Food and fuel: These are the two factors pushing up the price of corn from $1.95 a bushel three years ago to $5.47 last week, and those of other cash crops, soybeans and wheat, from $5.42 and $3.36 a bushel to $14.69 and $11.24 in the same period. What's to be done?
Jim Cramer, writing in New York magazine, makes several stock recommendations to cash in on the farmers' new Golden Era. Simply put, while farmers turn to better equipment and technology (as there is no more land available for farm expansion), investors should "own the stocks of the companies that make the equivalent of their derricks and drill bits, their picks and their pans." And as agribusiness has been in the doldrums for quite some time, the pickings are rich.
For starters, try Deere & Company (NYSE:DE), the biggest tractor company in the world. Here's what Cramer has to say on Deere:
While Deere’s up 50 percent year over year, it is down 4 percent for 2008, creating a remarkable buying opportunity for this corporation’s stock, the envy of all machinery companies (not just ag machinery makers) worldwide. I think it could go up 50 percent from here and still be too low in valuation. It’s turned into the equivalent of Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), the greatest oil-service company, with competition that’s almost nil in its field. There were dozens of large tractor companies at one time, but only Deere survived, and it is now prospering.
For seed development and innovation, Cramer recommends Monsanto (NYSE:MON), though it is currently far from any bargain price:
Monsanto’s expensive on a per-share basis. And the stock’s not undiscovered; it’s up 100 percent since last summer. But the company just keeps blowing away estimates, and a new corn varietal is about to hit the market that could mean game, set, and match for farmers trying to meet the outrageously aggressive ethanol standards the federal government has passed.
Cramer suggests DuPont (NYSE:DD), another seed innovator, as a less risky option, although the conglomerate also includes "some domestic housing and auto businesses that are handicapping the explosion of agricultural earnings."
Then there is the fertilizer industry, now past its overcapacity stage. Cramer's choices are PotashCorp of Saskatchewan (NYSE:POT), Agrium (NYSE:AGU), and his favorite Mosaic (NYSE:MOS), which, with global operations, can profit from the heavy Chinese demand.
Cramer recommends two more stocks on the agricultural scene: the agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) and - just in case the government comes round to a more rational strategy of promoting soy fuels instead of ethanol - Bunge (NYSE:BG), the soybean company.
This recommendation of agricultural stocks is not simply based on worldwide food shortages. As Cramer concludes:
... the etched-in-stone mandates of ethanol use, no matter how absurd they may be, will ensure at least a half-dozen years of extraordinary returns for these stocks. It’s a rush that puts oil and gold to shame.