Opportunities in Agriculture

Also written by Victor German

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Agricultural land values have enjoyed a phenomenal run-up over the last several years, with land values in the U.S. Corn Belt in particular seeing substantial gains driven by macro fundamentals .

In recent months, however, we have observed several signals that suggest a short-term pullback in land values may be on the horizon. We likewise expect weakness in agricultural-equipment manufacturers such as Deere & Co. ( DE) and AGCO Corp. ( AGCO). While these developments should make investors cautious in the short term, we believe they will bring solid investment opportunities for those with a long-term outlook.

In the first half of 2013, Argentine farmland operator Cresud ( CRESY) sold off a sizable portion of its agricultural land portfolio, with total value amounting to more than that of all land sold in 1998-2011. The sales came in spite of a generally cool local real estate market, hampered by government hostility toward foreign currency transaction.

The company reported a handsome increase in operating income due to the land sales, which to a certain extent masked the difficult realities of increasing machinery and agrichemical costs, as well as falling commodity prices.

Brasilagro ( LND), a similar farmland operator based in neighboring Brazil, likewise, reported unloading almost 50,000 acres of farmland, a large portion of its portfolio. While Brasilagro also benefited from the sale in the short term, the gains came along with reports of troubling double-digit increases in per-acre production costs.

We believe the 2013 sales in South America signal that operators are anticipating local market weakness, which may have similar implications for the increasingly interconnected markets in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In October, Alico ( ALCO) -- one of the largest private landowners in Florida -- announced the sale of a majority stake at a 14% discount relative to the previous day's closing price. While the sale itself didn't come as a surprise, the price may indicate a desire by Alico owners to cash out due to tax incentives or personal reasons.

Despite great fiscal second-quarter earnings and a bull market, Deere has underperformed significantly. The farm-equipment manufacturer's fortune is closely tied to the prices of major crops, and those prices have plummeted. The chart below shows the historical relationship between corn futures and Deere's stock price.

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