Thursday, October 17, 2019

Benefitting from the Asian Meat Shortage

Benefitting From the Asian Meat Shortage
By: Michael Molman 

So far 2019 has proven an interesting year in financial markets, as global economic growth begins to pause, geo-political tensions rise, and a trade war between the world’s largest economies riles markets. The increase in volatility has created numerous opportunities for investors and traders who look past the scary headlines. Often these opportunities occur in markets that are wholly under the radar. Recent rallies in boring utilities stocks, volatile and un predictable dry bulk shipping, tanker futures as well as long-dated government bonds show that no matter the overall sentiment there is always a bull market somewhere (I am very sorry to have to quote Jim Cramer on that one). One over-looked corner of the market that provides some of the most interesting trading opportunities, at the moment, is livestock. 
Now its fully understandable why most investors do not think of livestock as an especially attractive industry or commodity to invest in. The market for livestock, including hogs and beef is volatile, complex and difficult to trade. When you add in the effects of the China – U.S trade war, which has mostly shut U.S meat producers out of the world’s largest meat market, the industry becomes even more unattractive. However, a recent, and severe, breakout of African Swine Fever in China has significantly reduced the supply of pork in Asia (the world’s largest market for the meat). Current estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that nearly 28% of China’s pig herd will have died by the end of 2019. In response the Chinese government has been on a global meat buying spree and encouraging its population to supplement pork for other meats, such as beef and poultry. This sudden and vast decrease in global pork supply and increasing demand for meat imports from Asia, has opened up tremendous opportunities for U.S livestock and meat processors. To understand this opportunity and to understand how to effectively take advantage, investors first need to understand the workings of the global meat market. 

Chart showing global meat production from 1961 to 2014. Meat production soared 4.5x over this period with much of the gain coming from Asia. 
           The first thing one needs to understand about the global meat market (and this statistic might upset the vegans out there) is that both production and consumption have been increasing at a rapid clip over the last 6 decades. Since the 1960’s global consumption of meat (on a per capita basis) has nearly doubled from 23 kilograms in 1961 to over 43 kilograms in 2013. Production has increased at an even quicker rate, tripling over the last 40 years and increasing 20% in just the last 10, to over 320 million tons and this number is expected to double yet again by 2050. This surge in production and consumption is due to rising incomes in developing countries, especially Asia. The amount of meat different countries and regions consume is highly variable but almost always tracks the growth in per capita income. Essentially the wealthier a nation is the more meat its citizens consume. So with this in mind it’s no surprise that developed countries in North America and Europe consume more than twice the average amount of meat than the rest of the world. It’s also not surprising that countries that have experienced rapid positive economic growth over the last several decades have seen the fastest growth in meat consumption. Since 1961 Asian meat production has increased an astounding 15 fold to 135.71 million tons in 2014 and consumption has increased around the same amount. Due to this fact most of the global meat trade revolves around Asian consumers. 
Now not all meats are created equal and different meats (such as pork, beef and chicken/poultry) have their own unique trade patterns and supply and demand fundamentals. Some meats are more popular in certain regions then others, for example in the United States, Australia and Argentina, beef is incredibly prevalent in meat diets, meanwhile in Asia, pork is king. Chinese consumers eat about 122 billion pounds of pork a year and pig-meat accounts for two-thirds of per-capita meat consumption. With so much pork being consumed, China and the greater Asian region has some of the largest pig herds in the world. In 2018 China alone had a pig population of about 440.6 million, in comparison the 2ndand 3rdlargest pig herds belonged to the European Union and the United States who had pig herds of 150.26 million and 73.15 million respectively. In fact in recent years China has been home to over half of the worlds pig population.
Despite being the largest producer of pork in the world China still has trouble satisfying its population, who increasingly want to spend their growing incomes on better food, which includes more meat. As such China has become a major importer of pork and represented 20% of total pork imports (1.561 million tons) in 2018, according to the USDA. Meanwhile the largest exporters continue to be the European Union, United States, Canada and Brazil. With Chinese demand crucial to the global hog and pork industry the status of Chinese pig herds is closely watched. 

Chart showing China's share of world meat imports from 2014 to 2019. China is expected  to represent 25% of total global pork imports in 2019. 

This brings us to the catalyst for the investment opportunity in livestock. In August 2018 a violent and ongoing outbreak of African Swine Fever spread through Asia, devastating pig herds across the continent. African Swine Fever is a highly contagious viral disease, which although harmless to humans, is almost 100% lethal for pigs. With no vaccine currently available an infected hog is expected to die in two to ten days. The disease has spread to over 50 countries including; China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines and Mongolia. It also is not just contained to Asia with the disease present in European nations such as Russia, Italy, Ukraine and Poland as well as in Africa. According to the World Organization of Animal Health, the disease is present in countries that represent 75% of global pork production. 
The effect of the disease on pig supply has been astounding. Estimates for how much of China’s pig herd has been wiped out vary. Reuters reported that nearly 40% of China’s pigs have died since the disease surfaced, analysts at Rabobank believe China’s herd will fall 50-55% from beginning 2018 numbers. In a report published on October 10th, the USDA forecasts that China’s swine herd at the end of 2019 will be roughly 310 million heads and that the herd will fall to 275 million in 2020, down 28% and 11% respectively. This would mean a decline of nearly 40% from 2018. 
In neighboring Vietnam, the worlds 6thlargest pork producer, where the disease is also prevalent the data is grim. Pork is even more prevalent in the Vietnamese diet than it is in China. Pig-meat accounts for 75% of meat consumption in the country and most of the nation’s 30 million pigs are consumed domestically. Since the government reported the outbreak of the disease an estimated 10-20% of the nation’s pigs have died. In the Philippines pork production is expected to fall by 16% in 2020. 
Overall it is virtually impossible to calculate exactly how many pigs have been lost to the disease worldwide or the current status of the global pig herd. However, current baseline estimates from the USDA  show that total global swine stocks will fall 15% in 2019 with total pork production falling another 10% in 2020.

