MLR

Pension funds investing more often in agriculture

In the wake of volatile stock markets and ups and downs in residential and commercial real estate, pension funds are increasing their investments in agricultural land and businesses.

Plant growing out of money

In August 2015, TIAA-CREF, the largest U.S. pension fund with $869 billion in assets under management, announced a second global agriculture fund, with $3 billion in investments in North America, South America and Australia. A first fund of $2 billion was launched in 2012. TIAA-CREF has 5 million participants from the academic, medical and research fields. The fund has now invested about $8 billion in agriculture, making it a small but growing component.

A spokesman for TIAA-CREF cited the sector’s “low correlation to traditional asset classes,” as a primary reason for agriculture’s appeal. The firm also made an investment in agriculture research and development by founding the Center for Farmland Research at the University of Illinois in 2013.

State funds are joining the movement. Earlier this year, the board of Maine’s state employee pension fund, MainePERS, voted to invest $200 million. According to Farmland Investor, the Washington State Investment Board is committed to $550 million as part of its massive agribusiness investment strategy.

Pensions generally invest only a small part of their funds in private equity. For example, MainePERS targets 10 percent private equity in a mix that includes stocks, bonds, fixed income, infrastructure and natural resources.

Managing risk while growing the fund is of primary consideration when handling retirement accounts, so the choice of agribusiness may be perceived as a vote of confidence in the sector. According to chief investment officer Andrew Sawyer, MainePERS previously invested $130 million in agribusiness firms.

A report by the center, Farmland Markets: Valuation, Investment Performance and Issues for the Future, validates the health of the sector. According to the report, farmland in the U.S. is worth more than $3 trillion. Values are rising, with a corresponding increase in equity value that has outpaced debt growth. The debt-to-equity ratio is declining, from 21.2 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 2012.

Real estate accounts for 82 percent of farmland assets, and values have been growing at a steady 5.5 percent over the past 40 years. In 2013, average value per farmland acre in the U.S. was $2,900, an increase of 9.4 percent over 2012. Some areas of the country, notably in the Lake States, Corn Belt and Northern Plains, are experiencing double digit real estate appreciation.

In addition, agriculture fared better during the last recession. Presently, revenues are both high and stable. American agriculture has benefited by increased exports, which reached $150 billion in 2014, according to the USDA. The balance of trade is favorable, with exports outpacing imports by $43 billion during the same year. Favorable exchange rates and growing demand in developing countries are helping boost export activity.

Continued rising asset values coupled with strong revenue forecasts and historic stability combine to make farmland an attractive long-term investment.