealers were “less optimistic.”
A year earlier, a net 35% of dealers said they were “less optimistic” about business conditions (8% more optimistic, 48% same, 44% less optimistic). A nice pick up in dealers’ overall attitude.
A couple of weeks ago AGCO reported its net sales in the fourth quarter of 2016 were up nearly 7% (North American sales were up 3%) vs. the same period last year. The company’s full year net sales were down only 1%. Twelve months ago, AGCO reported its sales were down 21.2% in the last quarter of 2015 and full year sales were down a little over 23%.
Last week, CNH Industrial said its fourth quarter ag equipment sales were down 5% and full year was down 8.2% compared to 2015. A year ago, CNH Industrial’s sales were down 12.4% for the fourth quarter and 27.5% for all of 2015.
Of course, sales by both of these major manufacturers are being measured against already low numbers from the past couple of years. Nonetheless, things don’t appear to be getting worse, and, for the moment, that’s good.
Apparently, investors are also seeing something in farm equipment sales they like. They’ve pushed up the share prices of both AGCO and Deere recently. Last week, Deere was at its 52 week high of about $110 (52 week low was $74.91). AGCO shares have also seen a strong upward trend, hitting a 52 week high of $64.50 (52 week low was $43.75).
Are the current positive signals a reason for optimism or just false hope? This is anyone’s guess. As for me, I’ll take it until I see otherwise.