Map showing countries where African Swine Fever has been reported. The disease is present in countries representing 75% of global pork production. 
Chart showing size and percentage change in China's hog herd from 2010 to 2020. Total pig inventory  is expected to fall 40% over the course of 2019 and 2020. 

The sudden and dramatic decrease in Chinese and Asian pork supplies has had several effects the most obvious of which is the rapid increase of pork and hog prices in China. Wholesale pork prices in the country have soared roughly 64% as the nation expects to see a 10 million ton pork deficit this year. The shortage and subsequent price increase have led to an increase in imports which tend to rise and fall inversely to domestic production. The USDA expects Chinese pork imports to soar over 66% in 2019 to as much as 2.6 million tons and increase another 35% to 3.5 million tons in 2020. The effect of this decrease in supply and increase in export demand is that global pork production will fall 10% in 2020 while exports will increase by 10%. That dynamic offers significant opportunity for pork producers and traders in certain countries. 
            However, the spread of African Swine Fever did not just affect the global market for hogs it also caused an increased demand for other livestock as well. The entire global trade in pork in 2019 is expected to total about 9 million tons, this means the world simply does not have the supplies to fill China’s meat deficit. In response the Chinese government has attempted to ration the supply of pork and encourage consumers to buy other meats, like beef or chicken instead. As such, Chinese buying of all meats around the world is causing meat prices to surge in almost every market. 
            In Brazil poultry shipments to China have jumped 31% from a year ago and as a result of the lower domestic supply of chicken, retail prices of the meat have jumped 16%. In Europe retail pork prices are already up 5% and lamb prices in Australia are up 14%. In Argentina, one of the world’s preeminent beef producers, steak prices have surged 51% as beef exports to China have doubled (although this increase in price is also attributable to Argentina’s growing economic crisis). Global exports of beef are expected to increase 4% in 2019 and the USDA is expecting Chinese beef imports to surge 15%. Meanwhile Chinese imports of chicken are forecasted to increase 20% in 2020. Overall global meat prices as measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (part of the United Nations) meat index has jumped 10% in 2019 to highest level since early 2015. 

