More Gains for Agriculture Stocks in 2010

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By Brad Zigler

In a recent Desktop article (" Gasoline Welcomes You To Winter "), we celebrated the beginning of winter and marked the 200th anniversary (that's 200 days, mind you) of the equity market low culminating the Great De-leveraging.

Although the widely followed S&P 500 Composite was the yardstick used to score the market's nadir, that doesn't mean that every issue in the index bottomed on March 6. Take agribusiness stocks, for example. Of the five biggest domestically traded components of the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index-the benchmark tracked by the Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF (NYSE Arca: MOO) -only one scraped its pan in March. The rest actually started pulling up in late 2008, well ahead of the broader market.

Certainly, ag stocks have been on a tear this year. The Market Vectors agribusiness portfolio headed into the Christmas trading break with a 58 percent gain, nearly two and a half times the run-up of the S&P 500:

Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF ( MOO )

Underlying the ag sector's buoyancy are continuing concerns about the impact on food prices from growing global populations. The Food Price Index of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has climbed relentlessly for months; in fact, November's index reading was the highest since September 2008.

Aside from these supply/demand fundamentals, external factors such as volatility in exchange rates and oil prices are also adding an uncertainty premium to many agricultural commodity prices.

The Biggest Winners, Stock By Stock

Closer to home, market dynamics piqued investors' appetites for agribusiness. As an example, let's look at the top five components of the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index.

First, take Mosaic Co. ( MOS ) , a company that makes up 8.2 percent of the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index. Mosaic produces and markets phosphate and potash fertilizers and animal feed components. Demand for potash seems likely to increase in 2010, as farmers replenish soils following two years of limited applications.

Last week, shares of Mosaic (along with those of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan ( POT ) -but more on that later) were given a lift with upgrades by Goldman Sachs research.

Mosaic, now trading with a $60 handle, bottomed in November 2008 just under $22 and has now cleared the 24 percent retracement level of its 2008 decline. Mosaic's price trajectory is shallower than some of its competitors, indicating that share values haven't been overextended. The technical balance point between "oversold" and "overbought" conditions for Mosaic currently appears to be around the $58 level. Just before Christmas, Mosaic shares were trading 21 percent above their 200-day moving average.

Another agrichemical component in the index is Syngenta AG ( SYT ) , a Swiss company that produces herbicides, genetically modified seeds and pest-resistant specialty crops. The company also invests in the development of amylase corn for use in ethanol production. Syngenta accounts for 8 percent of the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index.

Syngenta ADRs broke through the 62 percent retracement level of their 2008 decline-they bottomed in October 2008-and are now trading above $55, quite near their balance point. At current levels, the receipts trade 19 percent ahead of their 200-day moving average.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. ( MON ) is a genomics and agrichemicals outfit that comprises 7.9 percent of the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index. The company develops strains of corn, soybeans and cotton seeds, as well as vegetable and fruit seeds that are sold to commercial growers, while its herbicide operations market chemicals to commercial and residential customers.

Since bottoming near $63 in November 2008, Monsanto shares have struggled to maintain forward momentum. In fact, prices are now lower than the levels attained in May, when a string of bullish crop reports and trade data prompted buyers to bid up the stock to the low $90s. The rally wasn't sustained, and prices eased back to trade, for a good deal of the time, south of $80.

Monsanto shares now trade at their balance point near $82, just 3 percent above their 200-day moving average.

Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan ( POT ) produces and sells fertilizers and feed products throughout North America, drawing potash from six mines in Saskatchewan and one in New Brunswick. The DAXglobal Agribusiness Index allocates 7.5 percent of its capitalization to Potash.

Potash shares have been testing a 38 percent retracement of their 2008 swoon, but haven't been able to sustain a break above the $120 level. The stock remains oversold by about $4 a share at the current $111 price range, though shares are trading 15 percent above their 200-day moving average.

Finally, there's Illinois-based farm machinery maker Deere & Co. ( DE ) , known for its farm equipment as well as heavy equipment used in construction, earthmoving and forestry. With a 4.8 percent weighting, Deere is the largest machinery producer in the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index.

Deere was one of the earliest ag stocks to top out back in April 2008. Share prices tumbled $70 by 2009's first quarter, but have since regained more than 38 percent of their lost ground. The stock's trajectory has been more volatile than the other ag stocks we've examined, though. In July, the stock traded below its 200-day moving average for about a week.

Deere stockholders who used that dip as a buying opportunity were amply rewarded. The low point just below $35 was a launchpad for a run that's taken Deere shares to their present level above $56. The stock, now 29 percent above its 200-day moving average, is actually overbought by a couple of bucks.

Top 5 Domestically Traded MOO Components

Stock

YTD

Return

Annualized

Volatility

Sharpe

Ratio

Sortino

Ratio

Correlation

To MOO

MOS

69.7%

74.5%

0.95

1.63

86.4%

SYT

46.4

45.2

1.04

2.64

76.7

MON

13.8

45.2

0.31

-0.52

68.2

POT

44.9

64.7

0.70

1.21

81.4

DE

46.1

60.6

0.77

1.90

82.4

MOO

58.6

45.7

1.28

3.14

--

(Sharpe and Sortino ratios are both keyed to the 13-week Treasury bill to aid comparison)

On the whole, the largest issues in the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index have fared well this year. Only one-Monsanto-has posted a negative Sortino ratio, an indication of its relatively flat trajectory since last year's drawdown. Mosaic has cranked out the best gain, but also is the most volatile issue in the group.

The best risk-adjusted return, however, could have been earned by holding all the stocks in the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index. An investment in the Market Vectors ETF carried a modest drawdown risk this year while providing its market-bettering return.

What's Next?

The question now is whether these stocks-and, by extension, the ETF-are likely to advance in 2010. Credit agencies are predicting stability in the agribusiness sector as stocks continue to rebound from recent earnings weakness. The momentum of agribusiness stocks, however, could be slowed when the Fed finally begins to withdraw its accommodation.

Some traders and would-be ag investors, in fact, have already noticed a waning impetus, at least in a relative sense. For most of the year, the price of the Market Vectors fund shares has been rising at a faster pace than those of the PowerShares DB Agriculture Fund (NYSE Arca: DBA) , an exchange-traded portfolio of 11 agricultural futures. Recently, though, that momentum's been arrested.

MOO/DBA Price Ratio

Some of the under-performance of the DBA portfolio has been due to the contango in its component markets, reflecting slack demand and relative abundance in certain markets such as cattle and, until recently, wheat. Should commodity supplies be compromised by weather or external factors, futures curves could invert, boosting returns within the DBA portfolio. Then, investors will be faced with making the decision of whether ag stocks or futures represent the best way to gain sector exposure.

We'll be keeping tabs on the relative strength of agribusiness stocks throughout 2010, so stay tuned.

See also BHP Billiton's Plans to Develop Its Own Potash Reserves on seekingalpha.com



The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Investing , Commodities , Stocks

Referenced Stocks: DBA , DE , MON , MOO , MOS , POT , SYT

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