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Report: Slowdown in consumer spending shapes 2024 rural economy

CoBank's Knowledge Exchange has released its 2024 year-ahead outlook which takes a look at the forces that will shape the U.S. rural economy.

U.S. consumers remain anxious about their financial situations given high grocery prices, skyrocketing mortgage rates and other inflationary pressures.
U.S. consumers remain anxious about their financial situations given high grocery prices, skyrocketing mortgage rates and other inflationary pressures.
l i g h t p o e t | Bigstock.com

The U.S. economy has remained remarkably steady despite an unrelenting series of shocks over the last three years. America’s economic resilience was again on display throughout 2023, as the Federal Reserve continued the most aggressive round of interest rate hikes the country has seen in more than 40 years.

Steadfast consumer spending has fueled the economy through much of the recent adversity. Lingering high prices, however, are expected to take a bigger toll on the economy in 2024, according to a comprehensive year-ahead outlook report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange.

“By conventional measures, the U.S. economy is doing quite well,” said Rob Fox, director of CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange. “But consumers are increasingly feeling the pinch of higher prices for food, housing and other essential goods. People have anchored mental expectations about what prices should be and those anchors take a long time to move. Consumers are beginning to realize some prices aren’t going back to where they were three years ago and changing their purchasing behaviors to reduce spending. That will create stronger headwinds for the U.S. economy in 2024.”

The CoBank 2024 outlook report examines several key factors that will shape agriculture and market sectors that serve rural communities throughout the U.S.

Global economy: Growth rates will fall in the era of deglobalization

The decades-long era of free trade agreements was a rousing success for global economies. Since 1990, global trade has increased more than 400% and global GDP has increased by 500%. During the heyday of free trade (2000-2018), global GDP grew at an average of 5.4% annually.

But those days are over as the ideological pendulum has swung toward economic protectionism and political isolationism. Global growth in 2023 is estimated at around 2.5% and the consensus is for a continued slowdown in 2024. China’s economic growth rate has leveled off considerably. Business plans must account for the reality of permanently slower global economic growth moving forward.

U.S. economy: Consumer sentiment more important than economic data

Key indicators point to the strength of the U.S. economy. Headline inflation has plummeted to 3.1%, the unemployment rate remains below 4% and inflation-adjusted wages are growing. Large swaths of U.S. consumers, however, remain anxious about their financial situations given high grocery prices, skyrocketing mortgage rates and other inflationary pressures.

While grocery inflation is currently running at about 2%, the price of food at home has risen by 25% in the past three years. Consumer spending makes up almost 70% of the economy and consumers who are worried or angry will hold back on discretionary spending. Inflation-adjusted retail spending has fallen in 10 of the past 12 months, a trend that could carry into 2024.

U.S. agricultural economy: High costs spell lackluster profitability for farm incomes

Higher interest rates, a strong U.S. dollar and resiliency of the U.S. economy have weighed heavily on agricultural commodity prices. But the biggest problem for farm margins heading into 2024 is the elevated cost of production. While fertilizer prices have fallen, other costs of production remain stubbornly high.

Ag commodities, however, will benefit from more upside price risk than down in 2024. Global grain and oilseed stock inventories are tight by historic measures and the northern hemisphere will likely have a strong El Nino weather pattern during the growing season for the first time since 2015. The dollar should continue its recent decline and global demand should return to its long-term growth trend.

Grains, farm supply & biofuels: Renewable diesel will shift more acres to soybeans

The renewable diesel boom and the smaller U.S. soybean harvest of 2023 will drive an expansion of soybean acreage in 2024, reducing acres available for other crops. The biofuel sector at large carries the momentum of historically large profit margins into the new year.

Both ethanol producers and soybean crushers are benefiting from rising demand for biofuels. The grain and oilseed price outlook hinges largely on the value of the U.S. dollar, conditions of wheat in Russia and harvests of corn and soybeans in South America. Current 2024 futures prices suggest further price erosion across the sector in 2024.

Animal protein: Input costs temper expansion plans, production growth 

Profitability for the U.S. livestock sector should improve modestly in 2024, as lower feed costs and steadfast domestic demand offset weak global export conditions. Beef packers will continue to struggle with shrinking supplies of available cattle. Tighter cattle numbers, flat pork supplies and dampened broiler availability would normally be seen as supportive to margins, but all segments have been fighting rising costs of production.

With expansion plans on hold due to the high-cost environment, the industry’s focus on efficiency and technology is expected to intensify and risk management will remain paramount. U.S. animal protein will remain competitive in global markets but open access to markets remains critical.

U.S. government: Vital funding bills await dysfunctional Congress

The difficulties of governing with slim majorities in both the House and Senate are in clear focus as 2024 draws near. While the House was ultimately able to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) three days before a shutdown deadline, none of the 12 annual appropriations bills have been enacted.

Until Congress can complete its work appropriating discretionary funding, little progress can be made on other major legislation like the Farm Bill. For rural America, there was a silver lining in the CR as it extended the current Farm Bill through September 30, 2024. Many reasons favor completing the new Farm Bill sooner rather than later. Cooperation will become increasingly difficult as the next election cycle begins.

Read the full CoBank report here.

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