Eighty-four farms in the US Midwest region covered by the Minneapolis Fed’s Ninth District states (Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) filed for chapter 12 bankruptcy in the 12 months that ended in June - more than twice the level observed in June 2014, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve, surpassing the prior peak hit just after the GFC.
"Current numbers are not unprecedented, even in the recent past, having reached 70 bankruptcies in 2010. However, current price levels and the trajectory of the current trends suggest that this trend has not yet seen a peak," Ron Wirtz, an analyst at the Minneapolis Fed, wrote.
Bankruptcy numbers inversely correlate with the rise and fall of soft commodity prices. After an abrupt spike in chapter 12 filings during the GFC - which peaked in 2010 - soft commodity prices started to rise across the board and bankruptcies declined. Farm bankruptcies bottomed out in 2014, but that was at the point when prices peaked then began to drop.
As shown in the chart above, some of the problems predate President Trump's trade war with China.
One culprit is that demand for corn and soybeans has not kept pace with increasing supply from industrialized farms over the current economic expansion.
Some chapter 12 filings reflect low price levels for corn, soybeans, milk and even beef, but the situation had dramatically worsened since the trade war started earlier this year, and accelerated when China began slapping retaliatory tariffs on American soybeans.
Meanwhile, as the Fed notes, not all Ninth District states are feeling the same effects.
Wisconsin, for example, is seeing about 60% of all bankruptcies. It appears that bankruptcy filings have been unusually high among dairy farms. Mark Miedtke, the president of Citizens State Bank in Hayfield, Minn., said bankruptcy had not reared its head for borrowers in his region of southeast Minnesota, but farmers are certainly feeling the pinch.
"Dairy farmers are having the most problems right now," Miedtke said quoted by AP. “Grain farmers have had low prices for the past three years but high yields have helped them through. We’re just waiting for a turnaround. We’re waiting for the tariff problem to go away.”
"The underlying problem, which existed before the trade war, was overproduction. Farmers are almost too efficient for their own financial good," Miedtke added.
The bankruptcy wave of farms is also spilling into the ag loans market as the Ninth District’s 531 banks have reported an alarming rise in nonperforming ag loans.
"Asset quality of ag loans at these banks in the bottom quarter of the performance distribution worsened significantly after the recession. They improved markedly by 2012 and saw a couple of years of very healthy rates (Chart 3). But by 2014, asset quality in this cohort of banks was worsening again. By the second quarter of this year, asset quality would fall below levels seen in the aftermath of the recession—a trend not seen in any other standard loan category, like residential and commercial real estate, or construction and industrial, or even consumer loans," said Minneapolis Fed.
The farm bust is not isolated to Ninth District states but also is showing up in other parts of the Midwest.
A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and portions of Missouri and New Mexico, shows how farms in its district reported much lower income than a year ago.
Kansas City Fed said farm incomes were expected to weaken into early 2019. The worst ag banking conditions were in states with the heaviest concentrations of corn and soybeans.
The report also notes how farmers have started to deleverage, taking a page out of the GE playbook, with firesales of land or equipment to make loan payments.
In short, it appears that America's farm bust has arrived; while it has been festering for years starting under the Obama administration, with President Trump's trade war and China shutting out US farmers to its market the perfect storm has arrived.