COVID-19 Impacts on Home Ownership: Likely More Forced Sales and New Renters

Ryan Dezember reported today at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Americans with mortgages have accumulated nearly $10 trillion in home equity thanks to a decade of rising home prices. Yet millions of them have fallen behind on mortgage payments and risk losing their houses.

It is a potential bonanza for rental-home investors. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, big single-family landlords have raised billions of dollars for homebuying sprees.

“Even if there isn’t a surge in repossessed homes to buy cheaply off the courthouse steps—which led to the emergence of Wall Street’s landlords during the foreclosure crisis a decade ago—there is likely to be a lot of forced sales and new renters.”

The Journal article noted that, “People behind on their payments aren’t being kicked out of their houses yet because of federal and local restrictions on foreclosure enacted during the pandemic. Many with federally guaranteed mortgages have entered forbearance, which allows them to skip payments for up to a year without penalty and make them up later.

“Some 3.5 million home loans—a 7.01% share—were in forbearance as of Sept. 6, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Many more borrowers are behind on their payments but not in forbearance programs with their lenders.”

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USDA Announces Whole-Farm Revenue Protection Program Improvements

A news release yesterday from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) stated that, “[RMA] announced modifications to the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program to decrease paperwork and recordkeeping burdens for direct marketers beginning with the 2021 crop year.

“‘These changes will allow more direct marketers who previously could not meet reporting requirements a way to participate in the Whole-Farm program and provide better and more affordable coverage to these diversified growers,’ RMA Administrator Martin Barbre said.

“RMA held several stakeholder meetings with agents, growers and grower groups to solicit feedback on ways to increase the effectiveness of the WFRP program, as required by the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill). Stakeholders recommended RMA decrease the requirements for reporting yield and revenues for each commodity, which is especially difficult for direct marketers who may sell several commodities through a roadside stand.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “The newly implemented modifications allow growers to report two or more direct-marketed commodities as a combined single commodity code with a combined expected revenue for all commodities. Additionally, the combined direct-marketed commodities will count as two commodities in calculating the diversification premium discount. Under WFRP, farms with two or more commodities receive a premium rate discount, reflecting the lower risk of revenue loss due to the farm’s diversification. Revenue history will be based on reported revenue from the combined direct-marketed commodities and total acres planted to those commodities. This lessens reporting burdens by alleviating the requirement to report detailed sales or yield records from any specific commodity reported under the direct market commodity code.

“For more information on the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection plan, see the RMA website.”

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U.S. Homebuilder Optimism Rose to a Record in September

Bloomberg writer Craig Giammona reported today that, “U.S. homebuilder optimism rose to a record in September, with low mortgage rates driving a housing boom that has boosted the pandemic economy.

“A gauge of builder sentiment jumped five points from a month earlier to 83, beating estimates and hitting the highest level in 35 years of the survey, according to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Market Index. It was 78 last month, which matched the previous record from 1998.”

The Bloomberg article indicated that, “The index ended 2019 at a 20-year high but plunged in April after social-distancing measures froze home purchases. Builders have bounced back since then, with the housing market an unexpected bright spot in the pandemic-battered economy.”

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Bayer Has Settled Thousands More U.S. Lawsuits Over its Roundup Weed Killer

Bloomberg writer Joel Rosenblatt reported today that, “Bayer AG settled thousands more U.S. lawsuits over its Roundup weed killer after criticism that the company was failing to uphold an $11 billion deal it announced in June to resolve the massive litigation.

The agreements, revealed in a court filing late Monday, are with lawyers representing consumers who argue Roundup caused their cancer. The settlements mark a significant step forward after the lawyers said two weeks ago that Bayer was backing out of their agreements. The judge handling all the cases filed in U.S. federal court expressed surprise in an Aug. 28 hearing at how little progress the company had made.

The latest settlements resolve about 15,000 U.S. lawsuits, according to lawyers familiar with the deals. Added to the approximately 32,000 settlements previously disclosed by Ken Feinberg, the mediator overseeing the process, Bayer has resolved at least 47,000 of the suits. The company has said it faces about 125,000 filed and unfiled Roundup claims. The value of the settlements wasn’t disclosed.”

Today’s article added that, “Bayer last week extended the contract of Chief Executive Officer Werner Baumann, in a sign of continuity as the German company works its way through the thicket of lawsuits. The company said at the time it was making progress with plaintiff attorneys.”

