Will the storm clouds clear?

With this week’s east coast low, the drought may be over but a new milk price drought seems set to linger, with some analysts even calling the downturn a “long term significant reset of dairy economics across the globe“.

I asked Rabobank senior analyst Michael Harvey for the bank’s take on what has caused prices to fall and what it will take to restore farmer fortunes. I’m grateful for his explanation below.

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Uncertainties have surfaced about the true shape of the global market and its medium-term proposition. Are there factors at play that will continue to plague the market and do we need to reset our interpretation?

This is where Rabobank can provide some independent insights. There have been some changes to the market which I will explore and this commodity crunch is what Rabobank defines as a super-cyclical caused by a number of events leading to a perfect storm:

•    The ‘floor’ price in the global market is weaker, and lower
•    The EU has removed a structural handbrake on milk supply – the rate of growth in Europe has surprised even us, and was the main reason we missed our original expectations for a price recovery!
•    There is a downshift in the speed of growth in the Chinese economy (and with it the world economy)
•    The slowdown of Chinese dairy demand growth (this occurred before the crash in prices)
•    The reduction in the prices of key commodities (and expectation that they will probably be lower in the medium term that we expected) which impacts feed prices
•    The end of the Chinese corn price support scheme
•    The failure of states in the Middle East

Political impacts on pricing
When gauging the global price floor, you need to look at intervention pricing systems.  A few years ago the United States industry removed its intervention system and replaced it with a margin protection program. The floor is already weaker because of this.

The EU still operates a public intervention system and its wholesale market is weak enough right now that product is moving into intervention stores quickly. The price in Europe is set in Euro per tonne. Shifts in currencies have seen the intervention fall US$500/tonne when converted to US dollars which means the global floor price is not only weaker but lower.

A removal of a 30-year milk quota system is no doubt structural adjustment. It was always going to lead to an uncomfortable period for the global market. However, global markets have simply been overwhelmed by the sheer volumes. A slowdown in Europe milk supply will be the biggest factor to help correct the ship.

In the first year without quotas, the EU produced 153 billion litres of milk in total. This was just shy of 4% more than the same corresponding period (or in other terms 5.5 billion litres). That’s a lot of extra milk.

The growth in milk supply growth across Europe has not been uniform. Twelve of the 28 EU members had 2% or less growth and the Dutch and Irish sectors have been responsible for 45% of the growth.

But the signs of a slowdown in overall EU milk production growth are emerging. It will take a few more months yet but, by late 2016, this growth should grind to a halt. Rapidly falling milk prices and poor weather will be key to supply correction.

Other factors will also be at play. For example, in the Netherlands the introduction of ‘phosphate rights’ will force Dutch dairy farmers to reduce herds. The pressure won’t kick in until next year when new rules are enforced but there will be a need to reduce herds.

The good news
Rabobank is confident the global market will turn around and this is within sight. There will be other supporting factors helping to rebalance the global market including:

•    Global supply growth outside of Europe – major exporters of dairy (Australia included) have seen lower farmgate prices and milk supply growth slow. But stocks do exist and need to be run down
•    Sluggish dairy demand – macro headwinds and weak consumer confidence linger in many economies; but are now being offset by retail price relief and increased dairy promotion
•    China’s well-documented ‘rebalance’ – China buyers have mostly worked through excess stocks and are likely to increase import volumes over the course of 2016
•    Oil prices – a recent rally signals the end of the global surplus. Oil prices will increase again – but remember this is a good thing (for dairy importers) and bad thing for dairy (production costs)
•    The cost of production for many dairy producers is lower right now due to cheap feed costs and a period of low fertilizer and interest rates

What about Russia – one of world’s largest importers of dairy? Russia’s trade ban is coming up for a two-year anniversary with no immediate end in sight. But Russia will eventually end the embargo.

Questions remain as to Russia’s long-term role in global markets. European cheese exporters may be cautious in rushing back in to this market. Meanwhile, Russia continues to build alternative supply chains – the success of this strategy is yet to be proven successful. Also, the collapse of the Russian economy means dairy demand and consumer purchasing power is weak irrespective of the trade ban.

Global pricing will get substantially better in the medium term
In Rabobank’s opinion there has not been any major shift in the medium-term fundamentals. The global market will present good opportunities to deliver profitable returns for Australia’s dairy sector – with the right export strategies. Here is our logic:

•    Demand growth is still expanding the quickest across the developing world, including Asia
•    These economies are net importers of dairy; and self-sufficiency will continue to be challenging going forward
•    The cost of producing in many of these regions is expensive. The case in point resides in China where the cost of producing good quality milk can be as high twice as expensive as in Australia. So there is an incentive to buy imported milk
•    Consumers in these markets also trust and prefer imported products which strengthens the trade opportunities
•    Australia and New Zealand will simply not supply all the milk these market needs. This means the global market needs more milk from Europe and the US in the medium term
•    Dairy producers in Europe and the US are structurally higher cost producers of milk than Australia.
•    Current global prices are not sustainable for any dairy producers anywhere in the world and simply need to improve.

