New Zealand primary sector holding up but challenges remain

With countries around the world imposing a lock down for its population the global economy is entering a recessionary phase. Levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930’s are anticipated – in the US 10 million people now looking for unemployment benefit. With this level of unemployment the demand side of the economy takes a hit and consumers who are worried about job security ‘batten down the hatches’ and start to be a lot more conservative with their spending – only essential items. One significant advantage for New Zealand is the fact that we have large primary sector which allows us not only to feed the population but also export – Fonterra exports 95% of local production to 140 countries. The panic buying that was seen in supermarkets around the country led to a government advertising campaign saying that we have plenty of food (and toilet roll) so no need to stockpile necessities. However this panic buying seems to have eased off and although doing the shop at the supermarket maybe slower than normal, people are getting their food okay – Good Friday tomorrow sees the supermarkets shut so they can restock.

On world markets New Zealand’s major primary export product prices have been declining as a percentage (see graph above) but what is encouraging is that this decline has been from a strong position which is unlike those in other sectors of the global economy. Meat and dairy sales surged prior to coronavirus with sales values rose 7.4% ($649 million), to $9.5 billion in the 2019 December quarter. On the contrary stock markets around the world have taken a significant hit with some declining over 20% but also coming from much weaker positions.

Other factors that help the primary sector

NZ dollar
The 11% decline in the NZD/USD exchange rate gives the primary industry some protection against the fall in global food prices. Remember a decline in the value of the NZD makes our exports cheaper.

Oil prices
The cheaper oil prices have been passed on at the pump and this has reduced costs for the primary sector.

Inelastic good
Food is a necessity good as people need to eat – i.e. very inelastic. Therefore food related products are expected to holdup better than most. Even in the worst of downturns there will still be demand for food.

Restaurants, bars and cafes

With the closure of eating establishments during the lock down the profile of global food demand has changed as people buy more provisions from the supermarket. This has meant that supply chains have had to adjust and reallocate resources to online etc. When the country comes out of the lock down there is a supply issue for firms to get up and running again but let’s not forget the demand side. Will consumer behaviour have changed? Will people still want to go to restaurants and bars as before? One interesting statistic to lookout for will be the activity in these areas.

Not all rosey
Even though the points above suggest that things might not be too bad for the primary sector, one has to be aware of the recent drought conditions in the North Island and parts of the South Island which were classified as a large-scale adverse event by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor. Also with Covid-19 and border restrictions there are labour shortages in some industries with up to two-thirds of the workforce coming from overseas, half on Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas and half backpackers. Further concerns are the transport links into Asia for exports as the airline industry cuts back on international schedules. Important to remember that the vast majority of commercial flights carry cargo.

All that being said I think we are quite lucky to be in New Zealand.

Source: BNZ Rural Wrap – 9th April 2020

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