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Bayer Making Progress in Finalizing Roundup Settlement

Reuters writer Ludwig Burger reported last week that, “Bayer boss Werner Baumann’s contract has been extended until 2024, in a show of support from the drugmaker’s new chairman just months after the company agreed an $11 billion outline settlement of U.S. lawsuits over its Roundup weedkiller.

“In a statement late Thursday [Sept. 10th], Bayer also said it was making progress in finalising the settlement of claims that Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer, which Bayer inherited as part of a $63 billion takeover of Monsanto.

A judge in July raised concern about an agreement with plaintiffs’ lawyers on how to handle a class of claims that may be brought in the future, throwing the overall settlement deal into doubt.”

The Reuters article noted that, “[Norbert Winkeljohann, a former head of six European countries at auditing and consulting firm PwC] said he expected ‘the glyphosate litigation will be handled in a way that is satisfactory for the company, makes economic sense and is structured in a way that enables potential future cases to be efficiently resolved.'”

“The arrangement on future cases is unprecedented because glyphosate will remain on the market without a cancer warning, with the backing of the U.S. pesticides regulator,” the Reuters article said.

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Rate of Start-ups Created in Austria Remains Low Compared to Other European Countries

Christina zur Nedden reported recently at The Financial Times Online that, “Austria, like Germany, has a deftness for creating highly specialised companies — often less well-known ‘hidden champions’ — that are also global leaders in their field, according to the agency charged with promoting investment in the country.

The Austrian Business Agency (ABA) paints a shining picture of the local start-up scene in which new businesses, incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces and new venture capital funds have emerged over recent years, attracting capital from outside.

“‘In 2019, start-ups attracted €218m in investment. Especially, scale-ups have been successful in attracting funding internationally,’ the ABA says.”

The FT article noted that, “But the rate at which start-ups are created in Austria remains lower than that in comparable European countries, and a new law aimed at controlling foreign direct investment from non-EU countries, coupled with existing red tape, has prompted concerns that innovation is being stifled.

“Start-ups are clustered at various points across the country, often led by universities. There are green tech and ‘medtech’ hubs in the southern state of Styria, Innsbruck focuses on quantum computing and alpine tech (centred on mountain and sports tourism), while Linz is home to many IT companies. More than 50 per cent of start-ups are located in the capital, Vienna.”

The FT article added that, “Yet, while the government promises to simplify the founding process, company formation is still considered bureaucratic and expensive compared with the UK, Singapore or Estonia, for example. It takes an average 21 days to register a business in Austria compared with 4.5 days in the UK, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business report.”

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Tech Startup FBN Faces Pressure From Traditional Suppliers

Jacob Bunge reported recently at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Inside a packed arena last December, 2,700 farmers sipped coffee from paper cups and listened to remarks on the Midwestern economy: incomes down, costs up and bankruptcies rising.

“The speaker wasn’t a politician or an academic. He was Charles Baron, co-founder of Farmers Business Network, or FBN, a Silicon Valley startup that is trying to build an Amazon-like online marketplace for agricultural supplies.

“Mr. Baron, pacing the stage in a black-and-green flannel shirt, warned the audience that big companies often sell seeds and herbicide sprays at inflated prices, protecting their profits. FBN, he said, allows users to compare prices across products and suppliers, helping farmers negotiate.”

The Journal article noted that, “Six-year-old FBN is among the best-funded farming startups. It has raised about $571 million, including $250 million this month, from investors such as heavyweight venture-capital firms Kleiner Perkins and Alphabet Inc.’s GV, as well as money-management giants T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and BlackRock Inc.”

Mr. Bunge explained that, “The close-knit agricultural supply industry remains heavily centered on rural stores and grain elevators. Sacks of seed and truckloads of fertilizer still get sold across the hood of pickup trucks, between farmers and salesmen who may know one another from church or coaching Little League Baseball. A handful of multibillion-dollar corporations handle the bulk of U.S. seed, pesticide and fertilizer sales.”

The article pointed out that, “FBN ran into bigger roadblocks with seed and pesticide makers, who largely refused to directly supply the platform and allow it to sell Farm Belt staple products like Syngenta’s Force insecticide, or Corteva’s Pioneer corn seed.

“FBN executives said in some cases they are able to procure name-brand farm products from brokers or wholesalers, but at higher prices than traditional retailers. They said the startup has otherwise been shut out by manufacturers intent on protecting the existing network of farm retailers, and its established profit margins.”