Better times do still lay ahead. Weak global market conditions are at the core of the current problem but by early 2017 the global market will be in better balance. However, the market will remain volatile and under current pricing models dairy producers will continue to absorb this risk.

Hopefully trust along the supply chain can be restored, as the viability and sustainability of the sector remains healthy beyond the current crisis.

 

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Why I am not publishing cruel comments about animal cruelty

I am sending nasty comments about “cruel farmers” to the trash without a second thought at the moment. It is not good for the mental health of decent farmers under massive pressure for no fault of their own to read such messages.

If you’re preaching compassion for animals, first try applying compassion for your fellow human beings.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Who wants to sue who and who will pay?

DevondaleTwirl

One of the first things farmers asked about the Murray Goulburn and Fonterra announcements was: “Can they really do this? Is it legal?”.

The lawyers have duly arrived.

I know of three firms circling Murray Goulburn right now. While Slater & Gordon was the first to announce it was opening an investigation into a class action against MG, it has not yet confirmed whether it will proceed.

Last week, a so-called “maverick” lawyer, Mark Elliott, reportedly filed a class action against MG on behalf of unit holders who had bought shares in the listed part of MG.

At the same time, another lawyer, David Burstyner of Adley Burstyner working together with Harwood Andrews, is building a list of farmers affected by the sudden milk price collapse who might be interested in one or more of the three legal strategies:

  • a “group claim” against a range of processors to recover financial loss;
  • steps to change and take back control of MG management, and;
  • an urgent court order stopping the claw back.

The big question on farmers’ lips is: if MG gets sued, won’t farmers ultimately pay the price?

The stakes are high because MG farmers face a double whammy:

  1. Now more than ever, farmers are acutely aware that when processors don’t do well, the answer is to slash the price paid to farmers.
  2. Every farmer who supplies milk to MG must own MG shares, so its falling share price is robbing many retirement nest eggs. Some are even facing margin calls on loans they took out to buy more shares.

The targets
The Elliott class action is targeting the MG unit trust and its directors. The good news is that the trust and directors should already have insurance that deals with such a claim.

There’s likely, however, to be an excess they will have to pay, which the lawyers call “deductibles”, which means the insured party has to cover part of the loss out of its own resources as “self insurance”.

On top of that, director’s insurance is no silver bullet. This type of insurance is complex and it’s quite possible that out of court settlements won’t be covered.

The proposed action from David Burstyner could target any of the processors who stepped down: MG, Fonterra, Lion and NDP. Mr Burstyner expects to know in the next few weeks. If launched, class actions usually play out over several years, so buckle yourselves in.

Will it help farmers?
Because there’s likely to be plenty of coverage of the Elliott class action for unit holders, I’m concentrating on the Adley Burstyner proposal for farmers and its potential impact on MG, the hybrid co-op.

Speaking with Milk Maid Marian on the weekend, Mr Burstyner said his firm is investigating an injunction to halt the milk price drops.

“An injunction is difficult to secure but the situation is urgent,” he said. “We are prepared to try if it is achievable, but it depends on what we learn from farmers”.

He also plans a “group claim” against processor(s) funded by a litigation funder, which roughly works on what some people call a no win no fee arrangement (see more at http://www.adleyburstyner.com.au/group-claim-faq). This arrangement minimises the risk to participating farmers but, as a guide, around 30% of the proceeds after costs is likely to go to funders. Mr Burstyner said the participation of thousands of farmers is necessary but that it’s possible because more than 3000 supply MG and Fonterra alone.

At the same time, Mr Burstyner said he hopes there will be no need for “all-out war” and that a class action could be avoided with the processors reaching a settlement with farmers that could also improve the way milk prices are set in future.

MG, however, is not a normal company. The fundamental ways it interacts with farmers must be put to co-op members and voted on rather than hastily negotiated on the court house steps.

But what if “all-out war” is the only option? Mr Burstyner acknowledged the possibility of short-term pain for the processor (which may carry through to its supplier shareholders) but the long-term benefit would be a “clean up” of the industry.

Asked why farmer shareholders could not simply reshape their co-operative by voting on special resolutions rather than litigation, Mr Burstyner strongly agreed that strategies along those lines could be very useful, saying, “Although MG is no longer the cooperative it was prior to July 2015, we would like to assist farmers with the solutions which could be possible in the newly formed corporatised structure, using farmers’ significant rights as shareholders which we think could really improve their position.”.