Chart showing Chinese pork production alongside imports from 2000 to 2019. This year China is expected to import a record amount of pork. 
           Now the question becomes who actually sets to benefit from these incredibly positive dynamics in the global meat trade. The answer would be the countries with the most plentiful supplies of pork and beef. However, many of those countries have their own unique problems with production, which either limits their production of meat or limits their exports. 
The European Union, home to the world’s second largest pig herd has traditionally been a dominant player in the Chinese pork import market. The European Union has expanded shipments to China by 39 percent and is expected to remain the top supplier with 61 percent market share year-to-date.  High stocks of pork and weak domestic demand have increased supplies available for export. However, with that said, the presence of African Swine Flu in some member countries (in Eastern Europe) and environmental regulations have curtailed growth in production. Both these things pose significant threats to Europe’s pork trade going forward. Meanwhile dry weather conditions over the last year have also reduced the European Union’s cattle herd. All this means that although it is a major power in livestock, Europe may not be the one to benefit the most from this current opportunity. 
Brazil is also a major player in the pork trade, with exports to China up 30% through August. Despite strong demand, exports are constrained by facility approvals that limit eligible product. China needs to approve meat plants in countries hoping to export to the world’s largest meat market. China approved 25 new Brazilian meat plants in September, but just one plant for pork. The approved plant has a slaughter capacity of 5,000 hogs per day, only moderately increasing potential export supplies. Brazil will however, be one of the prime beneficiary of higher Chinese beef imports, and will steadily redirect exports to the Asian market. 
Canada also benefitted from increasing Asian pork imports, with the country having the 2ndhighest share of imports into China, after the European Union, at 15%. However, despite imports of pork from Canada to China soaring 51% in the first half of the year, China placed restrictions on imports of Canadian beef and pork in early June (part of an escalating trade rift between the two countries). This has significantly reduced Canadian meat exports to China and further limits the amount of places China could go to buy pork. 
That leaves the United States. Obviously it’s impossible to mention trade between the United States and China without taking into account the growing trade war between the two countries. As the United States levied tariffs on $360 billion of Chinese imports, China responded by placing tariffs on America’s primary export, agriculture, including livestock. On September 1st, China raised tariffs on U.S pork to 60% in addition to the usual 12.5% tariff placed on pork imports. This brought effective tariffs on U.S pork to 72%, essentially squeezing U.S imports out of the market. This dynamic though is changing. As pork prices around the world surge and large suppliers struggle to supply China the U.S has become one of the only nations China can turn to plug the whole in its meat deficit. U.S pork supply is expected to increase 3% in 2020 after a 4% increase in 2019. As such supplies are growing faster than elsewhere in the world and American production is not threatened by the African Swine Fever, making American pork cheaper than global competitors. 
This could explain why in recent weeks Chinese imports of U.S pork have been increasing. In the week ended October 3rd, the USDA reported China purchased a weekly record of 142,300 tons of U.S pork. In comparison total U.S pork exports to China in September totaled 19,900 tons. With the skyrocketing price of domestic pork, U.S imports are actually somewhat competitive, even with the tariff (although still more expensive than imports from other nations). The U.S meat export federation expects American pork exports to grow 12% in 2019 and 13% in 2020 to 3.1 million tons, with China driving much of the increase. This estimate also assumes the tariffs will still be in place, if they are removed the total amount of exports would soar much higher. 
The chances of that happening have improved recently with President Trump announcing a partial trade deal with China that would see China boost its purchases of U.S agriculture. It is safe to assume that cheap U.S pork would be at the top of the Chinese agricultural shopping list. U.S pork could become even more competitive as prices in China are expected to soar even higher in the next few months as pork stockpiles run dry. U.S pork is also set to benefit from increased sales to Mexico (the largest market for American pork) as retaliatory tariffs are removed as well as steady demand from South Korea and Japan. Essentially, even if tariffs remain in place, as Asia soaks up more of the worlds pork, more opportunities will open up for cheap U.S exports. 
U.S beef is also set to benefit as global beef supplies are bought up by the Chinese as well. U.S beef production is projected to increase by 3% in 2020 and exports are set to increase by 6%. The U.S is set to grow market share in its traditionally strong export markets of Japan and South Korea as well as China, especially as Australian beef production (a major competitor to U.S beef in Asia) continues to fall due to drought conditions. All this being said, increased export opportunities for U.S livestock driven by strong Asian demand as well as lower global supplies, coupled with cheap prices in the U.S, mean that U.S livestock prices are bound to go higher. 

Chart showing U.S weekly pork exports from 2013 to October 2019. Export sales have recently surged as a result of Chinese buying. 
           Now that the investment opportunity in U.S livestock is clear, the question becomes how to take advantage. Most people are uncomfortable buying up live cattle and hogs and selling them to the Chinese. Thankfully there are a number of financial instruments as well as equities that allow investors the ability to gain exposure to livestock. 
            The first of which would be the livestock futures traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. These futures include contracts for; lean hogs, as well as for live and feeder cattle. As the main opportunity exists in increasing pork exports, lean hog futures would be the most precise way to bet on increasing pork prices. Lean hog futures have been volatile the last few weeks as traders weigh the counteracting bearish forces of increasing supply with the bullish forecast of increased Asian purchases. That means hog prices have remained relatively low despite the chorus of bullish data out there and with exports already increasing and global supplies substantially decreased, lean hog futures stand a good chance to rally.
            For those investors who are more conservative and do not want to risk owning a herd of pigs by not selling the lean hog futures before expiration, there are a couple of ETF’s that allow you to invest in livestock. The first of which would be the London traded Wisdom Tree Lean Hogs ETF (HOGS.L). This ETF is traded in U.S dollars and tracks the Bloomberg Lean Hogs Sub index and provides an easily tradeable way to get exposure to the price of hogs. Another possible ETF that also has direct exposure to livestock would be the iPath Bloomberg Livestock Sub index ETN (COW).  This ETF tracks an index composed of lean hog and live cattle futures which allows an investor to play the broader trend in rising livestock prices and not just speculate on the price of hogs. COW is also traded in the U.S which means it is easier for retail investors to buy. 
            Futures and ETF’s offer the most direct exposure to livestock prices, but there are equities that are benefitting from the bullish developments in the global meat market. Those equities belong to companies like Tyson Foods (TSN) which are global meat companies with operations spanning, beef, pork, chicken and prepared foods. As a global meat processor, distributor, and marketer, Tyson Foods stands to benefit from large supplies in the U.S and global shortage worldwide. 
            Whether you choose to invest in livestock through, futures, ETF’s or equities one thing is perfectly clear, when supply falls as much as it has and demand continues to grow there is an opportunity. This opportunity becomes even more appealing when you consider that so far it has been underplayed. With so much attention being paid to trade tensions most investors overlook the opportunity in livestock. As Asian meat supplies continue to shrink and global prices begin to rise it’s only a matter of time before U.S livestock prices follow suit and soar! 

For those interested in learning more about this opportunity I highly recommend reading through some of the articles and reports attached below. They provide a much more detailed description of the global meat trade and the specific supply and demand fundamentals. 


Disclaimer: This material has been written for informational purposes only, it should not be considered as investment advice. Any investment decision should be made after consulting multiple sources and a financial advisor.