Big Wall Street investors plow money into farmland to diversify portfolios

September 23, 1990|By Richard D. Hylton | Richard D. Hylton,New York Times News Service

With opulent office towers desperate for tenants and several big-city developers choking on debt, some major investors are heading for the country.

Wall Street is discovering the heartland, where reliable returns often flow from buying the farm.

The Farm Belt has largely recovered from its 1982-1987 recession with fewer, larger farms and lower debt levels throughout the business.

In the last few years, farmland has attracted institutional investors looking to diversify their portfolios.

Several of the country's largest pension funds are beginning to invest in farmland because it offers long-term holders relatively low risk along with fairly steady returns and capital appreciation.

Financial institutions have established several funds to help investors add agricultural real estate to their portfolios.

Among these vehicles are the Equitable Agricultural Property Funds, set up in January by Equitable Agri-Business Inc., an Atlanta-based subsidiary of the Equitable Life Assurance Society the United States.

The company has about $2.2 billion invested, mostly through mortgages, in 12,000 farms and ranches.

Equitable's fund has raised about $25 million for equity investments in farms this year and expects to reach $100 million by next year.

The Prudential Insurance Co., Batterymarch Financial and Morgan Stanley Asset Management also are investing in farmland.

Their stakes in agriculture so far are tiny compared with the billions pension funds invest annually.

But investment managers say that as institutions become more familiar with farm investing, they will plow in large sums, lifting prices.

L Morgan Stanley says its investments are already substantial.

The firm has diversified by geography and crops, with corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and citrus properties.

"We think total return to farmland should be in the range of 10 to 17 percent a year," said an executive there, who asked not to be identified.

"Farmland is up 15 to 25 percent since it hit the bottom in the 1980s."

Several farm states -- among them Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and the Dakotas -- prohibit corporate ownership and aim to keep farms in the hands of American families, restricting investment.

Even so, investors say there is no shortage of opportunities.

"The rules are a restriction, but then you can still buy outside of those states," Kenneth J. Binkley, a senior vice president at EquitableAgri-Business, said.

"There are still a lot of other states you can buy in, like California, Texas, Indiana, Illinois and Florida."

About two-thirds of U.S. farmland is owned by individual farmers, but the largest, most technologically advanced farmers are dominant.

Of the country's 2.27 million farms, the 14 percent, or about 317,000, that have sales of more than $100,000 account for 75 percent of all farm sales, about 61 percent of government farm subsidies, and 86 percent of net farm income, according to 1987 Agriculture Department figures.

The smallest 1.63 million farms, or 72 percent, have annual sales of less than $40,000, accounting for a mere 10 percent of all farm sales.

A revival in farm prices is well under way.

Earlier this year, the Agriculture Department reported that prices had risen to an average of $693 an acre in January -- up 4 percent last year but still well below the 1982 record of $823.

Despite the disappointments of the 1980s, sophisticated investors have become aware of long-term performance.

"If you look at farmland over the last 30 years or so, you see annual return of about 10 percent," said Mr. Binkley.

Treasury bills have returned about 5 percent annually since 1960, corporate bonds about 7 percent and commercial real estate about 9 percent.

Stocks returned about 12 percent, but with greater risks and volatility than farmland.

To realize the returns from operating income as well as higher land values, Mr. Binkley said, institutions need skilled farm management.

Many investors consider farmland an attractive hedge against inflation. During the agricultural boom of the 1970s, farm values often outstripped inflation.

Impressive returns fired the hopes of farmers who borrowed heavily to buy farmland going into the 1980s, raising prices.

Economists say the 1980s crisis has left agricultural credit tighter, probably keeping farm values from keeping up with the inflation rate.

"Farmland will be a reasonable investment in the '90s, but I don't think it will ever perform the way it did in the '70s," Mark Drabenstott, an economist and assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo., said.

Farm debt has fallen to about $135.9 billion, down from the 1983 high of $192 billion---making agriculture one of the first areas of the economyto become less leveraged.

Farmland prices fell sharply from 1982 to 1987 in the worst recession agriculture had faced in 50 years.

By 1987, farmland began regaining its value.

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