In notes he offered to Milk Maid Marian, Mr Burstyner clarified his point:

o    Murray Goulburn Co-operative Co Limited ACN 004 277 089 is an unlisted public company. It is controlled by its shareholders who for present purposes are the farmers. MG is no longer the same cooperative structure it was before July 2015.

o    Shareholders with more than 5% of votes can call a meeting or ask the company to call one.

o    They can sack the board and appoint alternatives by ordinary resolution.

o    There is a 2-month notice requirement for certain resolutions, for example, sacking board members.

o    The Company (under new management) may even be able to bring a claim against former Directors for not satisfying their director’s duties.

Mr Burstyner is keen to hear from farmers who would like to be kept updated on these three types of potential legal action (in the short term an injunction or challenging management, or the long term solution of a class action to recover financial loss and bring about systemic changes).

You can register your interest at http://www.adleyburstyner.com.au/farmers-farm-gate-milk-price-action.

Mr Burstyner stressed that he has no interest in any legal strategies if farmers don’t want them. Without interest from significant numbers of farmers, Adley Burstyner and Harwood Andrews will close their file.

Important: this post is general commentary only, please seek legal advice before considering any action.

 

 

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MG and Fonterra on how to prevent this happening again

DuskRainbowDark

If there is a silver lining to the cloud over dairy farmers’ heads at the moment, I hope that it is change. So, with this in mind, I asked the two big processors at the heart of the storm, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, to answer one simple question in 250 words or less:

“What needs to be done to make sure this never happens again?”

A big thank you to MG acting CEO David Mallinson and Fonterra Supply Manager, Matt Watt, for their answers below.

Murray Goulburn acting CEO, David Mallinson:

“Our co-operative structure remains fundamentally important because it enables us to act with a sole and unwavering purpose – paying the strongest farmgate milk price possible. Optimising milk intake to deliver the most profitable products rightly belongs at the heart of every decision we make.”

“In the short-to-medium term, we will remain susceptible to fluctuations in global commodity markets while our shift to value-add output continues. Rigorous planning is required to support suppliers during periods of downturn, given the intrinsic influence of commodity markets on the overall milk price.

“To ensure suppliers can sustainably manage their farm businesses, the Board is committed to providing clear farmgate milk pricing notifications across each season. We will implement a mechanism that provides regular and accurate full year forecast guidance but includes an opening price designed to absorb the sort of downturn seen in FY16. 

“The Board and management is united in its drive to ensure MG has the right strategy, executes it well and provides suppliers with consistent, reliable farmgate milk price notifications.”

Fonterra Australia General Manager, Australian Milk Supply, Matt Watt

There are a number of factors that have led to this “perfect storm” for dairy, so the answer is complex.”

“First and foremost, the industry needs a transparent milk price that is reflective of market realities. Farmers can manage their businesses through low prices and volatility, but only if they have timely, clear, and accurate information about milk price based on market signals so that they can make decisions to help manage volatility. Further, having a market-based milk price will facilitate innovation in pricing and risk management practices. For example a “one size fits all” pricing system, like those that our industry has seen in the past, may not be the best fit going forward. The industry needs to identify new ways to factor market volatility into price, to manage risk and bolster confidence during a downturn.

“In addition, we need to ensure:

  • A closer link between on-farm production and the realities of the market – our industry cannot continue to promote growth of the industry at a time when there is an oversupply of dairy globally. Our industry needs to listen to the market and adjust production to meet demand.
  • Improved efficiencies across the industry so that everyone can benefit – we need to find newer and greater ways of doing more with less, from the farm right through to the factory.”

 

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Why the system is broken

The interaction between processors and farmers is bizarre to outsiders. The way it works is this:

Out of a handful of processors in the district, you ask one to collect your milk, although, if you’re unlucky and live somewhere a little remote, you might not actually have a choice at all. We’ll call this processor “your” processor for convenience.

Whichever processor you choose, they tell you what they will pay for your milk on July 1 – sometimes after July 1. This “opening price” is meant to be the lowest anticipated price, the one you can budget on. The only other time the price has fallen below the opening price in the last couple of decades was during the global financial crisis and even then we had a couple of months’ notice.

The price generally goes up along the way from there, though, unless you are one of the very few farmers who gets a fixed price, nothing is actually guaranteed after that.

It all depends on the exchange rate, global commodity prices, the performance of the biggest processor in the market and the success of “your” processor’s particular product mix.

What’s the performance of the biggest processor in the market and the success of your processor’s particular product mix got to do with the amount farmers are paid, you ask? Everything.

And it’s a system that used to work brilliantly. Once upon a time – not too long ago for those sporting the odd grey hair – there were not one but two major dairy co-operatives in the southern states: Bonlac and Murray Goulburn.

Every cent of profit the two co-operatives earned was returned to their farmer-shareholders and, because their whole reason for being was to maximise profits for their farmers, they effectively set a base for the farm-gate milk price.

