There are so many reasons to invest in agriculture, it's ridiculous.
First, global population growth, which continues to fuel demand. During the next 30 years, the United Nations estimates global population will increase by 50%, climbing to 10 billion. This will have a profound effect on demand for food resources, which could create plenty of investment opportunities.
Then there's trouble lurking on the supply side. The market got a big taste this summer when the worst drought in 90 years crushed production expectations in the Midwest. Key agricultural commodities -- corn, beans and wheat -- achieved all-time highs. Erratic weather has also affected international production, where a weak monsoon season in India is hurting yields and shooting prices higher.
Inflation has also fueled the agriculture trade. The central banks of the world have made it clear they stand ready to spark economic growth with more monetary stimulation. This inflationary policy makes investments in hard assets such as commodities very attractive.
As it stands, the hype around agriculture is far from over. The sector moves through the early stages of a long-term growth cycle that could play out during the next 20 to 30 years, making this particular stock an attractive, long-term pick for investors who want to profit from this trend.
Monsanto's biggest weapon is its patented genetic-engineering technology, which enables it to produce modified seeds that are more resistant to insects and bad weather. This makes its products extremely attractive to farmers across the globe attempting to thwart Mother Nature, and boost production and yield.
Farmers were tested by extreme weather this spring and summer after one of the worst droughts in years. As farmers scrambled to plant more seeds and take advantage of skyrocketing food prices, Monsanto saw its second-quarter results surge from last year, with corn seed sales, including those designed to thrive in adverse conditions, jumping 35%. Soybean seed sales were also strong, up 15%. These results come on the heels of two consecutive years of 20% earnings growth, with 2012 on pace for record sales as revenue is expected to top $12 billion.
Monsanto is also aggressively positioning itself to capitalize on high-growth opportunities in Latin America's emerging markets. The company's current upgrade cycle on its Brazilian corn seeds is expected to be a major driver of growth in 2013. Monsanto also released a new soybean seed in Brazil this year called Intacta, which is projected to be another strong source of growth.
In addition, Monsanto recently received another emerging-market boost after Argentina approved the company's Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean seed in early August. Argentina is the 'world's third-largest soybean exporter and the leading exporter of biodiesel, both expected to have a big impact on demand for seed and crop protection. When you add these emerging-market opportunities together, this will be the first year that international sales and domestic sales have equally contributed to growth.
And finally, Monsanto will also benefit from two great qualities in any company: high barriers to entrance and strong pricing power. In addition to logging higher sales volumes, Monsanto was able to increase total corn portfolio prices from 5% to 10% this year, with another 5% to 10% in 2013 that could help deliver margin strength.
Risks to Consider: Although Monsanto continues to see robust gains in its more mature, domestic business, the true engine of its growth will come from emerging markets. If the emerging-market growth story cools and commodity prices in key agriculture markets like corn and beans fall, then it would weigh on the 'stock's earnings profile.
Action to Take --> Monsanto is arguably the world's best seed and pesticides business. But in spite of record sales and earnings, shares still trade 36% below the all-time high -- just above $140 from the summer of 2008. Although shares are trading in line with their average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 23 times in the past 10 years, analysts project 17% earnings growth in 2013, which would return Monsanto above the $100 mark.