Rebound in labor force participation a bright spot for businesses and a key to economic recovery.
The U.S. economy continues to defy gravity and remains strong despite lingering inflationary pressures, higher borrowing costs and a barrage of other headwinds. Consumers continue to spend aggressively on services, businesses are still investing and the labor market remains incredibly strong. Secure jobs are the most important element in consumer spending and well-employed Americans have powered the economic recovery for three years.
Foreign-born employment has increased at roughly double the pace of native-born employment since April 2020. The successes in these two groups have been critical so far in the economic recovery. But looking forward, it raises the question of how many more workers are available to be coaxed in off the sidelines. Ultimately, the U.S. labor force challenges are far from over.
Grains, Farm Supply & Biofuels
With the corn and soybean growing season in full swing, drought across the Central U.S. is driving heightened seasonal market volatility. Markets are balancing the quickly deteriorating crop conditions against the potential for El Nino to bring wetter conditions later in the growing season. Wheat harvest is advancing northward in the U.S. and is revealing high variability in crop quality. USDA expects the U.S. hard red winter wheat crop to be the smallest since 1957 on substantially higher abandonments and lower yields.
Ag retailers faced a more challenging environment in the second quarter as fertilizer prices continued to fall. Prices were weighed down by reduced demand, as farmers took advantage of pre-payment programs last fall to purchase fertilizer in advance. Despite an overall slowdown in inflation, ag retailers continued to face rising costs, especially for property insurance. Grain and farm supply cooperatives paid about 50% more for property and casualty insurance coverage during the January and April 2023 renewal seasons.
The ethanol complex delivered strong second quarter results with steady production and above-average profitability. Operating margins averaged 45 cents per gallon, nearly double the long-term average. While the finalized blending requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) were somewhat disappointing for ethanol, they were incrementally positive for biomass-based diesel. The new rules call for 2.82 billion gallons of biodiesel and renewable diesel in 2023 and 3.35 billion gallons in 2025.
Animal Protein & Dairy
As the summer grilling season kicked off, beef demand remained incredibly resilient despite elevated prices for consumers. Retail beef prices averaged $7.50 per pound in May, a record high for the period, and an increase of 2% year-over-year. Robust demand combined with tighter cattle supplies spurred market momentum for cattle. Fed cattle values reached record levels, above $180 per cwt. and feeder cattle shot above $240 per cwt. While consumers have yet to balk at higher beef prices, things could quickly change when seasonal support wanes.
Excess hog supply and weak pork demand put hog prices in jeopardy this spring. After a steady start to the year, the CME lean hog index tumbled about $10 per cwt., to $72 from mid-March to late April. However, more favorable market conditions across the animal protein segment drove lean hog values up 30% through May and June. While still down about $15 year-over-year, the pork cutout landed in the upper $90s, gaining about $20 per cwt. through the quarter.
Domestic chicken consumption was up about 4% year-over-year through June 1, which has helped chip away at elevated cold storage holdings. Wholesale broiler meat prices have largely rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, following significant declines in late 2022 and early 2023. Feed costs have come down about 10% from last year but remain well above their historic averages. For broiler integrators, increased feed costs coupled with higher operational expenses have crimped profitability.
U.S. milk producers continue to struggle in the current price environment. The national all-in mailbox milk price has dropped below the $20 per cwt. mark after averaging $25.34 per cwt. in 2022. While several factors are to blame for this year’s milk price decline, the sharp drop in American/cheddar-style cheese prices is the most significant. Prices for the category have dropped by one-third since the beginning of the year. Milk and feed futures suggest producer profitability should improve considerably by October when Class III milk prices are anticipated to increase by about $3 per cwt.
Cotton, Rice & Specialty Crops
U.S. cotton production is rebounding from last year’s crop that was devastated by extreme drought across the southwest. Recent rainfall in top-producing Texas is expected to reduce abandonment following three years of severe drought. The U.S. cotton crop is now estimated at 16.5 million bales, up 14% from last year. Price inflation for clothing and apparel in the U.S. continues to ease with the moderation of cotton prices, which may work to draw in new consumer demand.
U.S. rice production is expected to recover from last year’s small crop, although concerns over dryness and worsening conditions in the mid-South have led to increased volatility of rough rice prices. With improved water availability this year, California medium grain rice production is also expected to rebound with planted acreage at 465,000 acres. That’s a substantial increase from last year’s planted acreage of 220,000 acres that were restricted by historic drought conditions.
Sugar prices remain historically high as markets ration tight global supplies. USDA currently calls for a rebound in world sugar production for 2023-2024, but concerns are growing that El Nino will result in smaller harvests in 2023-2024. In the U.S., there is no relief in sight for high prices as wet weather delayed planting across northern states this spring, which resulted in a smaller U.S. sugarbeet crop.
The tight farm labor market continues to be especially challenging for U.S. specialty crop producers. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported that weekly median wages for farm workers swelled to a record high $915 in April, a 24% increase from the year earlier. In June, the House Agriculture Committee created a bipartisan working group, tasked with evaluating the H-2A program and finding solutions for the labor supply challenges facing farmers.
Food & Beverage
While food manufacturers generally indicate they are back to business as usual in the post-pandemic era, many consumers continue to harbor a crisis-management mentality when it comes to food costs. Rising food prices are challenging both at-home and away-from-home food spending. The Consumer Price Index for all food in May was 6.7% higher than May 2022, while food away-from-home prices were up 8.3%. To offset higher prices, consumers are continuing behaviors initially seen during the pandemic, namely eating more meals at home. Foot traffic in restaurants remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
Power, Water & Communications
Falling fuel and energy prices have brought some much-needed relief to rural consumers, who were uniquely disadvantaged by rising energy bills in recent years. Gasoline, diesel, heating oil, natural gas and electricity all cost less than they did a year ago. Rural discretionary incomes fell by a staggering 50% from 2020 to 2022 compared to 13% for urban residents. Transportation and home energy expenses were responsible for two-thirds of the inflationary divide between rural and urban households.
Microsoft, Google and Meta are investing billions of dollars in artificial intelligence applications, which have exploded onto the scene in recent months. Applications like ChatGPT will dramatically increase the need for data processing capacity, fiber network connectivity and other communications infrastructure. Telecommunications operators in rural and smaller cities are well positioned to meet this growing need, as data storage and computation needs to occur in near proximity to where AI applications are run.
Read The Quarterly. Each CoBank Quarterly provides updates and an outlook for the Macro Economy and U.S. Agricultural Markets; Grains, Biofuels and Farm Supply; Animal Protein; Dairy; Cotton and Rice; Specialty Crops; Food & Beverage industries and Rural Infrastructure.