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The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

CoBank Quarterly reports resilient labor market delays inevitable U.S. economic slowdown  

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Turmoil in the commercial banking sector over the past month has created a new and unpredictable variable in the U.S. economic outlook. For now, the situation appears to be contained, and the economic impacts have been relatively modest. 

But, as lending standards and credit availability tighten for smaller banks, small businesses and consumers will have fewer funding sources. This will create a downdraft in the economy in coming months.

According to a new quarterly report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange, inflation remains the biggest economic challenge ahead. 

Even as general inflation moves in the right direction, headline inflation is still at five percent year-over-year. This is well above the Federal Reserve’s (the Fed) two percent target and points to the likelihood the Fed will raise rates again in May.

Gains in disposable personal income are powering consumer spending, although the pace of growth is slowing. The job market remains strong, and the demand for labor is preventing the economy from cooling too quickly. 

However, corporate profits are falling from their lofty levels during the pandemic, which portends hiring weakness in coming quarters.

“Several indicators point to an oncoming recession, with inverted bond yields being the most closely watched,” said Dan Kowalski, vice president of CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange. “But, predicting the timing of this slowdown has been particularly tricky in the face of a resilient labor market. We still expect a shallow, relatively short recession in 2023, but probably not before late in the third quarter or into the fourth.”

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the pandemic-era trend of outmigration from large population centers is slowing but not reversing. 

Rural areas saw a second consecutive year of population growth in 2022. However, the benefit of population inflow is not spread equally in rural America. More than 60 percent of counties with populations under 10,000 lost residents last year. 

These counties tend to be geographically isolated and less adequately resourced. And, the lack of amenities like high-speed broadband prevent many of these areas from sharing in the prosperity experienced by other rural counties.

Grains, farm
supplies, biofuels

Grain prices finished the quarter down modestly after a rollercoaster ride spurred by the ongoing war in Ukraine, lower corn and soybean production in Argentina and a weakening global economic outlook. 

The drop in U.S. corn prices spurred a Chinese buying spree, helping to close the gap between actual accumulated exports and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) projections. 

Soybean oil was the standout losing ag commodity in the first quarter, dropping 20 percent and continuing a precipitous fall beginning December 2022.

Fertilizer prices continued to fall amid downward pressure on commodity and energy prices. Nitrogen prices may be nearing a low point for 2023, as higher natural gas prices are forecasted by summer.

Farm supply cooperatives saw muted agronomic activity in the first quarter due to substantial rain and snowfall in March, which has limited field work and other pre-planting activities. But, the outlook for the sector is generally favorable this year following a year of record profits in 2022.

Ethanol production and profitability were in line with long-term averages during the first quarter as lower corn and natural gas costs helped margins. On the policy front, legislation reintroduced in the U.S. Senate could support higher blends of ethanol. 

If enacted into law, the act will mandate automobile manufacturers to design vehicles which use cleaner fuels and fuel retailers to offer higher-octane options. 

As reported in January, renewable diesel production surpassed biodiesel production for the first time in November 2022.

Animal protein and dairy

Cattle markets ended the first quarter in a strong position. 

Fed cattle traded above $165 per hundredweight (cwt) and feeder cattle above $190 per cwt during the quarter. 

Consumer demand for beef over the past three years has been nothing short of remarkable, but resistance to higher prices has recently surfaced. 

The Choice boxed beef cutout tumbled more than $20 during January. With packer margins pressured by stronger cattle prices and weaker cutout values, production has eased lower.

Hog prices were relatively flat through much of the quarter, missing out on their normal seasonal momentum. Through the end of March, cumulative weekly slaughter was up about three percent year-over-year. However, the industry appears to be drawing down future availability which should lead to higher prices later in the year.

U.S. pork exports came under pressure in 2022, but the trade picture appears to be improving. In January, year-over-year exports increased to Mexico by five percent and to China by 37 percent.

Chicken producers had a difficult start to 2023 after wholesale breast meat prices hit rock-bottom levels late last year. But, things are looking up for the sector as prices have increased and beef production comes under pressure. 

U.S. broiler meat exports reached 630 million pounds during January, a record high for the month and a 13 percent increase year-over-year. Domestic dark meat support remains robust as well, helping to carry the burden of less-than-stellar conditions for white meat.

Milk prices are succumbing to additional milk supply with the seasonal pressures of the spring flush combined with an additional 12,000 cows added to the U.S. herd in February. 

The increased milk supply, combined with ongoing weak domestic demand, pushed down all milk prices earlier in the quarter with spot milk selling at a significant discount to class pricing. 

Cheese manufacturers are producing a record amount of cheese as milk supply builds.

The export pace for all dairy products remains robust, with January shipments tallying 466.1 million pounds – a record for the month.

Cotton, rice and
specialty crops

The deteriorating global economic outlook is weighing heavily on cotton markets. Global cotton consumption is forecast to drop 11 percent between marketing years 2020-21 and 2022-23. This would be among the worst performances in the last 10 years. 

Clothing inventories are still too high for retailer preferences, while disposable income growth rates in developed economies continue to be stagnant. Lackluster demand for cotton seems inevitable.

Rough rice prices fell last quarter under the pressure of speculative selling. 

U.S. rice exports continue to lag far behind last year’s pace, with accumulated shipments for the current marketing year down 40 percent. The strong dollar and India’s increased exports remain headwinds for the U.S.-Indian exports are forecast to climb to a new high as India’s government has dramatically increased subsidies to rice farmers.

The U.S. sugar industry is anticipating strong prices and record production. Production estimates continue to edge higher, spurred by decade-high recovery rates for beet sugar and increasing sugarcane acreage.

At the same time, prices remain historically high as food manufacturers hold inventories at the bare minimum. The cane sugar manufacturing Producer Price Index is up about 37 percent from pre-pandemic levels. But, wholesale spot cane sugar prices have risen by 82 percent over the same time, which suggests fairly strong margins for sugar refiners.

Rain and cold temperatures during much of March’s almond bloom and pollination period has raised concerns over 2023 yields. However, a short crop may not be a bad thing for the almond industry as inventories have ballooned in recent years. 

Domestic and export demand fundamentals are currently weak, and it will take another season at least to bring almond inventories back to more manageable levels. 

Meanwhile, the heavy rains in California have left many of the state’s strawberry fields under water. Strawberry prices will be sky high in the coming months as a result.

CoBank is a cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America and a member of the Farm Credit System. The bank, headquartered in Denver, provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states. This article was originally published by CoBank on April 6.

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