The Journal article added that, “Despite the industry opposition, [Amol Deshpande, FBN’s chief executive and co-founder] and Mr. Baron believe they can grow FBN.

“The company started its own line of seeds and purchased a Canadian chemical business to produce FBN’s own weed and bug sprays. But those efforts are proving costly, and last year FBN laid off some staff as it restructured its sales division. Mr. Baron said the company is adding more employees, including its own crop advisers. The company hasn’t yet turned a profit.

“Over time, as FBN signs up more farmers, its executives believe more seed and chemical companies will be willing to work with the company.”

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USDA Reminds Farmers of September 30 Deadline to Update Safety-Net Program Crop Yields

An update yesterday from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “[FSA] reminds farm owners that they have a one-time opportunity to update Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program yields for covered commodities on the farm. The deadline is September 30, 2020, to update yields, which are used to calculate the PLC payments for 2020 through 2023. Additionally, producers who elected Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) should also consider updating their yields.

“‘The last time farmers could update yields for these important safety-net programs was in 2014,’ said FSA Administrator Richard Fordyce. ‘It is the farm owner’s choice whether to update or keep existing yields. So, if you rent, you’ll need to communicate with your landlord who will be the one to sign off on the yield updates.’

“Updating yields requires the signature of one owner on a farm and not all owners. If a yield update is not made, no action is required to maintain the existing base crop yield on file with FSA.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “For program payments, updated yields will apply beginning with the 2020 crop year which, should payments trigger, will be paid out in October of 2021.”

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Synthetic Biology Startup Zymergen Inc. Raises $300 million

Bloomberg writer Sarah McBride reported today that, “Synthetic biology startup Zymergen Inc. has raised $300 million in a new funding round—a signal of investors’ confidence that biological science can be harnessed in novel ways to manufacture products.

“The funding round was led by Baillie Gifford & Co., the U.K.-based funds giant, with participation from Baron Capital Inc. and a sovereign wealth fund that declined to be identified, said Josh Hoffman, Zymergen’s chief executive officer and co-founder. Other investors included existing backers DCVC, True Ventures and SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund.

“The fresh cash influx will finance Zymergen’s methods for making materials from polymers to pesticides, and comes almost two years after the Vision Fund led a $400 million round in the company. That round valued the startup at $1.05 billion valuation, according to shares-trading site SharesPost. Hoffman declined to provide the current valuation.”

The Bloomberg article added that, “Zymergen’s technology works by manipulating the genetics of microbes. The startup’s scientists run the microbes through hundreds of thousands or even millions of tests, and use machine learning to see which result yields the most promising outcome. Once the scientists design the ideal microbe, they get the microbes to produce molecules via fermentation. Those molecules become part of the animal feed, industrial coating, or whatever the final material the company is developing. 

“‘It’s a viable strategy,’ said Frances Arnold, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. ‘The whole premise of the field is you can make molecules the way nature makes them, cleanly, sustainably, often from renewable resources.'”

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Some Small Farms Selling Directly to Consumers Increase Sales During Pandemic

New York Times writers Ian Teh and Mike Ives reported this week that, “The setup of the two friends’ agricultural venture was unusual. Their farm sat next to a gas station, inside a shipping container where the plants grew in vertically stacked shelves. And the timing of their first sales — during the early days of Malaysia’s coronavirus outbreak — seemed less than ideal.

“‘We were a nascent product in an uncertain market,’ said Shawn Ng, 28, a co-founder of the vertical farm, the Vegetable Co. ‘We weren’t too sure if it would take off.’

“‘But somehow,’ he added, ‘the market kind of played in our favor.’

As in-person shopping wanes during the pandemic, Mr. Ng’s Malaysia-based operation is one of many small farms around the world that are selling fresh produce directly to consumers in ways that bypass brick-and-mortar grocery stores.”

The Times article noted that, “But even though the rules were gradually loosened to let most businesses reopen, many urban Malaysians have maintained the online shopping habits they developed during the initial lockdown, said Audrey Goo, the founder of MyFishman, an e-commerce platform that connects fishermen from villages along the country’s west coast with consumers in Kuala Lumpur.

“‘Not many end users are willing to go back to the wet market,’ said Ms. Goo, adding that her company’s sales had roughly doubled during the pandemic. ‘So I think the whole business model will continue to change.'”

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