Neither co-op could get too lazy or arrogant because there was strong competition from the other. Then, disaster struck, as reported by The Age:

“Crucially, Bonlac is processing only 1.6 billion litres of milk. Over the past 10 years, its share of Victorian milk production has declined from about 40 per cent in 1992 to 16 per cent in 2002.”

“Bonlac’s milk plants are running at only 75 per cent of manufacturing capacity. Particularly underused are the factories at Darnum in West Gippsland and Stanhope in northern Victoria.

“Debt, the result of an ambitious expansion into value-adding branded products in the 1990s, is still crippling the company, despite asset sales creating paper profits in the last couple of years, and the repayment of $185 million of debt.”

Now, in the midst of an ambitious expansion into value-adding branded products on the back of a partial listing, MG is in turmoil. Its MD and CFO have resigned and the milk price has collapsed, triggering ASIC and ACCC investigations, at least one class action and a share price meltdown.

Bonlac is long gone and, in the eyes of many farmers, MG has lost the title of reliable pacemaker. The system is broken.

It’s no longer acceptable for dairy leaders to tell farmers to concentrate on their farm businesses and blindly follow their calls for growth. It’s time we actively forged a new era for Australian dairying.

 

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What The Project didn’t have time for me to say

TheProject

The Project delivered a powerful story last night about the turmoil we face that included footage of Wayne recounting my unvarnished reaction to the price drop.

I’m upset and I’m anxious about the future but I’m okay.

The price drop felt like the last straw. We’ve been battling a horrid drought that has already drained much of my emotional reserves over the last year. To hear that we would now have to face this on top of what’s pretty much guaranteed to be a rotten milk price next financial year was just overwhelming. The light at the end of the tunnel suddenly became very dim.

But Wayne and I are a strong unit and we’re not giving up on anything.

We will get through this. We are luckier than many others and I am inexpressibly grateful to the people around me, especially Wayne.

I’m grateful to the generous dear people who have rung out of the blue just to ask “how’re you going?” over the last few weeks. I’m grateful to the strangers who have been moved to write notes of encouragement for farmers on Facebook forums. I’m grateful to the journalists who have helped share our stories.

What you didn’t hear me tell The Project was that we are resilient and we do this because we love it. That hasn’t changed.

What I do hope is that from this seismic shock will come seismic change. There has to be a better way both for our little family and the thousands of other farming families across the country. We cannot let the opportunity to reshape the future slip through our fingers now.

 

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What the Fonterra Friday 13 announcement means in plain English

This plain English explanation is for anyone as confused as I was on Friday following Fonterra’s second announcement.

The May and June milk price is still slashed to $1.91kgMS
The prices outlined in the original announcement still apply. Friday’s announcement concerns milk to be supplied in 2016/17 but the amount you receive hinges partly on how much milk you supply in May and June 2016. Baffled? Stay with me for a minute.

Loans are still available in the same format
Nothing has changed in terms of the loans announced on May 5.

Why the latest announcement?
Although nobody came out of the May 5 announcement a winner, if your peak milk production was in May and June, you suffered far heavier losses than farmers whose herds peak in Spring.

Fonterra’s Friday May 13 announcement is designed to even out the impact.

July and August milk now attracts extra for the volumes you supplied in May and June
Fonterra will pay $2.50 kgMS extra for July and August milk in 16/17 but only for up to the same volume of milk you supplied in May and June.

Here’s an example: if Old Macdonald supplies Fonterra 10,000 kgMS in May and 10,000 kgMS in June but 15,000 in July and 15,000 kgMS more in August, she will be paid the extra $2.50 on 20,000kgMS rather than on 30,000 kgMS.

The remaining 10,000kgMS will be paid at the normal July and August rates (that’s base price + quality + production + seasonal incentives). So, Old Macdonald would find $2.50 x 10000 = $25,000 extra in each of the milk cheques that arrive on August 15 and September 15.

If, on the other hand, Old Macdonald supplies Fonterra a total of 20,000 kgMS for May and June but only 15,000 kgMS for July and August, she will still be paid the extra $2.50 kgMS on 20,000 kgMS.

The money is coming from the rest of the year
The milk price Fonterra pays farmers is made up of four components:

  • A base price paid at the same rate every month of the year for fat and protein (fat + protein = milk solids)
  • Quality incentives
  • Production payments
  • Seasonal incentives – which are apply in the “off-season” months of January to July.

To pay for the extra money announced on Friday, Fonterra will lower the base component of the milk price by 19 cents per kgMS. In other words, you may receive extra money in your August and September milk cheques but money will also be deducted every month for the whole of 16/17.

About this post and me: Milk Maid Marian supplies milk to Fonterra and this post was checked by Fonterra Australia for accuracy.

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